I was spending some time trying to figure out one of my main character’s motivation recently. I knew her backstory, and I knew it was driving her current choices, but darned if I could figure out why. And I’m pretty sure if I don’t know that link, then my readers aren’t going to be able to join the dots either. So I pondered and thought, and pondered some more. And then it hit me—shame was driving her actions! I realised it can drive so many of our choices (usually the irrational ones…), which meant that it is likely to be a motivator for many a character. So if you have a character that has some regrets, maybe they’ve experienced contempt or ridicule, then stick around, this article is going to be useful.
Unfortunately for us, emotions like guilt, embarrassment and humiliation were programmed into our DNA thanks to our social roots. They are all responses of a psychologically healthy individual who realises they’ve done something wrong. Each one helps us act more positively, more responsibly, and often results in correcting what we’ve done. The experience of these emotions can help to reinforce social norms and so help social cohesion. Evolution thought that was pretty handy, so it made sure we passed it onto future generations.
Shame is these emotion’s amped-up relative. Shame usually arises after an act or omission, and results in a sense of personal failing or defect. The real kick in the guts is when these actions elicit (or is perceived to elicit) contempt or derision from others. We’ve all been there and it isn’t an experience we would want to repeat.
At the least unpleasant end, embarrassment and shyness, don’t generally cause trouble (unless they’re extreme or long-lasting). Humility, another form of shame, is socially desirable in many cultures. The problems start when shame becomes a part of a person’s self-concept or sense of self-worth. Instead of a sense of doing something wrong, shame is the feeling of being something wrong. In this case, an individual reaches the conclusion that ‘there is basically something wrong with me.’
In my case, I have a character who’s done something she isn’t proud of. Compound that with a domino effect of consequent choices, and shame is a natural fallout. In other cases, shame can be deeply internalised early in life. A home environment which plants the seed that a child is inadequate is commonly associated with feelings of shame. Children who are continually criticized, severely punished, neglected, abandoned, or in other ways abused or mistreated get the message that they do not ‘fit’ in the world — that they are inadequate, inferior or unworthy. This means shame is a common emotional response in adult children of alcoholic parents, as well as those who grew up with depressed parents, abuse, religious fanaticism, war, cultural oppression, or adult or sibling death. All of these experiences cause an individual to feel vulnerable, helpless and shamed.
And when shame becomes internalised and melded with our self-concept, it tends to become destructive. When an unpleasant experience is stemming from within, born from something that happened long ago, it doesn’t feel like we can do anything about it. It seems to be outside of our locus of control. Instead, we’re left with a host of awful emotions and belittling thoughts that we don’t want.
Psychology predicts there are three ways that your character will respond if feelings of shame are triggered (in fact, these three headings could apply to any negative emotion):
In this chain reaction of sabotaged self-concept, hurting the one that is ‘inadequate’ is logical. Your character is likely to have significant self-esteem issues, and punishing themselves can become a way of giving voice to the pain. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that this ‘internalisation’ of hurt and harm is more common in females. In extreme cases, this response to shame has been associated with eating disorders, deliberate self-harm, suicide, and diagnoses such as borderline personality disorder.
Alternatively, your character may find a way to not experience the unpleasant state of shame. Just like taking a paracetamol for a headache, or eating a chocolate so you can replace the pain, avoidance allows you to side step into numbness or a more positive state. My character has chosen this path, although she does it through rationalisation. She has thrown herself into the world of logical explanations and the quest for answers in an effort to keep the shame at bay. If the escapism becomes pathological, it may lead to disorders such as social phobia, or alcohol and/or drug abuse.
Far more common in men (unfortunately, stereotypes can stem from grains of truth), is the link between shame and anger. Whilst many women will internalise negative emotions, males are known to externalise. This means that if your character has cheated on a partner, was exposed to drug abuse, or even feels sexually inadequate, and he experiences a sense of shame, then he may act out. Rage, aggression, and violence may culminate in domestic violence, road rage, or sexual offenses. Integrating a sense of shame after growing up with an abusive parent can explain why a person may grow up to be a perpetrator themselves. Attacking others is how that sense of humiliation and confusion is managed. Understanding this cycle could be quite useful in creating a layered villain, or a moving character arc for your hero.
What do you think? Do you have a character that has experienced shame? How does it affect their actions? I love hearing from you, connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
Have a wonderful week,
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