B01: Shame, Interdependence, and Vulnerability
Updated: Jan 17
Aisha is a typical Asian lady who is extremely shy and overly concerned about “losing face” in front of other people. Although she socializes with a select handful of friends, she is mostly silent and non-participative in her interactions with them. Deep in her heart, she yearns to be more spontaneous, expressive and liberated as an individual so that she could live a more fulfilling life. Indeed, the psychological barrier that she needs to overcome her extreme shyness lies in her maladaptive shame.
So, what is shame? In the field of psychology, shame is simply feeling bad about oneself. Shame is experienced when there is a gap between the true self and the ideal self. A bigger gap means there is a propensity for more shame.
The nature of shame is complex as it has dualistic characteristics. In particular, shame can function as healthy and adaptive, or unhealthy and maladaptive. In this respect, shyness is an external manifestation that masks the recognition of the underlying maladaptive shame as a shame derivative or complex. In reality, Aisha unconsciously becomes very shy in her behavior as a continuous effort to stay away from the scrutiny and judgment of others so that she is not exposed to the risk of being shamed.
The relational-social function of healthy shame
Healthy shame has a relational-social role among its various functions. As humans are social beings with a natural tendency towards group affiliations, we need to connect to others and not be excluded by them. Indeed, our healthy shame helps to regulate our social behaviors by signaling to us when we have acted in an unacceptable manner outside of social norms.
A fleeting or transitory experience of shame that is accompanied by an appropriate amount of external expression like embarrassment, self-consciousness, or discouragement, signals to others our admission of wrongdoing and readiness to make amends to avoid rejection. Others are in turn more likely to accept our conviction, stop condemning our misbehaviors, and make allowances for us to remain connected. Thus, healthy shame can guide our social behavior, aid social cohesion and even render us to be more empathetic and compassionate to ourselves and others.
The corruption of our healthy shame
When the first humans were created by God, they have healthy and adaptive shame as one of their natural emotions. However, when they disobeyed God, the entire human nature was corrupted. This included the corruption of our natural emotions. As descendants of the first humans, we inherited their corrupted emotions, including the unhealthy and maladaptive components of shame.
As an illustration, we know that we all have moods that fluctuate marginally up and down within a healthy range during the course of each day. However, if a person’s mood goes way down below the healthy range and remains there for two weeks or more, and in the process, gives rise to other adverse psychological symptoms, this becomes a mental health illness diagnosed by psychiatrists as clinical depression. People suffer from depression because, in the first place, it is the brokenness of humankind that has corrupted our natural emotions to engender our moods to go beyond their healthy range to their low extremes. On the other hand, the mood that goes beyond the healthy range to its high extreme is a maladaptive psychological condition that is called mania.
Our healthy shame was also corrupted to give rise to its maladaptive components that extend beyond its normal continuum to become more intense and acute. The maladaptive components of shame now serve to mar our sensitivity to our healthy shame to focus more on covering and protecting ourselves socially from being shamed by others. This is due to the realization that we are now less than the perfect being we are originally created to be. In other words, the perception of our not-good-enough or not-secured-enough core self not only makes us shy away from God due to our shame but also put us on guard to protect ourselves by shying away from others so that we will not run the risk of being shamed by them. When it becomes habitual, the unconscious moving away from others to avoid shaming will often lead to isolation, loneliness, and even depression.
The erosion of interdependence
The not-good-enough and not-secured-enough perceptions of our deficient identity have one further adverse consequence. We are created by God to be dependent on Him for all our needs and He often works through other people to support and help us. In other words, God designed humans to be interdependent on one another as a caring community.
When we are ashamed to come before God and be dependent on Him as well as interdependent on others, we can only depend on ourselves. Then when our needs and expectations are not met, more insecurity and low self-esteem will set in. So, in place of dependency and trust in God and one another, there is a psychological shift towards self-dependence on one’s competitiveness and suspicion of others as a safeguard against potential shame.
Such competitiveness will manifest as perfectionism, intellectualization, one-upmanship, as well as the vain quest for personal honor at the human level to supersede everything else. All too often, the ends will justify the means and humankind in our broken nature will resort to all kinds of evil to avoid experiencing the pain of the maladaptive shame arising from our self-inadequacy.
Dare to be vulnerable
However, when we can embrace the reality that our identity and self-worth are found in God to whom we belong and not in the opinions and criticisms of other people, then we are not subject to the stings of maladaptive shame. Being so, we will not be afraid to be vulnerable, whether in our dependence on God or interdependence on others.
Being vulnerable is daring to express our opinions and feelings freely without the need to protect our pride, or fear any ridicule or criticism from others. Effectively, you are saying to yourself that you are refusing to be a people-pleaser by constantly hiding your faults and blaming others. You choose to be set free to be humble and expose your weaknesses without fearing what others may think or say of you. The truth is you are who you are, no matter what they think or say of you. After all, every one of us has our own weaknesses. We make mistakes and have low points in life. Hence, we ought to be interdependent on one another for support and help.
Indeed, people connect more to those who have weaknesses. Humans are attracted to each other’s rough edges. When we are afraid to be reminded that we are not-good-enough or not-secured-enough, we rob ourselves of our authenticity to be real with them. Perfectionism, intellectualization, or one-upmanship are only defense strategies to cover up our maladaptive shame. This limits the fullness of our experiences with others. But when we own up and lean onto the discomfort of our vulnerability, we nullify the power of maladaptive shame over us and enable ourselves to live with more freedom and intention.
In this respect, Safe Space Community for Asians attempts to inculcate three abstract and complex constructs to foster our communal harmony and effectiveness:
a) Embracing a proper perspective of shame by differentiating between the beneficial relational-social role of healthy shame and the detrimental repercussions of maladaptive shame permeating through shyness and non-participation in our connections and weekly conversations;
b) Adopting an attitude of interdependence on one another for support and help, thus encouraging and giving ourselves hope as we live in this broken world during these challenging times.
c) Daring to be vulnerable to expose our weaknesses and rough edges for a richer and mutually beneficial experience with one another. Let us come alive in our interactions and not give room for maladaptive shame to have a hold over our lives.
2 May 2022
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