I have been thinking about shame lately. Shame is the belief, with an accompanying painful feeling, that we are not good enough or that we are deeply flawed, gross, or radically imperfect.
Shame and Anxiety
I believe many of us struggle with feelings of shame and unworthiness on a regular basis.
These feelings might manifest themselves in different ways. We might have a constant, nagging feeling that we are unworthy and sub-par as a person. We might feel like we are not pretty enough, successful enough, smart enough, thin enough, rich enough, famous enough, or admired enough.
Perhaps we fixate on our mistakes or failures. Every shortcoming and failure feels like a big, black, blot on our personal record, and we feel like we will never be pure or whole or good again.
Or perhaps someone did something to us—they bullied us, disrespected us, used us, abused us—and we feel deep shame. We feel like if we were a better person, if we did enough and were enough, we would be loved, respected, and treated well by everyone and we would not have been mistreated.
We interpret people’s bad and inappropriate behavior to us as a feeling that we are bad and inappropriate, and we feel shame.
I am not a psychologist, so I do not wish to analyze psychologically what shame does to us. Rather, I wish to look conceptually at what shame is and how thought patterns and social systems can reinforce shame.
Shame often manifests itself as deep feelings of self-loathing, insecurity, and lack of confidence. If we believe we are sub-par and inadequate, we often hate or loathe ourselves, and it is hard for us to feel secure and confident.
Shame can also manifest itself as anxiety. If we feel inadequate, we will often feel anxious because we are afraid that we are not and never will be good enough and that we cannot do enough things or the right type of things to be good enough.
Signs that you might suffer from shame
You might suffer from shame if…
You have a constant gnawing (or frequent feeling) that you are not good enough, valuable enough, or worthy of love.
You hate and/or are terrified of making mistakes or failing, and this fear is tied to your believe that your mistakes and failure show that you are deeply flawed, broken, or undeserving in some way.
You are extremely critical of yourself and/or struggle from perfectionism.
You push yourself to do more all the time, but the goal you are reaching for is either vague or seemingly impossible to reach. So it feels like you will never do enough or be enough.
You feel deep unworthiness because you believe you are sub-par in some way—for instance, you feel like you are not attractive enough, not thin enough, not successful enough, not smart enough, not curvy enough, not rich enough, not “godly” enough.
The Do Enough Myth
These feelings are so common you might feel like these are just the feelings that everyone has, and they are “just the way life is”.
It may be true that these feelings are common, but they are not the way life has to be, and they are the result of shaming systems in our lives and society in general.
There are many causes of shame, but I think one of the most common causes of shame is something that most of us adopt early in life that I call the Do Enough Myth, and it is a myth that is especially common in the United States culture.
The myth goes something like this:
You are not born a valuable, worthy, and lovable person—you must prove your value and worth. In order to prove it, you must be gorgeous/fit, organized, have a clean house, do enough to please God (if you are religious), work really hard to be successful and rich, and be highly attractive to the opposite sex, or be all your friends and family members want you to be . Basically, you need to have it all together, all the time.
The Do Enough Myth also tells you that if you work hard enough and try hard enough, you can do all of this, and everybody will love you and praise you, never mistreat you (because they will see how wonderful you are), and you will be successful, rich, and happy.
The Do Enough Myth has little to no tolerance for mistakes, failure, emotional pain, emotional breakdowns, confusion, tragedy or despair.
Sources of the Do Enough Myth
Explained in this way, the Do Enough Myth sounds extreme, unrealistic, and even ridiculous. As extreme as this myth sounds, I believe the Do Enough Myth is everywhere in our culture, and it is disguised in subtle, covert and even often seemingly-noble disguises so that is often hard to detect. Here are some of the most common ways we hear the Do Enough Myth:
Manipulative advertisers suggest to us that we are ugly, unattractive, smell badly, and wear weird clothes, and that if we just buy enough of their product, we will finally be acceptable.
