The sinking feeling in the stomach, the suffocating grip of dread. This is the feeling of shame; it ties into feelings of not being worthy, or worse yet, deserving bad experiences and misfortunes. It can get a grip on us and refuse to let go, impacting how we make decisions, how we process events and emotions, what we prioritize, and how we advocate for ourselves. Shame becomes the foundation upon which we build our thought process, coloring everything we encounter. It is no longer a set of physical responses, but a constant thought process.
It is common to feel ashamed of ourselves for actions we take without thinking or mistakes we have made because we didn’t know better or weren’t in a good state of mind. There is a difference between feeling bad about mistakes and mishaps from time to time and living in a state of shame. Over time, shame begins to be the constant theme and set the parameters of your life.
When Shame Rules Your Life
1. You experience worsening of your mental health:
When you live your life in a state of shame, you experience an increase in depression and a decrease in self-confidence. This increases the time you spend in isolation, as you worry you’re not good enough for others or that you’ll say and do the “wrong thing” when you are around people. This idea that you’ll never be quite right creates more worry and fear about your relationship statuses, your potential for the future, your ability to live a happy life. You may feel the urge or desire to change your situation reach out to others but are so certain that you will be rejected that you stay still. The worst part is that when you are isolated and lonely and sad, you believe that you brought it on yourself because you don’t deserve any better.
2. Shame can blind your perception:
You look at things through “shame lenses” when you feel shame. A small incident where you misspoke or made a joke that didn’t land can consume your thoughts for days or weeks. You replay it over and over again and speculate that others now think you’re lame, insensitive, or stupid. Shame creates an increase in catastrophic thinking, where you beat yourself up for every mistake you make, and you think nothing will ever get better. This leads to and facilitates self-loathing; you don’t believe you are deserving of love or worthy of good things. When you talk to yourself about your day or week, the voice in your head says that you failed, that you were annoying, that you were boring. No matter how tortured you are by these thoughts, you can’t seem to find a way to make that voice speak to you with more kindness.
3. It controls your every decision:
Whether it is relationships, daily activities, or career goals, shame can dictate every action you take if you let it. Shame puts you in a mindset where you don’t see the possible positive outcomes because you don’t think you deserve them. This can limit the way you pursue love; you might not take a chance on a date with someone you love, or you might give up at the first sign of discord. You might not make an effort to take care of yourself the way you should, thinking that you’re unworthy of self-care and comfort. Your sense of self-worth might be so low that you don’t chase your dreams, study your chosen field, pursue promotions, and so on. All of this makes for a life limited by missed opportunities.
When you are paralyzed by shame, it can feel like there is no way out of the situation. Shame may have been your constant companion from a very early age, or it may have developed over time. Either way, shame doesn’t have to be a permanent condition. Just as shame would have been built up over the years, or a series of experiences, it can be dismantled through time, with consistent effort, as with any change in habit or way of thinking. Try these five steps to overcome it…
5 Coping Skills to Overcome Shame
1. Understand the difference between shame and guilt:
You cannot properly process shame if you don’t know what it is and what it is not. The most common conflation is that of shame with guilt. Guilt is “I did something wrong”; shame is “I am bad.”
Shame is less tangible than guilt because it often has its roots in our developmental years. It can relate to events that impacted our self-esteem, many of which were beyond our control. If you were constantly criticized, punished, and/or neglected, you might have developed a sense that you were defective in some way. Knowing that shame comes from a place related to your sense of self allows you to explore what you feel shameful about and where it might have come from. When do you first remember feeling this way; how often does it happen? What was it that first happened: did someone say or do something to shame you? What sort of impact did the event have on your sense of self?
Guilt, however, relates to your actions. While you may conflate feelings of guilt with shame, ie. “I did this bad thing because I am a bad person,” they can often be separated when considered objectively. If you are lumping the things you are guilty about with your feelings of shame, the issue may seem far bigger than it actually is or be waylaid by focusing on the non-issue. Being able to tell the difference between the two, even in minor incidents, can begin to unravel the ball of emotions you experience when you feel bad about yourself.
2. Know your triggers to shame:
Even if you find ways to cope with shame, it can always be reactivated. To handle these triggers, you need to understand exactly what it is about the situation that triggers your shame. It is not enough to say, “Every time I remember cheating on my wife, I feel shame.” You need to have a higher self-awareness that it is not about the cheating, but the lack of trust or breaking up the family, which are the core values you did not align with that brings up the shame.
