Anger, Sadness, Guilt and Jealousy have all gotten bad reputations in the world of emotions. However, they are all natural emotions that serve specific purposes. When we think that someone has done us wrong, the result is anger. When we think that we have done something wrong to someone else, the result is guilt. These emotions by themselves are not positive or negative but the way in which we handle them can be. There is, however, one emotion that is negative and can be very toxic. This emotion is shame. Shame takes guilt and internalizes it. The thought “I did a bad thing” changes to “I am a bad person because I did this thing”. Thus, your self-esteem and self-worth are lowered which could potentially lead to depression.
Signs You Are Experiencing Shame
Dr. Donald Nathanson introduced the concept of the Compass of Shame. He theorizes that when we experience shame and cannot pinpoint its source or cope with that shame, we react in one of four different ways.
- Withdrawal: This looks like the classic shame response. A person feels rejected and humiliated. They begin to isolate themselves from connection with others. They stop going out with friends or are often spaced out. Physically they make themselves smaller through slumped posture, avoiding eye contact, and head lowered.
- Attack Self: This is exactly as it sounds. Our inner dialogue is negative and often attacks ourselves. A person will say/think things like “I am stupid, unworthy, lack value, defective, etc.”. Not only do they have this inner self-dialogue, they present this way to others. They will allow others to feel more powerful and see them as having more value. This allows a person to manage the loneliness and shame by creating emotional pain.
- Avoidance: This is the use of strategies to turn off the bad feelings. This should not be confused with withdrawal. Addictive/Compulsive behaviors are often used such as drinking and drug use, compulsive eating, or compulsive spending. Another common strategy is playing into the shame or acting out in shameless way. For example, if a person is feeling shame for being sexually active, they may become even more sexually promiscuous. The last strategy we will discuss is over-doing. A person will over-work, over-give, over-do, and over-strive. They will emphasize the things that bring them approval, pride, and affirmation and ignore the situations that make them feel bad and less than.
- Attack Others: This is when a person will attack others to avoid the feelings they have towards themselves. They seek to prove they are more powerful, stronger, bigger, and meaner than others. This could range from putting others down and demeaning them to cruelty and abuse.
When people exhibit these symptoms, they create a cycle of shame. When engaging in these behaviors we create more shame, furthering damaging self-worth. Dr. Nathanson says one must break the cycle to achieve emotional well-being.
Breaking the Cycle of Shame
The following are tips for breaking the cycle of shame;
- Name the Shame: Naming the shame can help release the hold shame has on us. By determining when you started feeling this way, assessing how your body experiences the feeling, and processing the feelings rather than ignoring or numbing them shame will begin to melt away and play a diminished role in your life.
- Set realistic expectations and know your limitations. It is vitally important to set realistic goals. In previous blogs, we have discussed the negative impact perfectionism and unrealistic goal setting can have on one’s self esteem. On the other side, is knowing and accepting our limitations. We all have limitations and that is nothing to be ashamed of. When you recognize your limitations, you can create plans/goals that emphasize your strengths.
- Break the Secrecy. Talk to someone about the cause of your shame who will understand and not judge you. As Alcoholics Anonymous will tell you, secrets keep you sick. When we keep our shame to ourselves, we have no chance to gain another interpretation of it. Afterall, it is our thoughts that are causing the shame to begin with so keeping it to ourselves only serves to reinforce it. When you share with someone you can trust, not only does it allow the shame to release from the body, you can gain another person’s perspective. We judge ourselves much more harshly than others do. Another person can allow help us see the situation in a fairer light.
- Change your inner dialogue. Because we are so hard on ourselves, it is important to change the dialogue so that we speak to ourselves the way that we would speak to someone that we love. If you would not say something to someone you love, then you should not say it to yourself. Instead, your dialogue should serve the purpose of building yourself up.