According to Brene Brown, a brilliant social worker and shame-researcher, “shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance or belonging.” It can be crippling and cause us to feel self-loathing, loneliness, and despair. When we’re stuck in shame, we generally don’t feel motivated to make changes, but instead, focus on our many short-comings. It’s heavy, to say the least. And sometimes we carry our shame with us for years. We might reflect on an experience from when we were ten-years old and still feel an overwhelming desire to hide or to be someone else.
Shame and guilt are often used interchangeably, but there is a fundamental, and important difference between them. To put it simply, shame is “I am bad,” while guilt means “I did something bad.” When we experience guilt in a healthy manner (yes, unhealthy guilt exists, Check out Guilt Gone Wrong for more on that) we’re able to recognize a mistake we made, make repairs, and move on. Shame on the other hand often lingers, sometimes for days, months, or even years. We don’t view our actions as the problem, but ourselves. We made the mistake because we are bad, wrong, flawed, etc. While guilt can propel us to make changes and connect with others, shame can often be paralyzing. When we believe we are truly flawed, we often want to hide this from others. It can make us believe that if people knew who we truly were, they would not accept or love us anymore. And from here, shame grows.
Aside from being painful to experience, shame can have a negative impact on many parts of our lives. It can affect our ability to form healthy relationships or stand-up for ourselves. People who experience frequent shame may find it difficult to accept love and praise from others, because they feel unworthy. They may also find themselves stuck in toxic or abusive relationships, feeling certain that they deserve the abuse or poor treatment from others. It can impact self-worth, prevent personal growth, or lead to isolation. Shame can also be connected with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental health concerns.
Unfortunately, shame is universal and unavoidable. Even when we know about shame, we can’t stop it from happening to us. But we can address it in a way that prevents it from growing into something toxic.
4 Ways to combat Shame:
Increase Awareness: The first step to combating shame is recognizing that you are experiencing it. If we don’t know we’re in a shame cycle, there is no way to combat it. So, get familiar with what shame feels like to you. Notice what you experience emotionally, physically, and what thoughts go on in your head. There may also be certain situations or people that frequently trigger shame for you - take note of those. Use that awareness to catch shame as it’s happening.
Talk about it: Often when we feel shame the last thing we want to do is tell someone what happened to make us feel that way. Sharing shame can feel counterintuitive, and intensely vulnerable. But we have to talk about it. Shame thrives on secrecy. When we hide our shame, it has more control over our lives. If we are able to recognize it, acknowledge it, and then talk about it, we’re taking back the power. We’ve kicked shame out of the driver's seat and we’re driving the car. One thing to consider when talking about shame, is who you are sharing it with. It’s important that we pick someone in our life that we can trust and who is capable of being empathetic. Sharing shame with someone who often shames you can just intensify the feeling. Understand that not everyone has the ability to connect with you in this way.
Connect with others: When we share our shame with the right people, they often are able to normalize the experience and connect with us. By sharing things we feel ashamed of, it opens up the door for others to do the same, and those very vulnerable conversations bring us closer together. Recently a friend told me she talked to her family about attending therapy. Prior to talking to them, she felt concerned about what her family would think of her going to therapy and if they would judge her for her mental health concerns. Her family members responded in a warm and encouraging way, they praised her bravery for sharing, and one shared that she had also attended therapy in the past for her own mental health concerns. My friend left this experience feeling more connected to her family and without shame. By sharing it, she realized that the thing she was feeling so much shame about didn’t actually impact how others viewed her. They still accepted and loved her.
Practice Self-compassion: Since shame is the experiencing of believing we are unworthy or flawed, there can often be negative self-talk that accompanies it. By noticing our thoughts and changing how we talk to ourselves, we can start to relieve some of the pain associated with shame. For example, if someone’s boss gives them constructive feedback about their work, a person experiencing shame might think “I’m terrible at my job and my boss knows I’m incapable. What’s wrong with me that others can succeed here but I can’t.” To practice self-compassion, the person might reframe their thoughts by remembering positive feedback they’ve gotten, listing successes they’ve had at work, or reminding themselves that everyone has room to grow and constructive feedback does not mean failure. Notice when you’re holding yourself to too high of standards, and give yourself permission to be human. A helpful thing you can ask yourself is - “what would l tell a friend in this situation?” We tend to be better at responding compassionately to our friends and family than we are to ourselves.
Although shame can feel paralyzing at times, it’s encouraging to know there are tools we can use to challenge it. Shame doesn’t have to rule our lives! And while applying these tools may be adequate for some, others may find they need a little more guidance to address their shame cycle. Life experiences, how we were raised, our personalities, and mental health concerns can all impact how frequently we feel shame and our ability to move through it. There is no shame in seeking therapy for shame!