Once you understand which core values your shame calls into question, you can work on healing and/or repairing them; your relationship with them, and others’ understanding of them as well. You can take consistent action to show yourself and others that you are worthy of trust and invested in your family. This may involve couples therapy, which we offer here at our practice in Woodland Hills. It is important to create an action that you want to take and can take forever, not just until things seem better. Decide how you want to show up to the situation, and take steps to
make that your routine.
3. Always have self-compassion:
Your shame may be rooted in childhood trauma or traumatic events that have happened to you that diminished your sense of self-worth and security. You may have always felt a sense of being shameful; you are wrong or bad in some way, and nothing will change that. This may have resulted in uncomfortable social situations, where your response to something was different from everyone else’s, thus perpetuating your idea of ‘otherness.’ This may have led to you walking away from others because you’re convinced they don’t like you, causing them confusion and heartbreak. It may have led to any number of coping behaviors that can create strife and disconnect with people. As a result, you might sit at home alone and talk to yourself about how “you deserve to be lonely because you pushed that person away” or “nobody understands you because you’re broken.”
Your responses to traumatic events may be (or have been) hurtful and harmful to ourselves and others. We as humans never think we are worthy of self-compassion or forgiveness when we think about the thing that makes us feel shame, but the truth is that we are. Self-compassion means you engage in a kind, understanding, and forgiving dialogue with yourself. Simply put, you talk to yourself like you talk to people you love. It doesn’t mean that you forget the things you have said or done in the past. It means that you make amends where you are able, make changes to your behavior where appropriate, and then you move on. This may involve explaining to others that you were thinking and believing things about yourself that weren’t true; to do this, you have to know that they weren’t true for yourself, as well. Other times, self-compassion means engaging in pleasurable activities. It is about giving yourself permission to move on, giving yourself permission to rest or play. If these are activities you enjoy on your own, that is great. If they are an excuse to reach out to others and invite them along, that’s great, too! The more you focus your energy on what is good in life and support yourself through acts of self-kindness and self-care, the easier it is to disrupt negative thoughts.
4. Practice being in the present moment:
A key component of focusing on what is good in life and practicing self-care is to be present while it is happening. We tend to dwell on things that happened in the past and let them have more power over us. Managing shame requires us to bring our direction back to the present moment because we don’t live in the past. There is no point in running a self-care bubble bath, lighting a candle, and sinking into the tub, only to spend that time ruminating on a past mistake that can’t be changed.
While mindful reflection is a part of self-care, its purpose is to be a designated time and space in which we can determine what we have learned from a situation and plan how to move past it. Outside of this practice, the goal is to experience life in real-time. This can include utilizing the senses to ground yourself in a moment: what can you hear, see, smell, taste, and touch? The past can’t be changed, and the future isn’t here yet. Worrying over either is a surefire way to fall into negative thought patterns. Choosing to be more mindful doesn’t mean you’ll never worry again or never regret again. It means that you will do the work to improve your mental health by staying in the present moment as often as you can.
5. Reach out to people and share your feelings:
Brené Brown has been quoted as saying, “Shame loves secrecy.” This is poignant because shame leads us to withdraw and hide; it thrives in darkness and isolation. To overcome shame, we need to show up. We need to be vulnerable. To do so, we need to have people around us with whom we can share our struggles and rely upon support.
At the end of the day, you are never alone in what you are going through. You may find that those closest to you can relate to what you are going through or that they have helped someone else through something similar. Or you may need to reach out and seek a community of people with whom you can share this journey. This doesn’t mean that you can’t maintain meaningful relationships with your loved ones, but that you grow your network to include people who can relate to this part of your life. A support system of this nature may consist of an Individual therapist you may meet in person or online for CBT therapy.
In life, we will always find ourselves making mistakes, having errors in judgment, and miscalculating. It is part of being human and how we learn and grow. We must frame these mishaps appropriately. Small mistakes that we make as we learn a new skill, or have a new experience, are normal. We can reassure ourselves with an affirmation, “Now that I know better, I will do better next time.” Bigger mistakes that we make that cause harm or hurt feelings are also part of navigating our lives. We can take a similar approach to them: consider what the mistake was, why it happened, and how we can avoid it in the future. We do not need to internalize these mistakes as reasons to dislike ourselves or evidence that we are bad people. If we were told that we were defective in some way and took that on as truth, that might take time to undo.
By staying present in our lives and choosing our choices from a place of self-respect and mindfulness, we are able to make choices thoughtfully instead of from a place of fear, regret, or worry. This is how we build habits that allow us to bring our best selves to the table, minimizing our shame and allowing us to live authentically.
Other Services at Embracing You Therapy
Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.