Defense Mechanisms

Disarming Defense Mechanisms Triggered By Shame

Part 3 of the blog series Disarming Defense Mechanisms

In Part 1, When We Hurt Those We Care About, and Part 2, How To Stop Defensive Behavior, we discovered that the most common reason people use defense mechanisms seems to be to cover up either embarrassment, shame or humiliation.

But even more importantly, we learned that this cover up does not only serve to hide the truth from outsiders. Most of the time when we use defense mechanisms it is our own embarrassment, shame or humiliation that we are trying to cover up from ourselves.

We learned in Part 1 that the way our mind hides unpleasant truths from itself is very complex. Because of this complexity, we tend to have only a vague understanding of this process despite the fact that every one of us has engaged in it many times.

But as complex as the use of defense mechanisms may seem, there is one aspect of defensive behavior that actually allows us to track defense mechanisms from beginning to end. What lets us decode and then overcome defense mechanisms in others is the fact that the actual mechanics, or how we use defense mechanisms, is exactly the same from individual to individual.

As we already know from Parts 1 and 2, the way defense mechanisms work to protect us from uncomfortable emotional states is through a process of one part of our awareness splitting off and then trying to convince us that we should act in ways that are more extreme than our circumstances warrant.

We might compare a defense mechanism to a rogue faction within an organization that has more extreme views than the rest of the group. Once this faction realizes the group will not go along willingly with its ideas, it begins to operate in secret, behind the scenes, using emotional manipulation to try to sway the group. Our protective inner mind behaves in a similar same way, continually trying to persuade us to protect ourselves from imagined or overexaggerated threats.

Another way to describe the way that our protective inner mind works to get us to take defensive action could be to imagine the tactics of an overprotective parent who wants to guarantee 100 percent safety in their child’s life. Knowing that their over-zealous wish to control their child would be considered inappropriate parenting, they instead operate in stealth, trying to arouse fear and suspicion in their child so it doesn’t take actions that the parent fears would put it at risk.

One more way our protective inner mind tries to get us to do things that will temporarily relieve us from uncomfortable emotional states is by using the same kinds of tactics that children we might label a bad influence use with their friends. Acting as a pal, our inner mind tries to get us to believe that engaging in high-risk activities is fun and holds no consequences.

To make it a little easier to relate to defense mechanisms, we’ll look at how each of the three tactics of the protective inner mind we just mentioned play out in our everyday lives.

The Rogue Faction Influence

Most of us have engaged in defense mechanisms where our inner mind acts like a rogue faction, urging us to take defensive action in the face of what we later realize was only mild criticism or advice. This defense usually kicks in when we get our feelings hurt.

The inner mind knows that it can turn around hurt feelings by using a certain formula. All it needs to do is change how we feel abour our circumstances is to plant a seed of suspicion in our minds that this person is not trying to help us but is actually attempting to hurt us.

We might hear a little thought in the back of our mind that says, “That person doesn’t really care about you.” Or it could be, “They are just jealous.” This thought allows us to change the feeling of being hurt to a feeling of being offended. Feeling offended is a powerful emotion that let’s us transition from feeling weak to feeling strong. This slight shift in perception allows us to successfully ward off embarrassing, shameful or humiliating feelings.

The Over-Protective Inner Parent

We have all probably experienced what we could call our inner protective parent warning us in the form of a little thought in the back of our mind that we might fail at a new idea or goal, so we shouldn’t even try. The inner mind uses this tactic to keep us from trying new things that might take us out of our comfort zone.

High-Risk Defensive Behaviors

We have probably also engaged in psychologically addictive types of behavior from time to time to give ourselves an emotional boost. These are behaviors that distract us from emotional discomfort or that help us change our body state which in turn helps us change our emotional state.

The tactics our inner mind uses to get us to engage in addictive types of behaviors are similar to that of a childhood friend urging us to join them in inappropriate or risky behavior. We might experience our inner mind’s attempt to sway us as a little thought in the back of our mind that says just this once it won’t hurt, or we deserve to feel good or that we shouldn’t be such a stick-in-the-mud.

Although defense mechanisms do work to make us feel better, they don’t actually resolve our painful emotions. Our inner protection center works in a rather rudimentary or crude way. It doesn’t care about the other people in our lives, and it doesn’t care about right and wrong. In fact, most of the time its tactics tend to be manipulative, controlling and even ethically questionable.

Defense Mechanisms Triggered By Shame

We talked in Part 2 about how defense mechanisms that are triggered by embarrassment can cause us to shift the blame to others or to engage in a slightly manipulative or controlling manner. In Part 3 we will be addressing a level of defense mechanism that operates in a slightly more extreme way. We are going to take a look at the defensive behaviors that are triggered by shame. These are defenses that can strongly impact our relationships.

Shame is a word that may get used frequently, but is rarely defined in a way that the average person can understand. But if we are going to learn how to disarm defense mechanisms that are triggered by shame, we need to first get a very clear idea of what we really mean when we use this term.

