Shame is a distressing feeling that arises when we feel like we have failed to meet the expectations of ourselves or others. When shame becomes chronic, it can have adverse effects that can lead to acting out, which may confuse or frighten others. This conduct is known as shame-based behavior.
- Healthy shame is a normal human emotion that can help us learn and grow. It can motivate us to make amends for our mistakes and to improve our behavior.
- Chronic shame, on the other hand, can be debilitating. It can lead to feelings of worthlessness, isolation, and despair. It can also lead to shame-based behavior, which is any behavior that is motivated by a desire to avoid or escape shame.
Shame-based behavior can take many forms, including:
- Avoidance. People with shame-based behavior may try to avoid situations where they feel like they might fail or be judged. They may also avoid social interactions altogether.
- Aggression. People with shame-based behavior may lash out at others in an attempt to feel better about themselves. They may also be verbally or physically abusive.
- Self-destructive behavior. People with shame-based behavior may engage in self-destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse, self-harm, or eating disorders. These behaviors are often a way of punishing themselves for their perceived failures.
If you are struggling with shame, it is important to seek support from a mental health professional.
What Does Shame-Based Behavior Look Like?
Shame-based behaviors seek to quell overwhelming and complex feelings of humiliation and grief through escapism. Avoidance, self-harm, addiction, and compulsions are all shame-based behaviors that seek to mask the painful feeling. Likewise, an obsession with validation from others to fuel maladaptive narcissism is rooted in toxic shame.
For people with fragile egos, feelings of shame can feel like an existential threat and an attack on their sense of self. In extreme circumstances, shame can trigger trauma responses such as fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.Manya Wakefield
For example, someone who struggles with shame about who they are may feel a lot of anxiety or distress about how others view them. They may try to control their image and manage other people’s perception of them through disordered behaviors, or they may avoid the vulnerability of showing up authentically in their relationships because they fear judgment and rejection. These are some of the behaviors associated with the ego dysmorphia known as dysfunctional narcissism.
Emotional Pain Drives Shame-Based Behaviors
Suffering and trauma are invariably the roots of shame-based behaviors, including maladaptive narcissism. Sometimes the emotional pain is caused by messages from parents, family members, peers, or society that the individual is not good enough and does not meet ideal standards.
When negative messages are internalized, they can form an inner critic that constantly reinforces those messages. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, even in the absence of wrongdoing. This cycle of toxic shame can be very difficult to break, especially when it is associated with inflated or maladaptive narcissism.
For people with fragile egos, feelings of shame can feel like an existential threat and an attack on their sense of self. In extreme circumstances, shame can trigger trauma responses such as fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.
Shame is a difficult and painful emotion to process, but it is possible to learn healthier and more effective coping mechanisms to overcome it. Recovery is possible for anyone, and the reward is more amicable and satisfying relationships with oneself and others.
Understandably, hurtful actions based on toxic shame can be difficult to fathom and forgive. However, it may help to remember that shame-based behaviors – including maladaptive narcissism – are traumatic adaptations. People suffering from toxic shame must contend with painful feelings, including humiliation, self-disgust, and grief. Learning about the roots of shame-based behaviors can help us grow in compassion for ourselves and for others.
- Konstan, David. (2003) ‘Shame in Ancient Greece.’ Social Research, Volume 70, Number 4, Shame., Pages 1031-1060. Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Kaufman, G. (1989). The Psychology of Shame: Theory and Treatment of Shame-Based Syndromes. Springer Publishing Co.
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