"We live in an atmosphere of shame. We are ashamed of everything that is real to us..."
George Bernard Shaw
Remember the story of "The Ugly Duckling", by Hans Christian Anderson? Believing himself unattractive and unwanted, he waddled through town, wallowing in his own shame, until something changed all that...
Sally possessed excellent keyboarding skills. Unfortunately, being extremely near-sighted, she required thick glasses in order to perform properly. Unable to wear contact lenses and believing that her glasses made her appear homely; her work-day was often a blur. The shame she experienced at the thought of wearing those glasses was stronger than her fear of making errors. Consequently, she often typed without them, incurring the wrath of her boss. Joel had been terminated from his job due to a serious dispute. Feeling ashamed of being judged negatively by other prospective employers, he has been reluctant to seek new employment.
Shame is a part of life. We have all experienced it in one form or another. Generally, this intense emotion is triggered by a situation involving a negative belief that renders one suddenly vulnerable or weak. Early in life, a person's "complex equivalent" experience (series of internal pictures, sounds and feelings that fire off instantaneously) for "shame" is formed. Shame becomes associated with a number of situations in a sequence, beginning with an action or statement, then the internal representation, and physical reaction. For example, in your earliest recollections, you might have been told to "be ashamed" of socially unacceptable acts. Then for bad grades in school, fighting with siblings or breaking other family rules. Later peer pressure may have generated shame with respect to personal characteristics; and performance and competition issues.
Generally, the "shame" experience can be triggered by several types of situations: Personal attractiveness, that is, believing oneself physically undesirable; Degree of Dependence, or the extent to which someone feels helpless, unable to care for his or her needs; Issues of Intimacy, for example, believing oneself unlovable based on some perceived limitation; Competition, feeling like a loser; and Sexuality, in which someone might experience shame either related to perceived defective performance or quality that make him (her) sexually undesirable.
A most common reaction to shame is some form of suppression. That is, after experiencing the discomfort of shame, many individuals will attempt to deny it--push it away-- in an attempt to once again regain a state of comfort. Sometimes it occurs as withdrawal responses, such as dropping the eyes, placing a hand over the face and mouth, or leaving the scene; avoidance responses, in which attention is directed elsewhere away from the event which caused the reaction, and self- denigration, where an attempt is made to regain a sense of comfort in the "shameful" situation by engaging in self-ridicule before someone else does.
A more dangerous reaction to shame, attack, occurs when feeling inferior becomes intolerable, and the "shamed" party attempts to regain comfort by reducing another's self-esteem. This sequence is often at the root of arguments, fights... or war. Not a pretty picture. When you experience shame, you limit your ability to think clearly-- to have choices of useful behavior. But when faced with a shame experience, how can you save face? By lifting it! That is, by interrupting the "shame" sequence and installing a more constructive alternative: The Counter-example! A sequence such as the shame experience is triggered so quickly it seems to be an automatic reaction. By adding a new, useful component in the sequence that directly challenges shame, and then using this in the appropriate contexts, you can lift your spirits as the shame experience becomes the face-saving one. Each segment of the shame experience is the cue for the next. Thus, in a previous example, the presence of others at work would lead to Sally's feeling shame inside, then removing her glasses. But what if entering work which lead to the beginning of her shame experience-- perhaps telling herself others are staring at her glasses-- suddenly triggered an internal picture of looking confident, authoritative, well-liked; and feeling highly motivated in glasses? Her choices for effective behavior might be enhanced to include: Wearing her existing glasses or modifying them with brighter, more attractive frames, then carrying herself with an uplifted sense of conviction, making fewer mistakes...and realizing she really is a "swan!"