The Shame Continuum
June 24, 2014
Picture yourself on a continuum. On the far left is a state of self-contempt. You do not have an accurate self-image. You do not believe you are enough: good enough, smart enough, worthy enough, pretty enough, rich enough, whatever enough. You have trouble knowing what your positive traits are and you need a lot of external feedback. You think something is inherently wrong with you. You are often in a state of emotional distress and pain. You may seek help because you are in such pain.
On the far right of this continuum is a state of contempt of others. You also do not have an accurate self-image. You believe you have the right to act however you want, to be unkind or entitled, to not follow the rules, to not have to constrain yourself. You are not aware of your negative traits and are often completely unaware of how your behavior is affecting those around you. You are not in a state of emotional distress, in fact you feel pretty good most of the time, but the people around you are in pain. You rarely seek help because you feel good as long as your environment keeps giving you positive feedback. When it no longer does this, you quickly look for another place to get affirmation.
This shame continuum goes from toxic shameful co-dependence on the far left, to shameless narcissism on the far right. Many couples that come to therapy have one person toward the right on this scale and one person toward the left, in varying proportions. They seem to have come together with damaged and inaccurate self-esteem, with a very warped sense of who they really are. This breeds all kinds of serious trouble.
Both of these states are actually caused from feelings of contempt. Self -contempt causes shame, and contempt of others causes grandiosity. Both of these states are dangerous to healthy relationships. In order to be in a healthy relationship two people need to have the feeling of same-as, I-Thou, a feeling of mutuality. So the person with a deep sense of contempt for self needs to move to the right, and the person with a sense of grandiosity needs to move to the left.
Here is a short checklist that might help you know where you are on this continuum:
Toxic Shame (Co-dependence)
- Do you need help from others to deal with your own emotional states?
- Are you over-involved in the relationships with your spouse or children?
- Do you need your partner’s approval to feel good about yourself?
- Do you wants someone to save you, and do you expect your partner to take the lead in doing that?
- Are you confused about how to respond when disrespected by others?
- Do you ever believe the disrespectful comments and even acquiesce?
- Do you feel responsible for the actions and feelings of others?
- Do you look for validation and encouragement, and often try to get it from the very people who won’t give it?
- Do you have addiction issues? (Food, alcohol, drugs, shopping, work, exercise)
Toxic Shamelessness (Narcissism)
- Are you a different person in private than in public?
- Do you feel or act superior, especially with those closest to you?
- Are you emotionally unavailable unless you want something?
- Do you have trouble admitting mistakes?
- Do you have trouble apologizing?
- Are you provocative?
- Will you egg on a fight?
- Do you lie, distorting facts and changing stories to suit your needs?
- Have you been told you are controlling?
- Do you have difficulty relaxing?
- Do you have addiction issues? (Sex, pornography, alcohol, gambling, food)
- Do you live in a fantasy world of porn, affairs, unlimited success, money, because you think you deserve that?
When couples come together on this continuum, trouble will quickly stir. One person feels one-up and entitled, and the other feels one-down and unworthy. This creates the impossibility of mutuality, of respect, support, and nurturance. Often the roots of these issues run deep in a person: in childhood experiences, in traumatic events, in sexual orientation issues, in learning difficulties, even in body type and physical attributes. Whatever the reason, without the healing necessary to correct the poisonous and inaccurate self-image problems, these two extremes will likely create a chaotic and painful relationships.
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