The effects of shame

September 27 2023

Shame is an emotion of many layers and can often sit behind and drive other emotions, without us realising it.

We have all experienced the highly unpleasant emotions of shame, that sense of something dishonourable, immodest, or improper in one’s own conduct or circumstances and how truly rotten we felt. It is one of those emotions that, left unmanaged, can grow and overwhelm us in many ways, affecting our wellbeing and getting in the way of living the life that we want.

The therapist Andrea Brandt shares in the journal Psychology Today nine things you need to know about shame and some tips for how to feel it less.

1. Shame and guilt are different emotions
You feel guilty when you think you’ve done something wrong, but you feel shame when you believe that you are wrong. While guilt arises when you have made a mistake and can fix it, shame develops when you see yourself as the mistake. The critic inside your head tells you that you are a bad person, wrong or worthless.

2. Shame has an evolutionary origin
We can see evidence of shame in human babies and close relatives of humans, such as apes. This may be because shame plays a part in the long-term survival of our and other species. It makes us behave in ways that allow us to co-exist with others, and it makes us adhere to cultural norms and follow laws. In that way, shame isn’t always a bad thing. Shame can make us humble and it can teach us about boundaries. Without healthy shame, we would have no way to understand how our behaviour affects others, and manage it.

3. Shame can begin in childhood
The harmful form of shame can begin when we’re very young. Children are less adept at separating feelings from self-image—so when you experience bad feelings as a child, you may come to believe that you are bad, feeling shame about the way you feel, and shame about your insecurity and confusion over how to express it.

4. Shame has warning signs
There are many signs that you are experiencing shame. For example, when someone brings up something you feel ashamed about, you may look down and avoid eye contact, talk in a soft voice, and suddenly feel like you can’t move. You may hate doing things spontaneously and like to plan and prepare, sometimes to the point that you do nothing at all. You are afraid of looking stupid or saying the wrong thing, so you don’t try new things and don’t speak up. You avoid being the centre of attention and wish you could shrink into the walls. Shame makes you feel like you can’t be your true self and that your true self is inadequate.

5. There are many types of shame
There are many types of shame, including shame when you fail at something you think you should be good at, shame when you make a mistake in front of others, shame when you feel left out of a group you want to be in, and internalised shame after abuse or other trauma.

6. Shame can lead to other negative emotions
Shame can be a major source of anger, depression and anxiety. When you harbour shame, you may tend to react defensively when anyone criticises you or gives you the mildest feedback. Your anger is an attempt to cover up your shame and divert attention away from your painful buried feelings. Shame can make you feel worthless, hyper-sensitive, and give you social anxiety. Shame can lead you to feel empty and lonely.

7. Shame can negatively affect your relationships
The hallmarks of shame are hiding and secrecy, two things that are terrible for relationships. If you’re in a romantic relationship, you may feel easily judged by your partner, and you might lash out in anger or express your anger through passive-aggressive behaviours. Shame can make it harder for you to trust your partner, or it may make you not want to go out and meet a potential partner at all.

8. Shame can harm your physical health
Shame can lead to high blood pressure, stomach problems, insomnia, alcohol or narcotics addiction, and disordered eating. One study determined that external shame—the fear that others are judging us negatively—is associated with anorexia, while internal shame—our negative self-evaluation and self-generated criticism—is associated with bulimia¹.

9. There is a cure for shame
When you have a caring person to share your shameful and otherwise painful stories with, you will be able to fully express yourself and finally release the old, stored, toxic feelings that have been weighing you down. Free of those, you can shift your beliefs about yourself and stop seeing yourself as bad or wrong. The change you will feel is profound.

Shame can create a vicious cycle. You behave in a way, or something happens, that makes you feel ashamed, then you do things to cover up your feelings, which leads you to feel even more ashamed. You shove your shame deep into your bottomless bag of emotions, and you pile on top depression, anxiety, anger, and more shame.

Your psyche knows how to heal your emotional wounds the same way that your body knows how to heal your physical wounds after you cut yourself shaving or skin your knee when you trip. However, that healing process cannot begin when you stuff shame away in your bag of unwanted emotions. Your shame will continue to emerge and cause you pain—trying to get your attention—until you resolve it. Shame may be a natural and sometimes helpful emotion, but it doesn’t have to rule—or ruin—your life.

Taken from this article at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/mindful-anger/202111/9-things-you-need-know-about-shame

Findings

Helping to identify when we feel shame can help us to take the time to sit and process the emotion. Getting into a good habit of taking time out to fully feel and process emotion can help you in all aspects of your life/wellbeing. It can take some getting used to if you are not in the habit of doing this and you may need support to begin with, but here are some quick tips for sitting with emotion:

  • Let it be messy. It’s okay to cry and shout and scream in a safe space where you won’t feel judged
  • If letting your emotions in feels too scary, prepare a list of coping strategies you can use if you start to feel overwhelmed. Mindfulness, breathing and grounding exercises or cold water immersion are all good options for keeping you in the present
  • Take baby steps. It is ok to feel your emotion in ‘short visits’ before you trust yourself to feel your emotion for an extended period
  • There’s no ‘right’ way to feel your emotions. You might cry for ten seconds then feel totally fine, or you might cycle through several emotions simultaneously and find yourself laughing several minutes later
  • All feelings are valid; they may not necessarily be rational but that’s ok
  • Work with a therapist on increasing your ability to feel safe in feeling your emotions

Emotions are there to be felt. Understanding the biological and evolutionary reason behind why we feel emotions so strongly, as outlined above, can also help to distance yourself from overwhelming sense of shame if it arrives. Instead, we can see it as a normal part of life that just wants to be processed if we allow it to, rather than anything that needs to deeply affect our wellbeing.

¹Troop, N. A., Allan, S., Serpell, L., & Treasure, J. L. (2008). Shame in women with a history of eating disorders. European Eating Disorders Review, 16(6), 480–488. https://doi.org/10.1002/erv.858

 

Emma Browning, our Pastoral and Wellbeing Lead at Livability Millie College. Emma has supported people to improve their wellbeing for over 20 years.

Emma says: ‘Wellbeing is something woven through Livability’s work and I’ll be sharing some wellbeing themes and approaches in these blogs. My hope is that you enjoy reading them and they build a strong foundation for your wellbeing.’

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