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Life Beyond Shame: Rewriting the Rules

Life Beyond Shame: Rewriting the Rules

by Connie Dawson Ph.D.

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We've lived for eons with a set of rules guiding how we have relationships with one another.

These Old Rules have, without question, been inadvertently passed, without examination, from generation to generation by our families. It's past time to expose them to the light of day.

Why? Together, these Old Rules create a toxic environment we accept as


We've lived for eons with a set of rules guiding how we have relationships with one another.

These Old Rules have, without question, been inadvertently passed, without examination, from generation to generation by our families. It's past time to expose them to the light of day.

Why? Together, these Old Rules create a toxic environment we accept as inviolate. We struggle against others and against ourselves, not realizing that the shame-based Old Rules hold us back from being who we are meant to be and doing what we are meant to do.

When feelings of undeserved shame (something is wrong with us) become part of how we think of ourselves, two things are true: 1) our true selves become more defended and less available to ourselves and others, and 2) we become more easily manipulated to serve someone else's needs in ways that are not in our best interests.

That sense of shame and the Old Rules reinforce each other. One look at them and it's easy to see how they make it difficult to have healthy relationships. They are definitely not conducive to happiness. We know better. We just need to know how to do better, one rule at a time.

Unmasking and replacing Old Rules with even one of the New Rules begins to change everything

Change the rules, change the game.

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Balboa Press
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Life Beyond Shame: Rewriting the Rules

By Connie Dawson

Balboa Press

Copyright © 2016 Connie Dawson Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5043-4460-9



I am not bound to win but I am bound to be true; I am not bound to succeed but I am bound to live up to what light I have.

Abraham Lincoln

Years ago I was visiting friends who lived thirty or so miles from the southern California coast. I looked to the west one morning and saw a nasty, deep greenish-brown layer between earth and sky that stretched over where Los Angeles could be. With a mix of shock and amazement, I blurted out, "Look over there!"

"Oh, yeah." My host seemed singularly unconcerned. "Looks bad today. But today is a good day. It's not so good when you can't see it, because then you know you're in it."

This book is about something as toxic as smog. It's a colorless, shapeless shroud that covers our eyes and holds us back from seeing what we see and knowing what we know. A murky layer that has a way of binding us up and keeping us from becoming the persons we were created to be.

What is this shroud? It's a set of rules based on shame that are common to most of us and largely determine what we believe about ourselves. As if that weren't enough, these rules govern how we interact in most, if not all, our relationships. These rules invite us to be fearful of being excluded at any moment, afraid we aren't good enough. And they invite us to fear being loved.

These shame rules are anchored by our learned, internalized sense of shame. This sense has us feeling so uncertain about who we are that we become outer-focused, that is, looking outside of ourselves for clues as to how we can be okay. What will my spouse think? What will my boss think? What will the neighbors think? Those of us who grew up amidst the shame-based rules are hugely vulnerable to being manipulated. Why? Because we've learned we shouldn't trust ourselves.

I heard or read a definition of shame a long time ago and haven't been able to find it written anywhere since. Attributed to philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, this short and salient definition of shame makes the most sense to me. Shame is the Self looking at the Self and finding that Self defective.

In this book, the words shame and humiliation are used interchangeably. However, it is possible to draw a distinction between the two. Shame is largely an individually-felt and privately-held belief that there's something wrong with one's core self. Shame is associated with personal feelings of not -enoughness, failure, inadequacy, wrongness, badness. I have used the word shame as both a noun and a verb. His shame was unearned or He was shamed unmerifully.

Humiliation, on the other hand, can be thought of as putting individuals or groups of people in a lesser place, or "in the dirt." Humiliation works better if the person or group being humiliated already believes in their defectiveness.

Humiliation, then, is a word used to signal a strategy that has one person or group getting their needs met at the expense of another person or group by impugning their worth and dignity as human beings.

Nevertheless, shame seems to be one's personal assessment of one's very being as faulty. Imperfect. Incomplete. These findings have a way of making us feel uncertain and insecure. We think if we make a mistake, others will see our defectiveness. The Other, all Others, will see we're not good enough. Even when we are trying hard to be right and do right, we seem, somehow, to fall short. "Shame on me." So we try to fit in where we can and do the best we can.

In many families, the rules that guide the relationships in the family are themselves, supposed to remain secret. They are not to be named, discussed, or negotiated. Therefore, they are never posted on refrigerators or bulletin boards for all to see. They are implicit, covert, and powerful. As such, they can be changed on a dime when it suits whoever's in charge. Keeping the rules "unknown" and fluid is a way for a family member or boss who wants the upper hand to maintain it.

How is it that we don't recognize the toxic effects of the rules? Because we've been marinating in them all the time we've existed. I have not met many families where the rules aren't unintentionally in effect. I say unintentionally because the rules are passed from one generation to another. They are as natural to us as breathing.