The emotion of shame is very similar to the emotion of embarrassment that we addressed in Part 2 of this blog series. The difference between embarrassment and shame is that embarrassment is usually over a one-time behavior or else from attention temporarily spotlighting what we may perceive as a personal flaw that we try to keep hidden. Shame, on the other hand, is usually experienced when we find ourselves behaving in an embarrassing way a series of times or when people become aware of a character flaw that we know we cannot hide.

Where embarrassment may produce a fear that others may laugh at us, shame goes one step farther and produces a fear that others look may down on us. For some reason, feeling like others might look down on us is an extraordinarily uncomfortable emotional state for human beings. Let’s take a closer look at this natural fear of being looked down upon.

Positive And Negative Peer Pressure

As most of us have learned from our schoolyard days, one of the most powerful tools we can use to cause others to feel emotional pain is to show them that we look down on them. And if showing others we look down on them is our most effective weapon, we could also say that pointing out ways that others don’t fit in is the ammunition that delivers the message where it hurts the most.

Trying to get people to feel ashamed for not fitting in may begin in the schoolyard, but most of us carry a remnant of this fear throughout our adult lives. The underlying shame caused by fear that others will look down on us for not fitting in seems to be a universal human characteristic. But it is not all bad. Let’s look at some of the positive aspects of feeling shame.

The discomfort caused by shame is actually the driving force that motivates us to repair damages in important relationships when our self interests have gotten the better of us. We find that the wish to avoid shame caused by others looking down on us can positively influence us to improve our behavior in the future towards those around us.

It is usually only when we experience what we might call the negative side of shame, or shame over something that is not shameful, that we become susceptible to using defense mechanisms. When we let our fears of being looked down upon by others overcome our common sense, we may experience the need to distance ourselves from the qualities that we feel threaten our social standing.

So you can familiarize yourself with what kind of qualities we may use defense mechanisms to distance ourselves from, let’s take a look at a list of common social fears.

Not being as good at socializing as others.
Not being as well-dressed as others.
Not being as smart as others.
Not having as much money as others.
Not being as competent as others.
Not having the same body size as others.
Not having the same possessions as others.

On close examination you will find that these qualities are not really shameful at all.

There is one more social fear that anyone can find themselves trying to avoid from time to time. It’s not just the children who were picked last or picked upon who struggle as adults with fears of not fitting in. Even those who have always held top-ranking positions of social status among their peers may experience an underlying fear of being shamed merely over losing their standing within that peer group.

Although fear about being shamed for not fitting in may be a trait we all share, most of us handle our fear of others looking down on us fairly well. We may all feel worried about not fitting in from time to time, but for the most part this sensitivity to what others think of us doesn’t rule our lives or get in the way of our relationships.

But for those people who carry more fear or social insecurity than the average person, either from natural sensitivity they were born with or from a negative past history, defense mechanisms can interfere with and in some cases destroy their relationships with others.

The way defense mechanisms work when they are triggered by shame is more complex than the use of defense mechanisms triggered by embarrassment that we have addressed so far. Our inner mind, when it wants to protect us from shame, seems to do its work underground where we cannot track it as easily. Although the hidden nature of this type of defense mechanism makes it very hard for us to track, by applying our understanding of defense mechanisms in general we can still easily stop this type of defense in others.

But before you learn how to stop this defense, let’s take a closer look at the process we use to distance ourselves from shame which we will be calling the displacement of shame. This simply refers to a process where we project our shame on others in an attempt to distance ourselves from it.

Displacement of Shame

Unlike other types of defense mechanisms where we can easily see the workings of the protective inner mind, the only manifestation that people seem to experience when the displacement of shame is happening is the presence of emotional surges of anger and condescension towards those around them.

Most people who find themselves engaging in this type of defense mechanism do not have any justification at all for why they are trying to inflict pain on an innocent person. They generally report feeling an intense mixture of anger and disgust and a strong urge to express those feelings. Although many people report a sense of satisfaction and righteousness in inflicting shame on others this way, they do not seem to carry an intellectual understanding of why it is deserved.

But anyone who has been on the receiving end of shame displacement knows how deeply disturbing this behavior feels from the outside. In fact, even if we are confident enough to see through another’s attempt to make us feel ashamed, simply knowing that another person has the conscious goal of hurting us and then seeing their satisfaction in doing so is enough to temporarily throw us off our foundation.

Defense Mechanisms

Reversing Shame Displacement

Although most people assume we have to put up with others trying to make us feel bad so they can feel good, there is an easy way to stop this behavior on the spot. The basic technique you will be learning to stop this behavior will consist of getting the person using the defense to question for themselves why the qualities they are trying to make you feel bad about are shameful. Although this may not sound too difficult, there is a certain amount of skill involved in getting past the defense mechanism’s influence over the person you are trying to communicate with.

In order to more easily stop the defense mechanism of shame displacement, you will be given language to use from the Nicola Method, a series of techniques that anyone can learn to lower conflict. The phrase you will be using has been designed to get the defensive person to question their own motivation behind punishing you. But it is designed to get them to question themselves without them realizing it was you who did it. This sentence also allows you to stay out of any conflict due to our natural wish to defend ourselves when someone tries to make us feel bad.

