Shame as a Shield; Pity as a Weapon

Published on March 9th, 2018
Neon sign: "Hurt Me" by Adam Birkett on Unsplash

Imagine a situation as devastating as killing someone that you love. I tend to live a very sheltered life. I also refrain from watching horror movies. Such thoughts like this are not common in my everyday experience. I found myself speechless amidst strangers as a young man told me his story. And it wasn’t just the story that made me tear up. It was the complete lack of emotion in his being as he rattled off the sequence of events as if he was reading a weather report. It was just three months ago that he got his parents (straight-laced, white-collar professionals) hooked on heroin. It was within a month of that they both overdosed on the same night. It was days before Christmas. It was brought up within the first minutes of our conversation.

That day in the methadone clinic was an educational experience that I’ll never forget. While I was only there as support for a family member in need, it opened a door that I can never close. I’ve since spent a considerable amount of time learning about addiction, mental illness, alcoholism, and recovery. For a long time, I thought I was strong enough to support them on their journey while remaining immune to its effects. I was wrong. Addictions can leave a massive trail of devastating in their wake. My friends and family know this now from direct experience. Like many of them, I have started to go to counseling and seek the help of communities like Al-Anon to understand how to navigate these experiences. It’s been a brutal, yet rewarding experience. It takes courage to look at one’s shadow side, speak one’s truth, and walk one’s path. This experience has provided me the gentle nudge to continue that journey.

While I have so much to say on this subject matter, I wanted to share two things that I consider applicable to everyday life. For those wanting to dive deeper into these subjects, I highly recommend Adult Children of Alcoholics and The Sociopath Next Door. Here’s my take.

Shame as a Shield

Shame Kills Poster
Figure Caption: David Coté, from Manchester, New Hampshire, was the winning artist for the 2016 Shame Kills Poster Contest. His work, titled “Out of the Darkness,” adeptly portrays the correlation between shame and substance abuse. Source:

While I am not naive enough to reduce the entire subject matter of addiction down to a single cause or emotion, there is one that bubbles up time and time again as an imprisoning force. Shame. Shame is the emotion the addicts and their family/friends used to beat themselves up mercilessly and to cover up their misgivings. It’s a shield. Shame causes people to isolate themselves while blocking others. Shame causes communication to become dishonest, superficial and cut off. It’s a tragic irony that these effects become a cause to drive the addition. It’s only when the shield of shame can be lowered that the situation can be dealt with, but how terrifying that can be when feeling so, so ashamed.

Pity as a Weapon

“After listening for almost twenty-five years to the stories my patients tell me about sociopaths who have invaded and injured their lives when I am asked, “How can I tell whom not to trust?” the answer I give usually surprises people. The natural expectation is that I will describe some sinister-sounding detail of behavior or snippet of body language or threatening use of language that is the subtle giveaway. Instead, I take people aback by assuring them that the tip-off is none of these things, for none of these things is reliably present. Rather, the best clue is, of all things, the pity play. The most reliable sign, the most universal behavior of unscrupulous people is not directed, as one might imagine, at our fearfulness. It is, perversely, an appeal to our sympathy.” ― Martha Stout, The Sociopath Next Door

If you’re brave enough to try and pierce the walls of shame in someone else, that’s where pity can come into play. It’s important to note that this is not something that is necessarily done consciously or with malicious intent. However, in keeping everyone else in the dark, those experiencing addiction can become master manipulators to the point where they can convince themselves of their contrived reality. When that reality is challenged, they can go on the offensive by pulling the victim card through the use of pity. Pity can be a weapon because we’re biologically wired through our mirror neurons to reflect the emotional state of others. Pity can be a weapon because it is an attempt to use our empathy against us. It’s an appeal to our humanity not to kick someone when they are done, even if the alternative is to enable them by shielding them from accountability.

Pity is my Achilles heel because I hate to see people suffer. Therefore, it takes extra effort for me to both recognize that it’s happening and to hold the line and have the difficult, necessary conversation. It’s not easy, which is why its such an effective weapon to get others to back off.

It’s Not Just Addiction

While addiction provides a clear example of the destructive effects of shame and pity, those with low self-esteem or a poor self-image can equally suffer. Anyone can shame themselves (consciously or unconsciously) to the point where they begin to isolate themselves and stay locked into a pattern. Anyone can use pity as an attempt to deflect away from an uncomfortable conversation.

The goal is not to use this information as a further way to make ourselves feel self-conscious, inferior, broken, etc. It’s to draw our attention and awareness to situations where we are avoiding an opportunity for growth. Therefore, I encourage you to stay mindful of when you or someone else is playing out this pattern. Use that as an opportunity to try and disrupt that pattern by an open, honest, and heartfelt connection. There are no guarantees you will break the cycle, but it might cause enough of a shift to start that transformation.

Disclaimer: I’m not a trained or certified psychotherapist. The information in this article is my experience, and I hope you found it valuable enough to apply to your life. If you need help, I encourage you to see professional help as well as connect with a support group.

Photo by Adam Birkett on Unsplash

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About Rick Manelius

Quick Stats: CTO of Contact Mapping. Author of Winning the Lottery Within. Graduated from MIT in '03 (BS) and '09 (PhD). Life hacker and peak performance enthusiast. This blog is my experiment in creative writing, self-expression, and sharing what I've learned along my journey. For more information, read my full bio here or contact me.