“Am I a Good Person?”: When Shame Gets The Upper Hand

Michael MacLafferty, LMFT #123931 on Aug 30, 2022 in Mood and Feelings

“I looked up the definition of a sociopath, and I think I meet a lot of the criteria.” I have heard some version of this from a few different clients. They are clearly worried and have an air of sadness. Though they may be looking to label what they imagine their damaged or defective character to be, what I hear is the plaintive question, “Am I a good person?” Because at that moment, they are not so sure.

It's a question that everyone grapples with in some way or another. Because no one lives a life without regret, the question soon becomes, “Am I good enough?” Everyone develops some combination of strategies to make this answer a yes: trying to gain recognition through accomplishments, attempting to please everyone around them, participating in a religion that bestows righteousness, being a force for justice or some other ideal, attacking any source of personal criticism, etc. Some people are their own worst critics and are painfully aware of many things that could be called imperfections or shortcomings — another way of attempting to control the experience of shame. Because shame is what we feel when these strategies fail, and usually it causes us to reinforce those same defenses.

The Shame Game

Shame is a natural consequence of being alive in this society. And though it may be unavoidable, there are certain conditions that intensify it, especially in childhood. Religious upbringings can compound this when they emphasize human nature as sinful from birth (thus setting up their religion as the only antidote for your fallen nature and your shame about it). Abuse, trauma, abandonment, moralizations, put-downs, or being made to feel unimportant by authority figures or society at large contributes to bigger feelings of shame and wrongness. If you are often called ugly, stupid, mean, and lazy and you find bad things keep happening to you, the most immediate conclusion is that it must be true.

As time goes on, you eventually find yourself at odds with other people. You may experience being a victim, or a perpetrator, or both. You may have experiences where you truly regret how you acted, and others may tell you that you were wrong or bad. Bam! Confirmation of what you feared or believed all along.

People who hold less privilege in society are often bullied, ostracized, or ignored because of their deviation from the dominant mainstream ideals (what people like to consider “normal”). Therefore, folks belonging to minorities of race, ability, gender, size, sexuality, etc. often have shame embedded in those identities. Those who investigate ways in which they hold privilege may feel shame about being born with advantages that others cannot have.

I’m Not The One

Since I’m writing about shame, you might think that I have it all figured out and dodge shame-bullets like Neo in The Matrix. Nope. It’s a battle I don’t think there is really an end to — but it can get easier. Personally, I feel the most shame when I’ve hurt someone close to me. I try my hardest not to let that happen, but it still inevitably occurs in ways I don’t expect. My shame tries to tell me that I am careless, stupid, untrustworthy, destructive, and dangerous. In the past, I would believe that voice and even join with it in chastising myself. Eventually, with the help of my own therapy, I learned to recognize the voice of shame for what it was and not give it the credence I used to. Now I can recognize that there are many sides to a story, roles that get played out, and many other reasons people get hurt, but most of all I realize: Even if I was fully responsible, I am not bad or worthless because of it.

Ownership, Not Punishment

Everyone falls short of their standards, sometimes on accident, sometimes deliberately. I’m not suggesting you ignore those times; I am saying you do not need to punish yourself for them. Many people react with “You’re wrong to react that way to me; you’re being too sensitive!” or “I’m a piece of shit; I’m not worthy of forgiveness so I’ll go along with whatever you say I deserve.” There is a way to say, “Yes, I did that, I see how it was hurtful, and I believe I can do better.”

The Question Doesn’t Matter, but the Answer Is Yes

Sociopath is a word we use when we want to psychologically judge a person on moral grounds, generally seen as incapable of empathy, attachment, or intimacy. The irony I am quick to call out when a client confesses their concern about being a sociopath is that they are concerned. They are telling me of the impact they fear they have had on their partner or other loved one. I see their empathy. I see their love.

If you find yourself in the place of questioning your basic goodness, there are some helpful things you can try. One is to talk to someone you trust about the feelings you are having. This could be a friend, relative, therapist, or mentor. Please do not go to a person involved with the situation you feel shame about, especially if they have said negative things about you in the past. They will not be able to give you an objective opinion.

In my therapy practice, I help people deal with shame and feel better about themselves and their lives. I don’t do this by glossing over the past or finding the silver lining. I do this by looking at you as a whole person, understanding what has shaped you, and helping you see more of your intrinsic worth.

If you resonate with anything you have read here, I hope you have a trusted person you can confide in with your feelings. If you do not, I encourage you to seek one out.

Michael MacLafferty is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist in Oakland, CA.

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