(OMTimes | Marcia Sirota MD) One reason why we might be lacking in empathy these days is that a lot of us are burdened with shame.
Heal your shame to restore your empathy
A lot of people these days seem to be lacking in empathy. We watch horrors on the news, and we’re hardly moved. We hear of terrible tragedies befalling other people, and we’re barely motivated to offer any help. We walk by homeless people on the street, and we don’t even notice them.
Maybe it’s the amount of sensationalism we’re bombarded with every day that’s causing us to be so emotionally shut down. Maybe it’s the stress of modern life. Whatever it is, it’s not doing us any good.
We need to have empathy for one another. It’s what keeps our society from crumbling into chaos and violence. It’s what enables us to feel a sense of belonging. When we feel connected, our stress levels go down. Our immune system is boosted. We’re happier and healthier when we feel that sense of oneness with others.
One reason why we might be lacking in empathy these days is that a lot of us are burdened with shame. We feel bad about ourselves, and it adversely affects our interactions with others.
The developing of shame
How do we develop shame? When bad things happen to us, especially when we’re little, a typical psychological defense mechanism is to blame ourselves. On the surface, this doesn’t seem to make any sense, but think of it this way:
When we’re in a hurtful situation, and we feel powerless to change things, feelings of despair rise up within us. We feel helpless and hopeless, and this is almost worse than the sadness, hurt or anger that come on in response to our hurtful experiences.
It’s almost intolerable to feel so helpless and hopeless, so we unconsciously default to a primitive defense mechanism (coming from the not-so-smart part of our brain). It’s supposed to make us feel that we have more power and choice in the situation, but like all such defense mechanisms, it backfires spectacularly.
It’s paradoxical to blame ourselves, but we do this because the primitive part of our psyche is convinced that if the bad things, we’re experiencing are our fault, then we’ll have the power to change them.
Blaming ourselves doesn’t work
Unfortunately, blaming ourselves for the bad things we’re going through doesn’t actually work. When we have bad experiences that are beyond our control – like childhood abuse or neglect, or an adult diagnosis of a life-threatening illness – taking on responsibility for what’s happening doesn’t make it possible for us to change things.
Self-blame just makes us feel worse because not only are we living in a bad situation but then we hate ourselves for not being able to change it.
As time passes, the self-blame turns into shame. We feel ashamed of the abuse we suffered as a child, or for the medical condition that afflicted us, because we’re now convinced that it was our fault.
And then, another psychological defense mechanism kicks in, adding insult to injury: we believe, deep down, that we’re shameful and that we deserve to feel shame, so we’re unconsciously driven to do things that will perpetuate our shame. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
People who carry a lot of shame will often behave self-destructively. Someone who was sexually abused will be promiscuous and go after abusive partners, in part to maintain the shame that they feel they deserve, deep down inside.
Someone who grew up being told that they were a “bad child” might become an over-eater or a drug abuser as an adult, in an unconscious attempt to maintain the shame they’re convinced that they deserve to feel.
“The more we engage in self-destructive behaviors, the more shame we feel.
We unconsciously create a shame spiral that grows and grows”.
Shame isolates us and separates us from others
And the more shame we feel, the less empathy we feel because shame isolates us and separates us from others. We feel undeserving of connection and unworthy of love. We can’t feel empathy toward others when we have no empathy for ourselves.
So, the answer to our empathy problem is, in part, to let go of our shame. Primitive defense mechanisms (like self-blame and shame) arise spontaneously in our psyche, but they never work. We need to over-ride them and replace them with self-compassion.
We need to start letting ourselves off the hook for the bad things that happened to us in the past. We even need to start forgiving ourselves for the bad choices we’ve been making that have been perpetuating our shame.
Just as we created a shame spiral by repeatedly engaging in behaviors that would perpetuate our shame, we can break the shame spiral by stopping these behaviors and by giving ourselves understanding, acceptance, forgiveness, and love.
When we’re compassionate toward ourselves, we can heal the pain caused by the hurts we lived through. We can heal the shame perpetuated by our repeated self-destructive behaviors. We can start to build self-love, which will open our hearts to others. Suddenly, we can have empathy for ourselves and for everyone else.
The payoff for having more empathy is huge. Multiple studies have shown that being caring, giving a person makes us so much happier than being a selfish or insensitive one. The more empathy we feel toward ourselves, the more empathy we can feel toward others, and the more empathy we feel toward others, the happier we are.
Health benefits of empathy
On a physical level, shame causes stress. It raises the levels of Cortisol, our body’s stress hormone. This leads to obesity, premature aging, and a lowered ability of our immune system to fight disease. On the other hand, empathy for ourselves and others increases Oxytocin, the bonding hormone in our body, which lowers the levels of Cortisol and promotes well-being.
In my recent podcast with Dr. Brian Goldman, he spoke eloquently about the role of shame in society’s current lack of empathy and how important it is for us all to let go of our shame.
Even if you’ve been carrying a lot of shame up until now, you don’t have to hold on to it. You can start to let go of the shame and self-blame and be more empathetic with yourself.
You’ll feel happier, healthier, and more connected to others, and it’ll be a lot easier to care about everyone else when you’re not busy hating on yourself.
About the Author
Marcia Sirota MD FRCP(C) is a board-certified psychiatrist, that does not ascribe to any one theoretical school. Rather, she has integrated her education and life experiences into a unique approach to the practice of psychotherapy. She considers herself a realist with a healthy measure of optimism.
You may also like: