How to Handle Shame-Based Avoidance

For some people, life is characterized by patterns of avoidance. Often, they fear intimacy, which they associate with shame. Such shame-based avoidance usually begins young. Unfortunately, if left untreated it can last a lifetime.

The Nature of Shame

The word “shame” is rather vague and needs clarifying. To begin with, it is not the same as guilt. People use these as though they were synonymous; in fact there are subtle differences. Guilt usually involves a specific act – some moment in which you failed or were humiliated. For example, a man recalls how his little brother was bullied by an older boy when they were children. Instead of standing up to the boy, and possibly fighting him, he allowed his brother to suffer. The guilt is easy to understand: his brother suffered and he didn’t help. But the shame runs deeper. The bully had a reputation as the toughest kid in school. Had he stood up to him, the bully would have attacked and beaten him, possibly in front of his friends. He was terrified of having to fight, and that fills him with shame.

Guilt involves self-criticism, but shame means condemnation of the whole self. In other words, someone may say “I confess to having cheated in that exam, and I feel guilty, but it was a one off – I remain a good and decent person.” Someone filled with shame, however, would say “I cheated in that exam, and that is typical of me. I cheat on everything. I have no honor. I’m a worthless human being.”

The man in the hypothetical example feels guilty about his brother and the suffering he went through. But the shame runs deeper. All his life he feels a coward. In his 20s he takes up boxing and starts picking fights in bars. Deep down he is trying to rid himself of the shame he feels at running away from that bully. We feel guilty for what we have done, but we feel shame at what we are.

The origins of shame can be difficult to pin down. Sometimes it is inflicted by others; sometimes it arises out of the self. Parents often play a part. Some are openly abusive, telling the child she is fat, useless, ugly, etc. Others are more subtle, never actually voicing their disappointment but making the child aware nonetheless. Often, children convince themselves that their parents are ashamed of them when in fact they are not. Shame begins when the child feels unable to meet the parents’ expectations – or what he believes they expect.

For example, a woman who loves fashion and celebrity gossip has a daughter. When the girl reaches her teens, the mother assumes she too will be obsessed with make-up, clothes and boys. The two of them will go shopping together, gossip over coffee, and so on (she assumes). At an early age, the child senses that things are expected of her. She also knows, though she cannot put it into words, that she isn’t like her mother, and that she won’t fulfil these expectations. Instead, she becomes a sullen, socially awkward loner who wears heavy boots and scruffy T-shirts. Her mother never says anything, but she can sense her worry and disappointment.

The Avoidant Personality

The avoidant personality disorder is a cluster C personality disorder, grouped along with the dependent and obsessive-compulsive. Unlike the socially anxious, the avoidant find that these patterns of behavior affect every part of their life. Social anxiety is a symptom of the avoidant personality.

The first and most obvious sign is social phobia. The avoidant avoid others, but what they are really avoiding is the rush of anxiety and fear, the nausea, the blushing, the pounding heart, etc. They cannot bear the way people make them feel. And these symptoms are very real. Some will literally vomit into the toilet before a college seminar, or pass out during a lecture.

The fear is usually rooted in a deep sense of inadequacy. This may be something obvious, like deformity, physical ugliness, excess weight, extreme poverty, etc. Or it may have no obvious cause. Just as some people have an unjustified sense of superiority, others have an inexplicable sense of worthlessness. Often, the explanation lies in childhood. Parents instill a feeling of inadequacy in a child, either through abuse or simple neglect.

The avoidant choose isolation. And whereas the socially anxious will admit something is wrong, those with an avoidant personality resign themselves to their fate. If anyone draws attention to their dysfunctional life, they shrug and reply “this is just who I am, and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Indeed, some derive a strange pleasure from their avoidance. Often, they become addicted to fresh starts and feel elated when they cut someone out of their life and move on.

Unsurprisingly, they hate to be criticised. Any form of criticism or rejection deeply hurts them, re-inforcing their sense of inadequacy. In particular, they avoid anyone they know to be observant and judgemental. And when they are criticised, their reaction can be extreme.

Avoidant traits vary, but in general such people avoid eye contact, avoid speaking up in meetings, and avoid anything that involves new people. They also maintain a hyper-vigilance, on the lookout for any insult or put down. And they miss nothing. Avoiders have usually had a lifetime to perfect this.

The Role of Shame in Avoidance

People whose lives are characterized by avoidance often feel a great deal of shame. Looked at rationally, this makes sense. If you are ashamed of something, you keep it hidden. For example, you lose your money and have to move to a run-down apartment with a leaky roof. From now on you make excuses when people offer to drop by because the apartment fills you with shame. In the case of an avoidant personality, the individual is ashamed of their self. They associate intimacy with shame. Intimacy is a threat, and so they hold everyone at a distance.

This is why avoidant or anxious people tend to skim the surface in social situations. They go through the motions, smiling, shaking hands, discussing the weather, etc., like a robot or automaton. Some become masters at hiding their discomfort and do a great impression of a confident and assertive individual. But you soon find that you can get no closer. No matter how well you get along, the relationship never moves beyond the polite, superficial stage. In such cases, the individual may feel such intense shame that they do not want you to see them as they really are. So you never know the real person, only a mask or false self.

In other cases the individual has relatively healthy self-esteem but still avoids because he sees people as a threat. The avoidant personality is closely related to the paranoid, so this is hardly surprising. Others are considered dangerous, malignant and spiteful. If they can hurt you they will, so best keep your distance. Put another way, they do not avoid because they are ashamed but because they fear being shamed. They fear humiliation and embarrassment. Rejection, for example, doesn’t hurt because it leaves them isolated and alone; it hurts because it humiliates and shames them. Such people may have had avoidant, misanthropic parents, or been exposed to bullying and cruelty at an early age – or both.

Then again, someone need not believe others will try to hurt them. They may simply have an extreme and unnatural sensitivity. The slight awkwardness and discomfort most people feel in social situations can be taken to an extreme. Indeed, some feel that way all the time. Again, the reasons vary. Some are never properly socialized. They grow up in a small or isolated community, with misanthropic parents and no extended family or siblings. Or they are profoundly introverted and happiest with books and movies.

Unfortunately, other people are unpredictable, and those never fully socialized cannot cope with the odd or unexpected. To such people, socializing is a minefield. They are comfortable with routine, but someone odd, abrupt or eccentric frightens them; they may do or say something that exposes them and leaves them open to shame. Take work, for example. They are comfortable so long as they are going through the motions of their job role. In other words, they play the part of waiter, or cheerful cab driver, etc. Once forced out of that role, however, they feel vulnerable and exposed. Everyone has met the work colleague who seems confident and efficient in their job but disappears during the coffee break, or never comes to the Christmas party.

Living with shame-based avoidance is tough. Such people experience a great deal of tension, anxiety and fear. And they are far more likely to wind up lonely and isolated. The key, as so often in life, is to recognize that something is wrong, understand the problem, and then take swift and decisive action.

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