Up and Down the Social Totem Pole:
Or how to manage shame and its social anxiety side-effects
By Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling
Copyright © Jim Byrne, 2021
Sometimes you feel good about yourself, and sometimes you feel low self-esteem, low self-efficacy, poor self-confidence, and perhaps even self-hatred or self-disgust. How does this flip-flop work, and how did it begin? This book will explain how you have an imaginary totem pole in your head, on which you place yourself, for reasons that are beyond your conscious recall. As you move up and down that pole, your moods and emotions are positively and negatively affected.
It seems shame is strongly implicated in many cases of social anxiety; or of low self-esteem and lack of self-confidence; plus some cases of public performance anxiety, and feelings of inferiority, or imposter syndrome.
This book will teach you how the social totem pole was constructed in your mind; who did it to you; and how to reverse its damaging effects. Now you can feel good about yourself most of the time, which will enhance your happiness and self-confidence, as well as your social connections and your fearlessness in the face of social stressors.
This book has five key chapters as follows:
Chapter 1 begins like this:
Chapter 1: Defining shame, and distinguishing moral rules from competence rules
“Shame is an incredibly inarticulate emotion. It’s something you bathe in, it’s not something you wax eloquent about. It’s such a deep, dark, ugly thing there are very few words for it”.
Quoted by Jon Ronson’s book: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, 2016.
I want to begin this chapter with the simplest kinds of definitions of shame, so that we are clear what we are talking about.
Then we can move on to look at the ways in which shame can be triggered by breaches of moral rules; and/ or by public performance failings, or visible incompetent actions or judgements.
Then I will present four supported writing therapy exercises for shame, to help the reader to learn the lessons of this chapter, and get them into long-term memory. Those exercises will help you to know how to give up feeling shamed by socially awkward, clumsy or incompetent actions.
…End of chapter extract.
Chapter 2 begins like this:
Chapter 2: Beyond the Cognitive and Rational Perspective on Shame
So we now have the beginnings of an understanding of shame, which helps us to distinguish between;
– 1. Shame as a moral emotion – which is a good and helpful guide to socially viable moral actions. And:
– 2. Shame as a feeling of social discomfort and embarrassment and a sense of ego-deflation (or self-implosion), based on feeling that one has been observed to have broken one or more of a set of social rules (which are not strictly about morality, in that they do not have to involve harming or not harming another person.)
We also have the distinction between “innate shame” and “socialized shame”. That is to say,
– 3. Shame begins as a pre-verbal affective (feeling) state of physical and mental de-arousal, or deflation – in young infants – which is aversive and painful – and…
– (a) This innate sense of shame can (if moderate) be developed into both a moral emotion, and/or a general non-moral guide to how to act successfully in social relationships and social life. But…
– (b) If it is immoderate (or extreme) it can cause a form of pathological shame, or traumatic shame; extreme shyness; problems with blushing; social timidity; and low self-esteem; etc.
1. Beyond the cognitive perspective
End of chapter extract…
Chapter 3 starts as follows:
Chapter 3: From self-rejection to one-conditional self-acceptance
In E-CENT counselling theory and practice, we teach that it is okay to let ourselves and other people off the hook when we or they behave ineffectively or inefficiently in relation to our personal effectiveness issues, or practical goals and actions in the world. That is to say, we should not feel guilt or shame about our inefficiency or ineffectiveness; nor about other people’s non-moral social judgements about us! However, it is quite another matter to say, as Albert Ellis (the founder of rational therapy) said: “Even if you kill a few people, that (action) will not make you bad”. (But, of course, it will! It will make you a dangerous murderer; and a criminal!)
And Ellis explicitly said that we should offer unconditional acceptance to Adolf Hitler. Erwin (1997) argues against this position, using the illustration of how to evaluate Himmler (one of Hitler’s right-hand men). Edward Erwin insisted that Himmler should not be told he can accept himself unconditionally.
Instead, Erwin argues, “Even if it would make Himmler extremely happy and neurosis-free, he still should not have engaged in self-acceptance if doing so encouraged him to continue as before (in terms of his crimes – JB).
