Shame is a wide-spread epidemic and left unaddressed it ruins lives, often for generations, but what if you don’t even realise that shame is at the root of your problems?
I don’t believe that shame is helpful. In fact, shame is more likely to be the source of destructive behaviour than the solution or cure, and it leads us to feel the fear of disconnection which never plays out well in living healthy emotional lives.
What is shame?
Shame is an unpleasant emotion which often stems from a negative evaluation of yourself in which you may experience painful feelings of humiliation or distress and want to withdrawal.
“Shame is the swampland of the soul.”
In ordinary terms, shame can be defined as an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that you are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. And that something we have experienced, done, or failed to do has made us unworthy of connection with others.
Negative self-talk is often shame rearing its ugly head. The critic inside us is fuelled by shame.
Unfortunately, some people are plagued by feelings of shame and it has a severe impact on their quality of life.
Why do we feel shame?
There is no one-thing that causes shame. Shame has many sources. However, those who experience trauma and abuse often experience shame.
Our brains are wired for survival and we create internal stories from things we experience in order to try and process and understand them. Unfortunately, some of us create negative stories which can run on loop and can lead to feeling shame about what we went through.
Childhood sexual abuse is a common cause of shame in adulthood.
Traumatic experiences including rape, sexual assault, domestic abuse, and gaslighting can all lead to shame.
Shame is also common among people with mental health diagnoses such as body dysmorphia, or obsessive compulsive disorder.
With mental health conditions remaining stigmatised, a person experiencing shame due to a mental health condition may become more ashamed of themselves and their condition, making it difficult to seek help.
Unresolved shame can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and suicide so it’s important to speak out and take steps to heal any emotional pain you’re suffering.
Although a person can be shamed by others, or society in general, shame is mostly experienced secretly.
Shaming is an attempt to make another person feel bad and targets who a person is, not what they have done, for instance, telling a child they are bad is an act of shaming. Social shaming can also be experienced due to religious or cultural norms, or because of law breaking or perceived moral injustice, for example infidelity.
How does shame affects us?
Research consistently shows that shame can have catastrophic effects on mental health, physical health, happiness, and wellbeing.
People who readily feel shame are at high risk for depression and anxiety disorders, and feelings of shame have been linked to suicidal thoughts and actions.
People experiencing shame are often struck by the overwhelming belief that they are somehow bad, unlovable, unworthy, or just not enough. And that shame can be paralysing.
Living with shame can be painful and difficult, as it can prevent people from meeting their core human needs, self-esteem, hope for the future, productivity, friendships, intimacy, and love.
Some people are conscious of their feelings of shame, others may be unaware and hide it under destructive behaviours such as addiction, violence, bullying, narcissism, self-harm or eating disorders.
Shame stemming from childhood can last a lifetime if never resolved.
Shame may also deter people from seeking treatment for mental health issues or the negative consequences that they experience.
Studies on shame consistently find that this emotion plays a role in suicide.
People who experience feelings of guilt can often take action to overcome their guilt, such as apologising to anyone that their actions hurt. Likewise, embarrassment is often a temporary state of mind that passes. But shame fundamentally affects a person’s sense of their ‘self’ potentially triggering or worsening suicidal thoughts.
The fear of shame can hide behind perfectionism, as we believe it will protect us from criticism and judgement.
Does shame affect men and women the same?
Shame can feel the same for men and women, but they tend to experience it differently.
Researcher and author Brené Brown says that for women, shame is ‘”do it all, do it perfectly, and never let them see you break a sweat” – it’s about unobtainable, conflicting views, about who we’re supposed to be.
Whereas for men, shame is perceived as “do not be seen as weak”.
Women are also quicker to feel humiliated than men, and children and teenagers feel shame more intensely than adults do. As a result, women and children are more susceptible to the negative effects of shame, such as low self-esteem and depression.
How can we move past shame?
You can’t always get rid of shame but you can develop resilience to it.
We need to challenge the narrative of the stories we tell ourselves and move through shame with self-compassion and empathy.
Shame thrives with judgement, so if you’re feeling unworthy, you need to talk to yourself like you would someone you love. Don’t tell yourself you’re stupid for small things like misplacing your keys. Think about what you would say to your best friend in the same situation.
Secrecy also intensifies shame and it can overwhelm your life unless you release it. Reach out and share with someone you trust, or a therapist.
Have the courage to tell your story or read books of others who have shared vulnerably.
“It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get back up”
Shame can lead to self-sabotage and always imagining the worst outcome which saves us from feeling disappointed when things go wrong. It seems like it would protect us, but the walls we build around us for protection don’t actually help us at all.
Learn to respond to yourself with compassion, do things that bring you joy, and practise self-care.
Can therapy help with shame?
Living with shame can be lonely and demoralising.
Therapy can help by both addressing the underlying cause and helping you reframe the experiences you’ve been through.
Some people suffer in silence for years, and unfortunately this can lead to shame completely overcoming their state of mind, resulting in difficulties with mental health.
Professional counselling can help you identify where your reactions are coming from, break free from your old patterns of thinking, and help you move forward in all areas of your life.
If you’d like to book a confidential counselling session, please do contact me.