Do You Need To Feel Shame And Anger?
Anger and shame can both be difficult emotions to feel. I get that. But the consequences of not feeling them can be even worse.
If you’ve ever experienced or witnessed an abusive relationship (heaven forbid), you know that one of the things abusers do is to blame their partners for everything - even though the abuser is the one causing the harm. And far too often, both people involved believe this twisted version of reality to be true!
What causes people to do that?
There are many factors that contribute to abusive relationship dynamics, but what enables both people to believe that blame lies with the victim is a severe imbalance of shame and anger.
The abuser is able to always feel right (and justified) no matter what they do, because they don’t feel any shame. They actually feel like the victim! And because of this they feel justified in being angry, all the time. Directing anger at their partner is how they transfer the blame, not only ensuring that their partner accepts the blame, but also ensuring that their partner won’t ever retaliate with anger of their own.
Anger is only allowed to be felt by the abuser, while shame is only allowed to be felt by the victim. And as long as they both continue to exile the other emotion within themselves, this dynamic will stay in place.
I believe that these toxic relationships hold a warning for us all.
Not just to never get in that kind of relationship, because even though that’s sage advice, it’s never that easy. Rather, the real warning is about what happens when we exile shame, or exile anger - because when we do that, toxicity and abuse is almost inevitable.
Think about this for a moment. Exiling shame (and exaggerating anger in its place) not only enables someone to become an abuser, it almost compels them to be. They truly feel justified. And exiling anger (and exaggerating shame instead) is what makes victims feel unwilling (and unable) to leave.
What this should tell us is that we each need shame and anger, in healthy amounts, in order to be healthy people and able to relate with others in a healthy way. Our goal should be the same as Goldilocks when she broke into the bears’ house: seeking not too much, not too little, but just the right amount.
When we’re able to feel healthy shame and anger when they’re needed (and appropriate), they will balance each other and keep each other in check. Shame will make sure that we express anger in respectful ways, and anger will make sure we don’t accept blame for anything that isn’t our fault.
Just like the cosmic forces of Yin and Yang, these two emotions work together to moderate our ego and keep it healthy.
If you think of the ego as a bad thing, as something to be gotten rid of, then this won't make any sense. But if you think of the ego in psychological terms, it is simply our self-identity - for example, what I would identify with and consider to be “Jessica.”
Our ego, in this sense, is essential for us to function in the world. It is how I know who I am as a different person from you. Without the ego it would be impossible to negotiate boundaries, to be able to distinguish my feelings and desires from yours. Truly, the ego is essential to our ability to relate with one another.
The real question is, how healthy is our ego?
An excessive ego is one that is too self-centered (that believes they’re the center of the universe and only their experience matters), and believes that they can do no wrong. A deficient ego, on the other hand, is one that always focuses on other people (as being more important), and believes that everything is their fault.
The function of shame is to keep the ego in check, which has a feeling of contraction. This is why shame causes us to hang our head, and why embarrassment makes us want to hide. That pulling inward is the feeling of humility - which is healthy when it is warranted.
(If you’re wondering about the difference between healthy and toxic shame, I talk more about that here.)
Conversely, anger is all about defending and affirming our sense of self, and pushing our boundaries out when they’ve been encroached upon. This feels like the opposite of shame, and it has the opposite effect: strengthening our ego and making us feel bigger and more empowered.
So what happens if we feel one of these emotions too much, and the other too little?
As you may have guessed… mayhem.
If we feel too much anger and not enough shame, we’d probably end up trampling over other people's boundaries, and being disrespectful without even realizing it. We would also end up with a over-inflated sense of self, an ego that’s too big for it’s britches.
On the other hand, if we felt too much shame, and not enough anger, you can imagine what that would do to our confidence and self-esteem. (You might even know this from personal experience!) Low self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence are classic signs of a diminished ego - an ego that has contracted too much from too much shame.
And without healthy anger to keep us safe and empowered, we’d constantly be taking responsibility for stuff that wasn’t actually ours, and people would end up crossing our boundaries and taking advantage of us.
We want to have free access to both anger and shame, so that they can both come forward as needed in each moment.
When both of these emotions are operating within us as they should be, they will work together to keep the ego healthy and balanced, and to balance each other out - so that neither goes to toxic extremes.
This is easier than it sounds, because we don’t have to feel bad about ourselves to access the gifts of shame, or feel angry at someone to access the gifts of anger.
Like all the emotions we feel every day, shame and anger are constantly running in the background in their soft states. The more sensitive we are to these emotions, the less they have to shout at us, so the less we have to feel them in an obvious way.
One of the wonderful things about paying attention to our emotions, is that we can gain their wisdom and act on them intelligently without having to feel them very strongly at all! At least most of the time. And when they do get loud and show up intensely, there’s always a good reason - and often it’s because we didn’t receive the message early enough.
So how can we find balance in ourselves?
With all aspects of the human personality, each of us has a happy place on every spectrum - a tendency to hang out in a certain spot. So the direction that we need to move towards to achieve balance, health, and well-being will be different for each of us.
When it comes to the ego spectrum (and issues around boundaries and relationships), the primary emotions to work with are anger and shame.
With regard to boundaries, our biggest ally will always be our emotion of anger. So being in touch with anger, even in its soft way, is vitally important. We don't have to be mad at someone, or visibly angry, to receive the gifts of anger - we simply have to connect with our inner strength, determination, and firmness.
If we often give up our boundaries, or self-sabotage for the sake of others, that means that we’re paying more attention to our shame (and perhaps also our fear) then we are to our anger. Choosing instead to pay attention to that soft anger, and honoring its voice by acting on it, will help us to stay firm in our boundaries even when our shame is telling us that we shouldn't.
Alternatively, if people tell us that we’re often rude or insensitive - even if we don’t mean to be - then it’s likely that we need to pay more attention to our (healthy) shame. And if we tend to get angry and defensive when people criticize our behavior, this is a clear sign that we need to welcome our shame in more often, and start listening to its soft voice more than our anger.
Most of the time we learned to suppress certain emotions and amplify others in childhood, for very good reasons. But it’s important to remember that we’re adults now, so now we have the ability to choose differently. And usually the need for that strategy is long gone, so it probably isn’t helpful to us now anyway.
Our past experiences really do set the tone for our emotional responses for the rest of our life, until we resolve them within ourselves. I share more about what it takes to do that here.
And if you feel stuck in a pattern of imbalance around anger and shame, and haven’t been able to shift it, schedule an Emotional Breakthrough session with me and I’ll help you figure out what’s standing in your way.
May your shame and anger create beauty with their dance!