“There are other things to consider besides Himmler’s happiness and freedom from neurosis.” (Erwin, 1997: page 108). And those ‘other things’ include moral and legal issues, which are ignored by Ellis (and Rogers and Stevens).
So we must each make sure we practice being moral citizens. But we reject un-conditional self-acceptance and unconditional positive regard, and substitute one-conditional acceptance. In this chapter I want to teach you how to increase your general level of self-acceptance and self-regard, without becoming an immoral louse!
About Chapter 4:
Chapter 4: The Bad Inner Critic
Trauma victims are often very harsh in their judgements of themselves. They take this harshness over from their abusers or victimizers.
We each have a legitimate (Good) Inner Critic (or conscience, super-ego, or Parent ego state) which helps us to stay on the moral and legal straight and narrow path through life.
But we each also have an illegitimate, unjustified, and damaging (Bad) Inner Critic, which is based on an excessively harsh conscience; or self-hatred; internalized from others.
I call the legitimate (Good) Inner Critic your “Good Wolf” state, after the traditional view of the Native American Cherokee people. They believed that we each have a war going on inside of us, between two Wolves; a Good Wolf and a Bad Wolf; and that the Wolf that wins is the one we feed. So we need to make sure we feed our moral, loving, kind, compassionate, charitable, but also self-assertive Good Wolf; and to starve our immoral, hateful, hurtful and aggressive Bad Wolf. (This has echoes of the European Christian view of the inner states of (1) sin [the Devil], and (2) the state of grace [or the indwelling Holy Spirit]. It also has echoes of Sigmund Freud’s distinction between the inner urges he called Thanatos [the Death urge] and Eros [the Love/Life urge]).
So our ‘Inner Critic’ ranges from moderate and moral – (which is the Good Wolf state) – to harsh and immoral (which is the Bad Wold state).
Therefore, our Inner Critic can be justified or unjustified. (The only cases where it is justified all have to do with legitimate transgressions of moral rules or justified laws (or health and safety issues).
The inner critic is not justified in criticizing harshly your efficiency or effectiveness, or general judgements in life.
It also is not justified in blaming you for being victimized; or describing you as worthless or ugly, etc.
When we harshly criticize ourselves, and put ourselves down – especially when the criticism is unjustified, exaggerated or inappropriate – this damages our sense of self-esteem and self-confidence; and makes us miserably unhappy.
Our Good and Bad Inner Critics come, in the first place, from our parents; and can then be augmented by our siblings, teachers, school peers, our non-family abusers, and so on.
Individual children who are heavily criticized by their parents tend to internalize those criticisms and make them their own. The resulting “Inner Critic”, which is a part of their brain-mind, constantly puts them down, or shames them, when they perform less than perfectly. This is the Bad Inner Critic, or Bad Wolf state.
How to escape from the hex of the Bad Inner Critic? That is what we will discuss next…
…End of extract.
 Ronson, J. (2016). So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. London: Picador.
 Let’s define the word ‘cognitive’, which most ‘cognitivists’ fail to do. If you look up a textbook of Cognitive Psychology* – such as Eysenck and Keane, (2001) – you will find that cognitive psychology mainly deals with the mental functions of: Attention, perception, memory, language, and thinking. In recent years they have added an afterthought-chapter on Emotion; but cognitive psychology (following behaviourism) skied away from dealing with human emotions for decades, because of the “difficulty” of exploring emotions “scientifically” (as in the use of lab animals). When used as a shorthand term, “cognitive” most often means “thinking” as opposed to “feeling”.
* Reference for Eysenck and Keane (2001) – Eysenck, M.W. and Keane, M.T. (2000) Cognitive Psychology: A student’s Handbook. Fourth edition. East Sussex: Psychology Press.
 Eysenck, M. W. and Keane, M. T. (2001) Cognitive Psychology: A student’s handbook. Hove, East Sussex: Psychology Press.
 In Affect Regulation Theory (as developed by Dr Allan Schore, (1994, 2003)**, shame is an innate affect which is then socially-shaped into a higher-cognitive emotion.
** Reference for Schore (1994, 2003) – Schore, A.N. (2003) Affect regulation and the repair of the self. New York: Norton.
Schore, A.N. (2015) Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development. London: Routledge.