Using The Nicola Method To Stop Displacement of Shame

If you simply announce to a person using the shame defense mechanism that you don’t think that your behavior is shameful, you will not stop the displacement. The person transferring does not actually need to make you feel ashamed in order to relieve their feelings. They only need to imagine it. If you deny that you are feeling shame, that person’s inner mind can simply tell them that you are being defensive or trying to cover up your true feelings.

The only way to get the person doing the shaming to admit to you that there is nothing shameful about your behavior is if they discover the flaw on their own. Let’s take a look at the sentence you will be using to redirect them to the flaw.

“When you said that it seemed like you thought I should feel ashamed.”

You will notice that this phrase is carefully disguised to come across as a casual observation. In reality, it is actually a very powerful motivator. We know from our own experience that when we are very angry we are emotionally primed for a chance to tell the other person off. The construction of this sentence makes it seem like you are giving them free rein to tell you all about what you have done wrong.

What they will not realize until it is too late is that the shame they are trying to transfer to you doesn’t hold up as bad behavior. In other words, there is no way that they or anyone could explain why these qualities are shameful. When you use this phrase you will be setting them up for a fall. And when they find that they can’t tell you what you should be ashamed of, they will find themselves having to either admit they were wrong or dropping the subject entirely.

To demonstrate how easy it is to stop displacement of shame, let’s go through the list we used earlier of common qualities that people use to displace shame onto others. As you read through the list, you can simply imagine the person attempting to make you feel ashamed for these qualities trying to come up with reasons that they are shameful.

You will find that none of these qualities could ever be related to any kind of immoral or unethical or even rude behavior that we could categorize as shameful. Neither could any of them be construed to represent harm to another person in any way or to take away someone’s freedoms. This is simply a list of qualities that people who are insecure are afraid will will keep them from fitting in.

Not being as good at socializing as others.
Not being as well-dressed as others.
Not being as smart as others.
Not having as much money as others.
Not being as competent as others.
Not having the same body size as others.
Not having the same possessions as others.

Now let’s try the sentence out. You will be stopping another person from displacing shame onto you by getting them to tell you what is shameful about those qualities. But in order to bypass the defense mechanism you will be using the phrase from the Nicola Method:

“It seems like you thought I should feel ashamed.”

You can make this sentence sound even more natural by adding on whatever the person is trying to make you feel ashamed of to the end of the phrase like this:

It seems like you think I should feel ashamed for not being as good at socializing as others.
It seems like you think I should feel ashamed for not being as well-dressed as others.
It seems like you think I should feel ashamed for not being as smart as others.
It seems like you think I should feel ashamed for not having as much money as others.
It seems like you think I should feel ashamed for not being as competent as others.
It seems like you think I should feel ashamed for not having the same body size as others.
It seems like you think I should feel ashamed for not having the same possessions as others.

If the person tries to keep shaming you after you use the sentence, you can simply continue to ask why they think the behavior is shaming in your own words, like this:

“You really made a fool of yourself at the party. Can’t you even hold a conversation?”
“It seems like you think I should feel ashamed for not being good at socializing as others.”
“Well, I sure would!”
“Why would you feel ashamed at not being good at making conversation?”

If you ask yourself this very pointed question, you will find that there is no valid answer. However, let’s say they continue to try to make you feel ashamed. You can just continue to ask them why they think the behavior is shameful, like this:

“It seems like you think I should feel ashamed for not being social enough.”
“Well, I sure would!”
“Why would a person feel ashamed at not being good at socializing?”
“Why do you think? Because they’re all going to think you are an idiot!”
“Why would not being good at socializing make them think you are an idiot?”

As you can see, there is no legitimate or valid answer to these questions. We can spend as much time as we want trying to think of a reason why any of these behaviors might be considered shameful. There simply aren’t any. These are nothing more than below-the-belt scare tactics used to temporarily knock you off your secure base so another person can feel better about themselves. Once the defensive person finds they cannot justify their reason to punish you, their ability to relieve themselves of their own shame at your expense will fall flat.

Let’s now take a look at how these interventions usually end. Most of the time after you use the Nicola Method phrase, the person will bluff and bluster, eventually finding some way to exit the conversation without looking too foolish rather than admit they are wrong. Here are a few face-saving exit lines you might hear:

“Oh, forget it. I can’t talk to you about anything.”
“I was just kidding. Can’t you take a joke?”
“Well if you don’t get it, I’m not going to try to explain it.”

Using this technique can not only stop a defense mechanism in the moment, but with consistent use can also put an end to the chronic use of shame displacement within any kind of relationship.

In the next installment of this blog series we will be addressing a third level of defense mechanism. We will be exploring what happens when defenses are triggered by humiliation. This final level of defenses is what leads to the behavior pattern we associated with abuse. As with defenses of embarrassment and shame, you will find that in understanding the tactics people use to ward off uncomfortable feelings, you will also understand how easy it is to stop someone from using these defense mechanisms on you.

If you would like to learn the Nicola Method so you can put an end to the high conflict situations you may be experiencing, click on this link to the welcome page of this website where you will find the resources you need.

If you want to try out some of the basic techniques of this method for free to see if this method is right for your situation, you can learn them from an intro guide flip-book here or a PDF version of the intro guide here.

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