This doesn't stop with our families. As we move into the wider world, we take our assumptions and boundaries set by the rules with us to school, to the workplace, into politics and into other institutions in our cultures. We are only human, after all. We do what we know.

This book is intended to be more practical than theoretical. Knowing how to recognize shame in action is the first thing. Who wants to describe the river of sludge in which we float without some ways to get to the shore? There's a whole lot of that in this book. In fact, making the shift to new rules isn't nearly as hard as living by the old ones. There's nothing quite like the feeling of personal power we can find on the firm footing of the shore. And nothing to replace the pride of getting there.

The first chapter is devoted to thinking about how a system of rules works. The second chapter presents a way to think and talk about shame as it applies to everyday life. Both chapters lay a foundation for understanding why the shame rules work the way they do. Here's what you'll find in the next seven rules chapters:

What? The meaning of the rule in a system based on shame

So what? The effects of the rule on self-esteem and relationships

Now what? Tips for putting a non-shaming new rule into practice

The stories throughout the book are true or based on true stories told to me.

The ending chapters encourage us to put our feet on a shame -free path.

I'm hoping you're ready to remove the shroud that may imprison you in so many ways. I'm hoping this may be just the right time to take a good long look at the shame-based rules to see how they are, or are not, working to help you create the best life you can. I'm hoping we're all ready to experience joy and pride more genuinely and deeply.

Allow beauty to shatter you regularly. The loveliest people are the ones who have been burnt and broken and torn at the seams, yet still send their open hearts into the world to mend with love again, and again, and again. You must allow yourself to feel your life while you're in it.

Victoria Erikson



First things first.

Know the rules so you may break them properly.

Dalai Lama

The seven shame-based rules have been around for a very long time. They were developed over thousands of years and may have been necessary in the beginning to keep people safe. A lot has changed in the past few centuries and the rules have outworn their usefulness. Contemporary cultures lean more toward valuing equality and respect in relationships rather than maintaining unquestioned allegiance to a leader who promises to provide safety.

Shame rules seem to predominate in cultures where control and power over others is of higher value than the people themselves. In fact, there's a long history of using shame to gain control over others. For instance, a culture of rule by personal attack (bullying in its many forms) is meant to coerce compliance to the will of others by means of humiliation. I'm better, you're worse. I know and you don't. I win, you lose. I am powerful, you are not.

In brief, the seven rules are:

One: Do and be right. It's a good goal, but is it possible for a human being to be perfect? To never make mistakes? No. Rigid adherence to this primary rule excludes most learning.

Two: Blame. If you are found to have made a mistake or failed to live up to being perfect, move the spotlight elsewhere so your peerceived defectiveness won't be seen.

Three : Ignore feelings. A person would have to be dead–or deadened in order not to feel. Feelings can be denied but they never go away. Not acknowledging their information is tantamount to overriding the best survival mechanism ever devised.

Four: Keep secrets. Withholding information or lying throws suspicion and uncertainty into human relationships. Secrets foster separation, not connection. Secrets eat away at self-respect.

Five: Be unclear and unaccountable. Who recommends not being accountable and not expecting accountability from others? It's stressful and inhumane to have to live with others you can't count on. And it's disrespectful and even life-threatening to not be accountable for the agreements we've made.

Six: Be in control. Being in control is perhaps life's most basic survival issue we're called upon to negotiate. We must find ways to be in control of getting what we need. Being desperate for control is usually based on the fear of not having any. The control dilemma: there's a lot in life that is beyond our ability to control.

Seven: Deny reality. This is the coup de grâce, the final insult. It distorts whatever is true in our realities. It makes us feel crazy by telling us that red is blue and doing it so convincingly that we think the other might be right! It makes us forever question ourselves. Denial of reality is the essence of confusion.

All these rules are inhumane because they can't possibly be carried out without causing damage to human beings. From now on, I will refer to them as the Old Rules.

The Power of a System

The power of the rules lies in the way they work together to govern the interactions we have with one another. A system is composed of connected and interacting parts. A system as a whole cannot be understood by looking at a single part. What might look like an impossible system of rules to figure out, actually isn't once we can see the parts (each rule) for what it is. Each rule works in concert with the others. Here's an example.

Bright and capable college student Terry earns an F in English for not turning in the major paper for the semester. Wanting to hide this fact, even from himself, he finds a way to blame his poor judgment or failure on absolutely anyone or anything. "The computer ate my course outline." "I've been so busy and that instructor expects too much." But one thing affects another. Terry doesn't tell a soul about his grade. He's afraid someone will expose his secret, which someone does, "forcing" Terry into lying more.

Terry regrets getting himself in this position. We can all finish Terry's story, including the impact on his sense of accountability, the twists and turns he made in his effort to control the situation, and the effort it took to keep denying what really might be going on, which loops back to why he didn't get the paper done in the first place.