Toxic and unhealthy elements of the Protestant work ethic tells us that if we are rich, it is a sign that we have good character, and God favors us (we are one of the “in” crowd). On the flip side of this, if we are poor, it is because we are lazy or struggle, we have bad character, God is not pleased with us, we must get our act together before we are worthy of love.
Patriarchy suggests to women that maleness and male qualities are the best, most perfect, most desirable qualities and that women only have value in reference to men. This means, women must be beautiful enough, womanly enough, and useful to men enough—and not too emotional, weak, or otherwise feminine–or they are not valuable.
Patriarchy also tells men that they must be masculine enough to be worthy of love and value. (Both men and women receive these messages all the time in statements or insults like “Don’t be a pussy.”)
Friends and family with poor boundaries pressure us to fill a role that gives them some sort of personal satisfaction or fills some kind of need for them. They only give us love and approval when we meet this role.
Distorted religious ideas tell us that we are first and foremost horrible sinners and that only if we do enough and believe enough, God might love us, but only until we mess up again.
A hyper-competitive economic systems tells us that we must out-compete and out-perform everyone else, and only if we do this and are the best, maybe we will be worthy and lovable.
The Common Thread Through All These Messages
We hear the distorted messages above all the time, and they all have something in common. They tell us that the only way we can be acceptable is to do more, more, more until we “do enough” (although it I never clear what enough is), and these messages also tell us that unless we do enough, we do not have value or worth, and we are not lovable. We are shameful.
The result of these messages is that we feel deep shame when we perceive ourselves having the slightest imperfection, when we make mistakes, when people treat us badly and do not give us the love we desire, and when we feel like we fail to meet some standard that other people and society sets for us.
Even more telling about the destructiveness of the Do Enough Myth, we often feel a deep sense of shame even if we have not failed in any way or made any mistake. We just carry around a general load of shame because there really is no Enough in the Do Enough Myth.
Systems of Domination
The Do Enough Myth is the primary myth governing systems of domination like the systems I mentioned above (i.e. toxic advertising, distorted religious teaching, patriarchy, distorted work ethics, and hyper-competitive economic systems). These systems only thrive by dominating other people and keeping them in a subservient mode of being, whether these systems do this intentionally or unintentionally.
A system of domination is any institution, psychological framework, or social or relationship pattern that treats people primarily as an object for fulfilling a purpose for someone else, rather than treating people as ends in themselves whose primary function is to become fully themselves and share their unique, beautiful individuality (their light) with the world.
Systems of domination desire to use people solely as tools or resources, which is an extremely unhealthy and oppressive way to treat human beings (who are free). People tend to rebel against systems of domination, and so these systems must use physical or psychological coercion to keep people in check so they can keep using the people as resources.
Shame in Systems of Domination
Shame is one of the primary ways systems of domination do this, and so when they promote the Do Enough myth, the goal is never actually to give people some standard of enough they can actually achieve. The goal is, rather, to keep people in a subservient mode of being by perpetuating shame through the Do Enough Myth.
Systems of domination actually thrive in an environment of shame. In doing so, they lead to the suppression, negation, and even destruction of our unique selves. For our unique selves to thrive and blossom, we need to subvert shame.
But what if we could find a way to lay down our shame? What if it turned out that the Do Enough Myth is not true at all? What if it turned out that we do not need to do more or do enough to be valuable and lovable but that we are actually totally acceptable and lovable right now? What if we could actually learn to believe in our worth and value?
All of this may sound too good be true, but I believe it is absolutely possible to escape and subvert shame and reject the Do Enough Myth. One of the most helpful ways to do this to is to replace the Do Enough Myth with another story I like to call The Great Love Story.
If you would like to read about The Great Love Story, you can read about it here:
You also might like reading this fairy tale:
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I think a lot of people struggle with shame. If you know someone who struggles with this painful emotion a lot, consider sending this post to them, or perhaps consider sharing this post on social media.
 I am looking forward to the day when this word becomes a compliment rather than insult. If you consider everything women have to put up with on a regular basis, it should be a compliment.