What is shame?
We’ve all probably heard the phrase “You should be ashamed of yourself” at some point. But what does it mean to be ashamed? How can you tell if you are experiencing shame and where does it come from? Can you feel too much or too little shame? Can you heal from shame? How is it different from guilt? These are all very good questions but they are not easy to answer because the experience of shame is very complicated.
On a basic level, shame is the underlying and pervasive belief that one is somehow defective or unacceptable. The precise way that a person believes they are unacceptable can be very unique. It might be that they think they are “too much” in some way — too talkative, too shy, too unattractive, or too emotional. It might be that they think they are “not enough” in some way — not smart enough, not funny enough, not thin enough, or not cool enough. Usually, if a person is struggling with an excess of shame, they believe they are defective in many ways. They feel unworthy, unlovable, or “bad.”
Shame is usually accompanied by a physical reaction such as feeling flushed or experiencing physiological reactions from feeling anxious (i.e., stomach upset, nausea). The person who feels ashamed wants to hide from others or keep the thing he or she is ashamed of a secret. The anxiety they feel is related to their fear that they will be found out or exposed. The physical sensation of flushing often comes as a result of their belief that they’ve been “seen” and are being judged.
Shame is a necessary human emotion that helps us develop a moral compass but it can become destructive in our lives. It can lead us to believe that we have to be perfect or else we are not lovable. It can lead us to withdraw from others. It can lead us to be defensive and distant. It can lead us to feel depressed and anxious. It can lead us to be overly responsible and to seek approval excessively. It is often the experience that underlies addiction, infidelity, perfectionism, eating disorders, excessive dependency in relationships, and so many other problematic behaviors.
Just as the experience of shame differs across individuals and families, it can differ across cultures and religions as well. In many groups, there are prescribed behaviors that call upon you to feel ashamed. This can be healthy as it allows people to understand what is morally expected – to learn right from wrong. Shame becomes problematic when it is excessive.
Where does shame come from?
The sources of shame are varied. Some people develop shame as the result of having critical parents who told them – sometimes very directly and sometimes more indirectly – that they were not good enough in some way. Even the most loving parents can sometimes have expectations that leave a child feeling like they can’t measure up. Generally parents who are highly critical, verbally or emotionally abusive, and/or neglectful will raise children who feel they are not OK in some fundamental way. Some people develop shame because of peer interactions or interactions in their houses of worship. Others seem to absorb it through shaming aspects of their culture or in relationships with a shaming partner. Finally, many individuals have the capacity to be quite harsh and self-critical and this promotes a strong and lasting sense of oneself as defective. There is some evidence that there is even a biological predisposition to shame.
How is shame different from guilt?
Shame and guilt can feel very similar but there is a difference. Guilt is usually the sense that you have done something wrong – that you have gone against your moral code in some way. Shame is more the sense that who you are is somehow wrong. At times a person can feel both shame and guilt – either simultaneously or in sequence.
How do I heal from shame?
You can heal from excessive shame. While you would not want to eliminate shame completely from your life, if it is causing you problems you can take steps to feel less shame . Reducing shame in your life will help you feel more confident and genuine.
The first step to moving past shame is to begin to recognize it in your life. Notice when others are shaming you but also notice the ways in which you shame yourself. Do you say things to yourself like:
“That was stupid! I can’t believe you said that!”
“Who would want to talk to you?”
“You look awful today!”
“You’ll never be as good as the other students in this class.”
These are shaming statements. It is important to be able to recognize when someone is shaming toward you but it is also important to recognize that YOU might be the person who shames you the most. One way to think about this is that you must “turn up the volume” on the shaming statements in your life in order to hear them more clearly so you can change them – not so you can listen to them more closely.
It is good also to understand the origins of our shame. Where did your shame originate? How did it start? How do you perpetuate it? Are you trying to stay close to someone who shames you by allowing them to continue shaming you? These are examples of questions we must ask ourselves in order to understand where are shame comes from.
The next step is to develop some compassion for yourself. Find ways to be loving toward you including accepting that you are human and that you have limitations. When you act in ways that you don’t like, be curious about it rather than critical. Instead of saying “Why did you do that?” in a critical way, try to ask the same question with an openness and a curiosity. You will find out much more about yourself by observing and gathering information instead of criticizing. Forgive yourself for your past so that you can move on. It’s crucial to take a stand against shame by not shaming others or yourself. Try to make shaming a behavior that is simply unacceptable. And forbidden. Challenge yourself and others when they are shaming.
Another step toward healing is to begin to act in ways that demonstrate that you are a person of worth and value. Sometimes even if we feel like we are not good enough, we can still operate in the world as if we have worth. This essentially sends a message back to ourselves that counteracts the shame. If we treat ourselves and others with respect, we develop more pride and self-esteem. It is important to be a good advocate for yourself in your journey toward healing from shame.