The Toxic Emotion That Rules Our World
Personal growth includes recognizing the many faces of shame and how it holds us back. The toxic sense that something is wrong with us keeps us roaming in a trance of unworthiness, which saps joy and spontaneity.
But shame also shows up in the larger world arena. Understanding the extent to which political leaders are secretly driven by shame and use shame to manipulate us can shed light on the hidden ways that shame infects politics–and consequently, our lives.
It is difficult to directly observe the shame that politicians carry. It’s challenging enough to notice how it lives inside ourselves! But we can notice the effects of shame–how it gets acted out–as a clue to its silent operation. Now more than ever, it’s important to understand what makes people tick rather than judge and shame them, which perpetuates a cycle of reactive anger and blame.
Observing politicians of any persuasion, we often encounter those who display an arrogance and know-it-all attitude. At first glance, we might view them as the supremely confident leader who’s got the right stuff to rescue us. But history is littered with fallen leaders whose projection of power and confidence won elections (Hitler, Mussolini, Marcos), but who turned out to be self-serving dictators who cared more about power than people.
What drives arrogance is shame. When it looms large–oftentimes due to being brutally shamed growing up–it becomes so toxic that our organism dissociates from it. Some people get depressed as a result of this capacity for self-protection. We can observe their somberness or pessimism, but not the shame that drives it.
Others become arrogant and angry as a compensation for shame. They bluster, bully, and intimidate. There’s a hypnotizing anger that rallies our own anger toward the “system.” Clever politicians have a way of mobilizing our discontent, then directing it in ways that serves them, not us.
It is counterintuitive to suggest that loud, self-praising politicians carry a secret shame. But to a large extent, such individuals are raging against their own shame–their inner sense of powerlessness and fear of failing. We may notice their penchant to seek admiration. What’s hard to spot is their inner fragility and emptiness.
One telltale sign of a shame-driven person is an interest in clinging to power and a disinterest in sharing it. They have little appetite for compromising, acknowledging mistakes, or displaying vulnerability, which they view as weakness. They evoke fear and insecurity with half-truths or untruths and then designate themselves as the hero who will cure the ills that they eloquently exaggerate or manufacture. They become masters of manipulation.
Anger and Shame: Secret Bedfellows
People who carry rage and reactive anger are often unaware of its true source. As vulnerable children, we desperately seek love and acceptance in order to thrive. Some unfortunate children get a particularly hefty dose of pressure from well-meaning parents to attain success, money, or fame as the price of love and acceptance. Rather than being valued for their inherent preciousness, these children are cajoled to create a false self to present to the world.
The drive to win and succeed may go beyond the simple desire to thrive. It may become a life and death struggle to prove their worth and rail against the inner demon of unworthiness. When they fail, they’re overwhelmed by shame and become angry as a way to hide it. They can’t relax into simply being human–having limitations and imperfections like everyone else. There’s too much shame to embrace humility.
The tragic twist is that for some people, their fabricated self begins to feel like their authentic self. This may lead to what’s called a personality disorder—in short, when having a distorted self-view feels natural. They succumb to a devil’s bargain to win adulation and some semblance of love and belonging. But sadly, by clinging to a hardened and rigid self, they pay the price of losing their own soul.
Perilously, such individuals (whether here or abroad) who seek positions of leadership unwittingly spread their silent misery to others. They stoke fear and anger to gather allies and cover up the shame of feeling inferior. They may view compassion and empathy as mere sentimentality that has little place in their dog-eat-dog view of the world.
Shame-based anger (as opposed to healthy anger that stems from injustice or abuse) is a heat-seeking missile searching for a target. The shame that is too threatening to feel gets transferred to others, such as ethnic groups or nations that disagree with us. Through scathing criticisms and blame, they make others feel the shame that they’re unwilling to face within themselves.
Shame-driven people lash-out when they feel shame. We can observe their impulsive threats or rants when criticized. But it’s their own shame—the possibility of being wrong or flawed–that’s really driving them crazy. Having scant inner resources for processing it, they fly into anger as a bulwark against an unbearable shame.
Anger is seductive. It can be used by an authoritarian leader not only to cover up shame, but also to harness other people’s anger and “empower” them to cover up their shame, whether from their history or from a difficult life. People may applaud such a “leader” for giving voice to the deep resentment they also feel. This creates a gathering storm of wailing individuals, but no thoughtful solutions to complex problems.
Keeping Pace with Psychological Manipulation
Democracy depends upon having an educated electorate. Informed decisions can only be based on facts and truth. Those of any political persuasion who claim to love democracy are actually putting democracy at risk whenever they shamelessly distort the truth and assault their opponent’s character rather than state their own positions.
The founding fathers could never have anticipated the advent of mass media and how truths get spun and twisted through sophisticated methods of psychological manipulation–and how a ratings-driven media goes along for the ride by giving airtime to the most creatively outrageous characters.
Keeping pace with unprecedented manipulation and dirty tricks means revisiting what it means to have an educated electorate, which would provide some immunity to such manipulation. This includes ratcheting up awareness of simple psychological principles, such as realizing how we’re prone to manipulation, shedding light on how shame operates, and recognizing how politicians who fan fears and shame their opponents are being driven by something other than good will.
A more psychologically aware electorate would be attuned to the smell of manipulation. There would be more awareness of when we’re being swept into a fear-driven, addictive media frenzy. There would be a growing awareness of who appears to be seeking power as compensation for their poor self-worth. There would be more appreciation for transparent politicians (even if they’re a bit boring) who have the integrity and wisdom to deal with issues filled with nuance and complexity.
If I appear to be asking too much of the public to become more psychologically savvy, I would suggest that having an advanced degree in psychology isn’t required to have an intact bs detector.
Shame creates a myopic brand of leadership that encourages its followers to cling to a narrow identity, whether to an extreme nationalism, an ethnic, racial, or religious identity—or being part of the 1% who control most of the wealth. Today’s world is seeing a proliferation of extremist ideologies driven by fear, ignorance, and insecurity. Such narrow clinging weds us to a self-identity devoid of tolerance and compassion, which sets a stage for conflict and war.
Seeking solace in a limiting identification tears us away from our humanity and the simple truth of our interconnectedness. The awareness that we share one small planet—that there is one environment that we need to protect—just as we need to cherish the vulnerable self that has gone into hiding through shaming—is vital to our survival.
I’m more trusting of politicians who reveal their limitations, acknowledge mistakes, and show vulnerability–and who have the humility to put scientific discoveries (even inconvenient ones) ahead of their own self-comforting beliefs and fantasies. It is noteworthy that the Dalai Lama, the Nobel prize winning leader of Tibetan Buddhists, has declared that if science makes discoveries that conflict with Buddhism, then Buddhism needs to change–not science.
Many Americans are being swept into despair and hopelessness. But new hope can dawn with an increased awareness of what makes people do what they do.
Consider this: When politicians are campaigning, listen to something deeper than your surface emotions. Who appears to have the emotional maturity, wisdom, inner composure, and compassion to truly care about you and lead us toward a better life? Electing wise leaders who have some sense of inner peace may just be the key to creating peace in our world.
© John Amodeo
John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT is author of the award-winning book, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart and Love & Betrayal. He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for over 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has lectured and conducted workshops internationally.