Shame is fundamental to the experience of anyone with BPD and is the most crucial emotion that must be addressed if recovery is to occur. Shame is often confused with guilt, but these emotions have very different meanings. Shame is about who we are, while guilt is about what we do. Shame therefore reflects more lasting beliefs about the self than guilt. When we feel guilt, we expect retribution for what we’ve done. When we feel shame, we expect contempt from others and feel contempt for ourselves.
Shame is connected with a wealth of negative self-beliefs that may include fundamental assumptions of defectiveness, the belief that one is helpless to survive alone, beliefs about physical defectiveness (“I am fat, deformed, repulsive to others), mental defectiveness (I am stupid, incompetent, inarticulate), or sexual defectiveness, and the belief that one is unworthy of the love and attention of others.
We feel shame about anything about ourselves that we would prefer others not to see. The body language of shame is about being invisible or not acknowledging being seen by others. We become small in posture by slouching or turning away. We avert our gaze from that of others, which is reminiscent of a baby covering its own eyes and imagining that it has become invisible to others. As adults, however, failing to meet another’s gaze is also a sign of submission.
We also feel shame whenever we fall short of our own expectations of ourselves, however unrealistic they may be. Impossible goals, such as the total eradication of body fat, inevitably lead to deepening shame, which in turn may be reflected in an increasingly distorted self or body image. This is the cycle of shame that fuels the compulsive self-starvation of anorexia nervosa. Shame is therefore connected with the fantasy of how we imagine we are supposed to be and obstructs our vision of who we really are.
While shame has many roots, it is a natural consequence of abuse and neglect. What all forms of abuse have in common is the contempt that an abuser has for a victim. The deeper pain of being abused is the shame that derives from being an object of contempt. Many abusers show their contempt explicitly in the form of degrading words, but all abusers show contempt by their assumption that their victim’s primary role is as an instrument for their gratification. Shame in turn results in submissiveness that tends to perpetuate the cycle of abuse.
Dr. Donald Nathanson has pioneered the study of shame and its relationship to the psychotherapeutic process. He defines four categories of learned responses to shame, which he visualizes as the four points on a compass. On one axis lies “Withdrawal” at one pole and “Avoidance” at the other. On the other axis lie “Attack self” and “Attack others.”
“Withdrawal” behaviors include various forms of hiding from others, ranging from averting ones eyes and maintaining silence in the presence of others to reclusiveness and flight. Withdrawal can lead to isolation and feelings of abandonment, confirming the belief that we are unworthy of the company of others and therefore reinforcing shame.
“Attacking self” includes a repertoire of behaviors that are designed to protect us from abandonment at all costs. These are self-negating, submissive gestures that acknowledge the superior power of another, whose presence has become important to us. This can also contribute to the cycle of abuse.
“Avoidance” includes all the behaviors that are designed to keep from feeling the shame. This ranges from the use of drugs and alcohol to obliterate feeling to the distractions of sexual indulgence, materialism, and vanity. Avoidant behaviors include a variety of things we do to cover up the defects that we imagine others see in us. They are often cosmetic in quality and serve to distract both ourselves and others from these defects.
“Attacking others” includes a repertoire of desperate behaviors that serve to belittle others as a last ditch attempt to rescue self-esteem by feeling bigger at another’s expense. The attacks may come in words or actions. These behaviors inevitably distance us from others, again raising the threat of abandonment. These behaviors also result in shaming others and pass the wounds along.
These four kinds of responses to shame are all intricately interrelated, are self-defeating, and therefore perpetuate the cycle of shame. They are behind the many impulses with which people with BPD must struggle. They are connected with the terror of abandonment that characterizes BPD as well as with the difficulty that people with BPD have in achieving intimacy.
© Dr. Richard Moskovitz
“The trouble is that people who are perceived as behaving in difficult or demeaning ways often get this label – and it might be that they are behaving in a troublesome or difficult way because they are actually ill.”