Shame is an internal feeling. No one can make you feel shame. Only your thoughts – which you have complete control over – can cause you to feel shame. Shame is basically our own disapproval for our actions and I think it is definitely one of the worst, most destructive feelings that someone can have. Many people use the term shame, embarrassment, humiliation and guilt interchangeably, but there actually is a difference. Guilt is caused by something you do, that usually motivates you to change in some way. One time I completely forgot my friends birthday, and I felt so guilty about it that I marked it on my calendar as an alert so there is no possible way I could ever forget again. Shame, unforuntately, does not cause you to change but instead, sulk in the feeling, believe your a bad person and continue to do the behavior that caused you to feel shameful. And it is very easy to get caught up in a continuous shame cycle that feels impossible, at times, to break.
Shame is also a silent and isolating feeling. It’s something you regret and causes you to want to hide. It is a belief that who you are as a person is not okay. It is such a powerful feeling because it causes you to feel alone. Back in the summer when my anxiety was building and building, I am certain that my own shame was the reason for it. I was stuck in a unhealthy cycle that felt impossible to break, and it made me feel like a bad, unworthy person. And because of this, I kept running away from the initial problem and acting out in ways that I wouldn’t normally do, and so the shame and anxiety kept building and building.
I’ve been teaching myself a lot about shame over these past couple of months so that if I am ever in a situation that causes me to start to feel shameful, then I will know how to handle it better and not let it lead me down the wrong path. As Brene Brown state’s from her book on shame, “empathy is the antidote”. Love yourself enough to forgive yourself and not immediately label yourself as a bad person based on an action you did. Also, expose shame.. don’t keep it inside because then it will just build. Find someone you trust and tell them about it – get it all out, express it in healthy ways rather than unhealthy ways (such as drinking, for example). Choose to be vulnerable to those that you trust and let it connect you.
Once you learn to react to shame in a healthy way, then you can try and figure out what behavior triggers you to feel it and the steps you can take to avoid that behavior and protect yourself from shame. Your shame could stem from something you experienced growing up, and once you identify that it will help you understand where the shame is coming from. For example, if you grew up in a family where body image and appearance were highly valued, you may then hold the belief that you are flawed because you cannot reach the “perfect” body image – which is usually unattainable and unrealistic. And this shame can be constantly triggered due to all the photoshopped media we are constantly exposed to, or maybe being in a bathing suit around family and friends, or anything that causes you to feel vulnerable.
That is just one example of a situation that could cause you to feel shame. There are plenty of others, such as feeling as if you are different or have a defect, doing something wrong, getting in trouble, feeling rejected, feeling too scared or maybe even getting too drunk! Anything. And it is different for every person. The reason it is so hard to talk about shame is because even speaking out loud about it can be painful to you and to those hearing it – but the best way to react, is to react with empathy. Try and understand how that person is feeling, feel it with them and just understand.
“If we can relate to the story because it’s an issue that we face, the experience is often both painful and strangely comforting. The pain stems from being forced to think about an issue that we probably try to keep under the surface. The comfort comes from recognizing that we are not alone in our struggles, we asren’t the only one” – I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Brene Brown.
So next time you do something that causes you to to negatively criticize yourself, stop for a moment. Replace the negative talk with loving, understanding talk. Then try and establish how to avoid any triggers of that behavior that causes you to feel shame. Forgive yourself and move on. Tell a trusted friend, do not keep it inside and let it grow. Expose shame for what it is – a manifesting, unhealthy feeling.