Unearned Shame: The Root of Most Emotional Problems

Woman wearing hooded sweater hides face behind hands

A colleague of mine who ran an outpatient substance abuse program once said to me, “Shame is the root of all these addiction problems. Scratch the surface, and you’ll find shame. And the problems created by the substance abuse just reinforces it.”

I find that shame does underlie most emotional problems, including but not limited to substance abuse.

Let me qualify it by calling the problem unearned shame.

Shame is a healthy and reasonable emotion provided you have actually done something wrong, and provided your standard of “right” and “wrong” is rational. (See my other articles for more details on that subject.)

In most of these cases, shame refers to a pervasive emotion that, if it could speak, would say: There’s something wrong with me.

In therapy, this is what most people seem to be after, from my experience. On the surface they will say, “Am I normal?” But what they’re really getting at, 9 times out of 10 is, “What’s wrong with me?” The very belief that something is fundamentally wrong with oneself stretches like an emotional shadow over one’s entire existence. We will label it substance abuse, depression, anxiety disorder and the like. But it’s really shame.

Whoever you are: There’s nothing wrong with you. There’s always a possibility of error in your reasoning, your subconscious premises, or your actions. Errors are always possible, because we are fallible beings (i.e., beings capable of error). We’re subject to honest mistakes of ignorance, but ignorance is curable.

Errors can be serious, even life-or-death in significance. Trying to sustain a life based upon repeated substance abuse is one example of a serious, life-threatening, soul-crushing error.

Even evasiveness, denial and stupidity are curable, so long as you wish to change your course and start living a self-interested, rational life instead of a mindless or self-defeating one (of which substance abuse is only one example.)

But making errors, no matter how serious, does not mean something is wrong with you. You can be on a wrong course and living a disastrous life, but so long as you discover (or are at least willing to attempt) course corrections, there is always a way to improve.

If something were fundamentally and irrevocably wrong with you, then it would mean the whole situation is hopeless. You’re doomed to play out your self-destruct sequence, and that’s the end of it. Perhaps — you falsely hope — someone might change you, or rescue you from yourself. But that isn’t possible. To do so, someone else would literally have to take over your body and consciousness, as in a ghost or science fiction story. They would have to take over your life, as you. You would no longer be responsible for yourself; but you’d no longer be you, either.

We sometimes feel hopeless when watching other people. And sometimes we’re proven right. I will not deny the existence of hopeless cases. But they are hopeless because of their own ignorance, and their own choices. If you see them as the hopeless cases they are, then there’s hope for you; because you recognize the difference between disaster and the need for improvement.

So long as one possesses the capacity to think, then the capacity likewise exists to take corrective actions. While it’s never possible to change the past, and while some errors cannot be undone or fixed, it’s always possible to think and act rationally in the present, and going forward. Rationally is the key. Rationality is a choice; not just for a moment or a day, but as an ongoing, permanent principle of life.

The first therapist I ever had as a supervisor (in training) told me, “Hope is the most important thing you’ll ever instill in a person, if you can.” I didn’t think much of the statement at the time, because “hope” is such a vague term. What gives rise to hope? What does hope even mean?

I now understand that hope is crucial, if “hope” refers to recognizing and embracing your nature as a rational, thinking being who can use reason and logic to survive, thrive and flourish in life. Because once you have reason, you have the basis for everything else.

The only people without hope, ironically enough, are the sociopaths and other lifelong evaders/manipulators who would never dream of asking the question, “What’s wrong with me?” (Or, if they did ask it, it would merely be a pretense to gain approval or foster false trust.)

The very fact that you’re worried about something wrong with you proves my point: There’s nothing wrong with you that can’t be fixed by what’s right about you. And what’s right about you is your capacity to think, reason, take action based upon that thinking, and chart a rational, sustained course for the rest of your life.




Be sure to “friend” Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael  Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest. Also follow Dr. Hurd on Twitter at @MichaelJHurd1