We’ve all experienced shame at some time in our lifetime. When we do something wrong and feel that twang of guilt when we are punished, we are experiencing shame.
This article will focus on shame and how it can be detrimental to our mental health.
What is Shame?
Shame is a feeling of humiliation or embarrassment that comes from a perception of having done something wrong or dishonorable, such as something immoral. Considered a negative emotion, shame has its beginnings as a survival technique for humans. Without feeling shame, humans might not feel the need to abide by cultural laws and become outcasts which in our distant past would have meant death.
Humans feel shame when we violate the norms we believe in, such as when we feel exposed and small. In other words, shame humbles us so we can put aside our egos and pay attention to what is required of us.
Women are faster to feel humiliated than men and experience shame more intensely than males. Adolescents feel shame more readily and more intensely than their adult counterparts.
Shame allows us to focus inward and view ourselves negatively so we can focus on others and their feelings.
Guilt is Not the Same as Shame
It is common for people to misunderstand the differences between guilt and shame. In short, although guilt is related to shame, guilt is not the same as there are marked differences.
Guilt is a feeling we get when we do something wrong or perceive we did. When we feel guilty about something we did that was wrong, we can make moves to face it and move on from it. With guilt, we feel remorse and responsibility and it is related to a specific action.
However, shame is a feeling that we are wrong as a whole, as people, and causes us to be convinced that there is no way to “come back” to positive feelings about ourselves. Shame is a feeling that we are flawed, unworthy, and inadequate as people. Shame is related to our behavior and other people’s opinions, not a specific event.
The Dark Side of Shame
While shame is helpful to us as an evolutionary adaptation, it can also have its dark side. Shame is problematic when we internalize it and results in a harsh evaluation of ourselves. Because of shame, the inner critic will sometimes tell us we are bad people and that we are useless human beings.
Some other concepts that accompany shame are humiliation, embarrassment, and guilt.
In Peter Breggin Ph.D.’s book Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety, some of the other concepts and beliefs that are experienced with guilt are as follows:
Feeling worried about what others think of you
Worry you are not being treated with respect
Feeling you have little impact on your world
Want to have the last word
Being afraid to look inappropriate or stupid
Being a perfectionist
The list goes on, but for the sake of space, we will not cover all of them. The gist is that when used incorrectly, shame causes us to turn inward and doubt who we are as people.
There are also many behaviors we exhibit when we feel ashamed, including
Keeping our heads hung low
Being unable to act spontaneously
Looking down instead of looking people in the eye
Slumping down instead of standing tall
Talking in a soft voice
Crying because we feel ashamed
Shame, when not appropriate, leaves us scarred and unable to cope.
A debilitating feeling of worthlessness, toxic shame includes self-loathing and a feeling that one is not good enough. Child abuse, neglect, and other trauma are the leading causes of toxic shame, making us believe we are imperfect, leading to sometimes self-harm.
We who have developed dissociative identity disorder (DID) have had excessive toxic shame placed upon us. When we were children, we received critical messages from our adults during the development of a sense of self. Because those messages were negative, we developed internalized shame that was toxic to our well-being.
We grew up not only living with a debilitating disorder but also with a warped sense of who we were, often believing that we were bad.
Toxic Shame and Mental Illness
According to a paper appearing in Scientific American, people who feel ashamed are at an elevated risk for anxiety disorders and depression (Kammerer, 2019). Other mental disorders related to toxic shame include:
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Suicidal thoughts and attempts
Self-harming behavior such as cutting or having unprotected sex
Harmful or toxic shame is also associated with low self-esteem (Vizin et al., 2015).
Clearly, dissociative identity disorder should be added to the list of possible diagnoses associated with shame.
Ending Our Time Together
Those of us who have dissociative identity disorder struggle daily with feelings of shame and guilt. Those emotions are not only one of the causes of DID but also misplaced because when we were children, we had no power over our caregivers, who used shame to control us.
When misplaced and misused, shame is toxic and leaves its victims with major mental health problems. Shame is a terrible weapon to wield against a small child.
To defeat toxic shame, we must change the tapes that keep playing in our minds repeating the lies we heard while growing up. We are not bad people, and we are worthwhile and deserving of respect, dignity, and love.
To change how we feel and end the shame that binds us, we must first recognize where the shame is coming from. Once we are clear on where shame originates, we must focus on how to defeat the effects of toxic shame.
There are five possible interventions that can help us overcome shame.
Become aware of how we talk to ourselves. We must try to observe our thoughts without reacting to them.
We must have compassion for ourselves. We must remember that everyone has flaws and makes mistakes.
We can practice mindfulness. Mindfulness can help us remain grounded in the present.
We need to recognize when we are feeling shame. Looking for the signs, we are feeling shame; we can take steps to lessen it and mitigate its effects on our lives.
We can seek support. Reach out to a counselor, a friend, a family member, or whomever we feel can help us in our quest for self-actualization.
We are worthy; we are able, and we are good. Never, ever forget that.
“When you concentrate your energy purposely on the future possibility that you aspire to realize, your energy is passed on to it and makes it attracted to you with a force stronger than the one you directed towards it.”
― Stephen Richards
We need never be ashamed of our tears.”
― Charles Dickens
If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
― Brené Brown
Kammerer, A. (2019). The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame. Scientific American. August9.
Vizin, G., & Unoka, Z. (2015). The role of shame in development of the mental disorders II. Measurement of shame and relationship. Psychiatria Hungarica: A Magyar Pszichiátriai Társaság tudományos folyóirata, 30(3), 278-296.