Shame Is the Master Emotion

If you have poor self-esteem or are easily offended, shame is the operative emotion. If you lack confidence, feel awkward around others or just are uncomfortable in your own skin, then an unhealthy shame is defining your experience. When you sense that you are fatally flawed and believe that you will never fit in, then shame is doing the talking. If you feel unimportant or uncared for in your marriage – or if your spouse reports these feelings – again, shame is happening. In all of these issues and a variety of others, one primary emotion is the chief source of pain and like all emotions it is telling you something about yourself, not the circumstances, the back story or anybody else.

Cain Coming from Killing His Brother, Abel – Henri Vidal, 1896

What’s the message? Shame is saying that your belonging in the community has eroded – a serious problem for social creatures today and a huge problem in evolutionary terms. Getting kicked out of an ancient nomadic tribe would have been fatal. If the problem is behavior, then it’s possible that the behavior needs to change. Think “silence your cell phone” or “stop reading over my shoulder.” This is healthy shame. If the problem, however, is a judgment of your identity or your story, some quality about you, then the shame is derived from ego, and the ego needs healing.

Ego is a complex beast and a subject of its own, but it is usually what you mean when you refer to “I” or “me.” It feels like who you are (though it really isn’t). Pride boosts the ego and shame erodes it.

Who is judging this ego? Answering this question sets the direction for healing. If the negative evaluation is coming from an external source, its purpose is to transfer shame from the source to you. People protect their pride by shaming others, almost like a zero-sum game. This shame needs to be given back and better protective skills developed for the future. If the judgment is coming from within (perfectionism, idealism, “shoulds”), then the work lies in (self-) compassion, mercy, humility, acceptance, letting go. It’s an almost or an actual spiritual path of learning to be human in a contingent, imperfect world – the only world there is.

Shame is the master emotion because it guides so much of our behavior. We evaluate our every move in advance and in hindsight based on whether it will be evaluated honorably or shamefully. Any dose of ego-shame we experience is replayed, over-analyzed and becomes the key memory from the day. When this shame/pride system struggles long-term, depression and anxiety can result. We all long to have and to hold onto a place and a community where we are held in esteem, where we belong. Belonging, a form of love, is the core human psychological need.

The 3 Scripts of Difficult Co-Workers

comfortDifficult co-workers are running their “programs for comfort” (to paraphrase Thomas Keating) with too much priority. We are all running one of these “daemons,” but in the best case, they share urgency with the classic, cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and courage. Keating identifies the daemons as 1) safety and security, 2) power and control, and 3) affection and esteem. They define our comfort zones everywhere, but especially at work where our egos typically have the most to gain and the most to lose.

Each program aims to get a legitimate need met, but when that need has not historically been addressed, a debt can build up and the payments can be steep – hence the increased urgency. Those running safety-and-security want everything to stay the same. New proposals threaten them. The power-and-control people need to keep everything in front of them and moving slow enough so that they can either buy in or make changes. Exercising power reminds them that they exist and they matter. Affection-and-esteem folks frequently need to be reminded that they are worthy and good, and so will go out of their way to engineer or claim a stake in favorable moments.

Yes, all of these people are terribly ego-centric, but only because they do not have a strong, resilient and confident ego in the first place – just the opposite of what you might expect! When seen as maladaptive attempts to self-comfort, these programs can evoke compassion from those whose comfort is more deeply installed.