by Kalpana Murthy, LPC
What Does Shame Mean?
Before we can work on overcoming shame, we first need to define shame and distinguish it from guilt. Shame refers to the feelings and thoughts that who you are is bad, inadequate or worthless. Shame involves feeling exposed when someone has seen you say or do something that is embarrassing or has judged you. Shame is often accompanied by the physical sensations of feeling heat in the face, throat and chest. Shame can also make you feel physically smaller or younger than you are, or desire to become invisible.
Guilt vs Shame
Shame is the sensations associated with the thought “I am bad”. In contrast, guilt is the feeling and thoughts that an action you did is bad, because it violated your own values or standards of conduct. Guilt is when we make a mistake or do something we feel was inappropriate. We may feel remorseful about our action, but we don’t feel worthless as a person. Overcoming shame involves being able to separate your actions from your identity.
Another distinction between shame and guilt is whether the action was public or private. Shame involves a public experience. Shame occurs when someone is aware of your action, while guilt can be something you did that no one knows about. For example, someone can feel guilty about their action, but only feel shame when their action is exposed to the public.
Overcoming shame doesn’t mean never feeling the emotion. We all feel shame at one time or another. Shame is like any other emotion it serves a purpose. Like any emotion, we have the ability to move through shame, minimize its impact, and reduce the frequency and duration of feeling shame.
Dealing With Shame – Steps to Overcome Shame
- Talk to Someone You Trust. Talking to someone you trust is one of the most helpful strategies for overcoming shame. Shame grows when it is kept secret. When you talk to someone you trust about the experiences that cause you to feel shame, the person’s response can help you feel that you are not alone, you are normal, and you are human. Sharing your story can also help you keep the experience in perspective. It’s more effective if this conversation happens in person or by phone, not by email or text.Of course, it is important that you carefully choose the person you are going to share your shame experiences with. It needs to be someone who can stay focused on your experience, convey empathy, and not say something that would make you feel worse about what happened.
- Make A List of Your Shame Triggers. Overcoming shame attacks in the future involves becoming aware of what triggers you to feel shame. Think about various experiences you’ve had that produce shame. Think about what happened right before you started feeling the shame. Common categories include:
- your competence/job performance
- appearance/body image
- social situations, social skills
- setting boundaries, saying No
- being spontaneous, being yourself
- asking for help or needing something
- expressing an emotion: love, fear, anger, sadness, joy, etc.
- abuse, assaults, medical procedures, other types of trauma
- story of your birth/feeling unwanted as a child
- childhood experiences with alcoholic parent, raging parent, poverty, other
- Another way to identify shame triggers is to think about the things you judge in others. Often we are most judgmental on the topic that most triggers are shame.
- Determine The Experiences that Set You Up for Shame. Our beliefs about ourselves are heavily influenced by our early childhood experiences including the dynamics within the family you grew up in. When a child is shamed or treated badly by a parent or other authority figure, the child’s brain does not have the ability to see that the parent is the one behaving badly. The child internalizes the shame of the parent and then may go through life carrying the shame of another. Make a list of the experiences you had as a child where you felt shame or felt unworthy or bad. Analyze those experiences now using the wisdom and perspective you have as an adult to see how you perceive your younger self. Was the child behaving in a normal, typical, age appropriate manner? Usually the answer is Yes. Was the parent or authority figure behaving in a normal, typical, appropriate manner for their role as a parent? In shaming experiences, often the answer is No. If this dynamic happened repeatedly to you, the shame you feel now could be carried shame rather than your own. Overcome Shame by Giving it Back – One exercise that is useful for reducing carried shame is to imagine adult you is talking to your adult parent (or other authority figure) about the childhood memory that you associate with shame. Speak out loud in a strong, confident, non-abusive manner and say to that person what you feel about what happened. Include the phrase, “I give you back your shame” and say it repeatedly until you feel you’ve reduced or released the emotion.
- Be Less Hard on Yourself. If you find that you still feel shameful when thinking about various experiences from your past, consider how you would feel if that situation happened to another child you know or a friend. Would you feel as harshly about another person in the same situation as you do about yourself? Typically we are more understanding and compassionate towards others and are able to see their mistakes or embarrassing situations as signs that they are human.Counter your negative self-talk, by talking to yourself about your situation the way you would talk to someone else. This exercise will help you be kinder, gentler, and more compassionate to yourself when you feel shame.
- Frame A Photo of Yourself. Find a photo of yourself as a child or as an adult that evokes warm feelings about yourself. When you’re feeling shame and berating yourself for something you said or did, take a look at that photo to remind yourself of who you are.
- Pay Attention to how Social & Mass Media Influences How You Feel. Our beliefs about ourselves can also be shaped or influenced by images and posts we see in social media, online videos, magazines, TV shows and other media. Pay attention to how you feel about yourself before and after visiting social media sites, watching a TV show or looking at a magazine.If you find yourself feeling anxious, stressed, sad or less than, ask yourself if you are comparing yourself or ranking yourself against the activities, lives, or appearances of others? Get clear on your own values, priorities, interests, and the way you want to live your life rather than using others as a benchmark.
Overcoming Shame & How To Reduce Shame Experiences
Once you become aware of your sources of shame and what triggers your shame, you can takes steps to minimize the occurrence of shame in those situations.
- Set limits on the time you spend around people or in situations that trigger shame.
- Think about what you need from others before, during or after the experience. Think about what you can say to yourself in that situation to minimize shame.
- Plan in advance how you will respond if someone says or does something that triggers shame. Minimize responding in a way that later will make you feel bad about yourself. For example, attacking, people pleasing, or not being your authentic self. Or coming home and numbing the pain of shame with alcohol, food or other activities that later make you feel worse.
- Maintain perspective and reality check the situation. Often present day experiences of shame can activate earlier shame trauma wounds. When this happens the present day experience can feel more horrible than it really was. This is when it helps to reach out to someone to gain another perspective.
Talking about and working through your shame experiences can be uncomfortable. If you’d like help healing from childhood shame or overcoming shame you experience now, I’m here to help.