There is a kind of shame that bears no relationship to reality: it is the fear of shame arising out of saying a "wrong thing" or doing a “wrong thing" that inhibits a person absolutely. Rather than experience the shame of having done the “wrong thing” the individual does nothing at all. If he happens to do just that ‘wrong thing,” he makes an excuse such as he “wasn't aware”; “he didn’t mean it” or he is “sure he didn’t do it’ at all. In short, he denies the fact that he may be responsible for doing something , plus the possible knock-on effects of his actions.
I was once told that a person in therapy can be considered “healed” or ‘cured” once he can answer truthfully the following three questions:
- What do I fear?
- What do I want?
- What am I ashamed of?
The person who then forgives himself for feeling all that invented shame, is open to the clear implications of his actual morally shameful behaviour.
Let us say that a married women feels ashamed if there is a smear in her windows, and in order to avoid that shame she cleans them every two weeks inside and every month outside. This practice requires a great deal of energy, which fortunately she has in abundance. It also creates anxiety, which is relieved once the windows have been cleaned. It requires great expertise, for cleaning windows to that standard of excellence is a highly skilled task. The window cleaning exercise therefore fulfills a great many needs in this woman, to express her excellence in practical skills about the house; to apply her abundant energy; to enable her to rest assured that her house is spotless. The basic driving force behind that fruitless task is the avoidance of shame. You can call it perfectionism, if you like, but it's driven by shame,
The drive to achieve the impossible is exhausting; the fear that she won’t be able to make everything perfect causes great anxiety and constant worry about trivial details; the impossibility of acheiving her dream; of there being no rest for her, causes depression.
Her perfectionism has inhibited her son who has been taught that only the very best is good enough. It has separated her from both her son and her husband as the domestic tasks have preoccupied her so much through each day. It has prevented her from developing her own personal and social skills, because she has spent so long dealing with trivial details and turning them in to major concerns. Her preoccupation with the domestic has effected all her conversations, in that she is only able to talk about domestic issues, and maybe a little of what she has seen on TV or read in the newspaper, provided always that this also is something domestic.
This women, healthy and intelligent, full of a great capacity for having fun, very loving and giving to her family and friends, and always giving small presents to others, has wasted her life in an endless pursuit of domestic perfection.
Sadly the second half of this example is fictitous: this women never did enter therapy, and after 65 years of perseverance to create the perfect home for her husnand and son she died of simple exhaustion at the age of 90. Her husband and son never managed to get close to her: she lived in a world of invented shame that eventully wore her out.
The intelligence, energy, stong will and good health of this women could be described as “alpha” qualities. It as if this woman used those qualities in a wasteful way, as if she had to put them to one side and ignore them. It could be said that she was ashamed of being an alpha womb twin survivor, because instead of using those wonderful gifts she ignored them. Indeed, when she died they found gifts given to her over the years placed carefully in a suitcase under the bed, unused.