The point of the story: The Old Rules are geared toward not solving a problem or they help protect those who fear not knowing how to solve a problem. They are woven together in such a way that each rule is intertwined with the others. The rules operate independently, but their interconnections augment their power. Diagnosing a problem and getting through the system to the core of it can be daunting, because each rule is so crucially enmeshed with the others.

There's an interesting feature about a system of parts. Given that each part contributes to and supports the system, changing even one part tends to throw the carefully balanced system out of balance. Out of balance, that is, until the system's parts have time to re-balance themselves, for the rule system, like a family system, strives for some kind of stability.

If Terry were to take responsibility for his grade, he wouldn't need to lie to himself. If he took control where he had it, blaming would be unnecessary. If he were to replace hiding his grade with being truthful about it, he might feel a sense of personal power. Taking any one of these options would result in shifting the whole situation.

The Pervasiveness of the Old Rules

There aren't many among us who haven't also experienced the negative consequences of the shame rules system, yet we seem bound to live within them, to one degree or another. Why? It's what is natural to us, because we grew up learning these rules in our families. It is there that we develop our identities and learn how to relate to one another. We take that learning and our expectations of what life holds for us into our subsequent relationships. The family is the vehicle for the transmission of these cultural norms from one generation to the next.

Our parents meant us no harm. They learned the rules in their families, and so on, back for who knows how long. Nevertheless, the shame-based rules have become a plank in the floor of our understanding about how relationships are supposed to work.

It is inevitable that we would learn to play by the rules for they are not only taught by parents. Teachers, employers, and just about everyone else uses them, too. They meant us no harm either. They were all just passing on the rules they learned from their parents, teachers, employers, and just about everyone else. We're all in this game, and most of us play by rote, because everyone else is playing by rote, too.

What Rules are Supposed to Do

Consider the purpose of rules. Rules provide for safety. Rules guide behavior. Rules and laws are meant to keep life and lives from descending into chaos and cruelty. Road rules, tax rules, property rules, employment rules, moral rules. All are written down somewhere–in constitutions and contracts, in the Bible or Quran, in manuals and codes.

Rules literally draw the line. They define the boundaries between what's helpful and what's hurtful. When they're clear and written down, they can be put on the table for discussion, where they can be re-negotiated if they aren't working to keep people safe and life fair–or as fair as possible.

We each decide when we'll get out of bed in the morning. That's a personal rule that puts a boundary on our activity. Maybe we prefer eating protein for breakfast and avoiding a gooey caramel roll, so even though we'd love the roll, we eat eggs. That's a rule, or boundary, we've set based on what we believe is good for us and not good for us. Here's another example for yourselves: What line have you drawn about being at work on time? Is it okay to be 10 minutes late? Is it not okay to be 15 minutes late? Is it good for you to be late at all? You draw boundaries all the time. The boundaries are your personal rules and form a container within and from which you conduct life's business. Rules are inevitably made for protection and safety.

Out of understanding comes every form of love.

Sherwin Newland



The divine music is incessantly going on within ourselves, but the loud senses drown the delicate music, which is unlike and infinitely superior to anything we can perceive with the senses.

Mahatma Gandhi

Because we unconsciously and fiercely defend our shame from being seen by others, we do all we can to defend ourselves from exposure. As noted earlier, Sartre described shame as "the Self looking at the Self and finding that Self defective." And we don't want anyone else to see that defectiveness. We believe that whatever it is that's wrong or that isn't right with us, if seen, will cause others to run the other way.

It is that part in each of us that we don't want anyone to know, the part we believe is shameful, which enables the Old Rules system to work. By hooking the shame we carry, others can control us, for shame has a way of shutting people down. We are thus vulnerable to being manipulated or coerced into situations and into being with people who aren't good for our mental and physical health. What does shame look like? The classic physical look of shame is droopiness, head down, eyes averted, appearing to be vacant, frozen. But there's so much more. There are the defenses we use to keep from being seen as defective.

Rage, Contempt and Perfectionism

One response to having our shame exposed is rage, especially the rage that seems much stronger than whatever triggered it. This rage is sometimes camouflaged and sometimes not. The rage is intended to have others keep their distance. Don't tread on me! Don't see (what I fear is) the real me. I am bad. Don't touch me!

Still others may respond to exposure with contempt for the one who gets too close, who might see too much. Contempt is when we literally turn away from being seen. I will turn my back on you. You are inferior and not worth my time. I will turn away from you. You are not important to me. Contempt is a harsh and often a silent way to cut off an interaction. It's a clever, if confusing, attempt for one person to offload the unwanted part of herself onto another person, thereby blaming the other person for the cut-off. It's your fault I'll have nothing to do with you. You're not worth my attention. Meaning emotional distance is my friend.


Excerpted from Life Beyond Shame: Rewriting the Rules by Connie Dawson. Copyright © 2016 Connie Dawson Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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