What is shame and how to deal with it

Everyone has something that they would like to hide from others: a certain belief, a character trait, a strange desire, or a terrible mistake from the past. The thought of them revealing themselves to others is terrifying. She wants to curl up in a ball under the covers and hide from the whole world. This feeling is shame, and we all experience it from time to time.

A sense of shame, if approached incorrectly, can lead to unpleasant consequences such as depression , attacks of aggression , deterioration in physical health, and also turning into a narcissistic jerk.

For this reason, shame is often portrayed as a monster in psychological self-help books. We are advised to eliminate it, to get rid of it, to completely root it out of our lives. Allegedly, only then will we reach the promised land, where love and grace reign. But let’s slow down.

What is shame anyway?

Shame is a universal human feeling. It is present in all cultures, from today’s globalized society to small tribes of hunters and gatherers who have never seen a Calvin Klein underwear ad in their lives. Shame was not invented by some enterprising businessman to cash in on you (although many are not averse to doing so). This is a natural part of the human experience .

We experience shame, a feeling of disappointment or even worthlessness, when faced with a negative evaluation of ourselves. It is like a searchlight, highlighting all the dark, ugly parts of our personality. Naturally, we want to quickly hide what we are ashamed of, whether it be feelings or a secret collection of Teletubbies.

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Shame is very similar to guilt , but there is one significant difference between the two. When you feel guilty, you are burdened by what you have done, and when you are ashamed, by what kind of person you are.

Both sensations can arise when you have done something wrong. But guilt comes when you think, “I’m not really like that, I can fix it.” And shame – when the thoughts are as follows: “I am like that, and there’s nothing to be done about it .” If nothing is done, the feeling of guilt gradually turns into shame.

Let’s move on to examples. Let’s say you didn’t help a friend move or didn’t call your mom on her birthday. It happened for the first time, but now, of course, you feel guilty. A lot will depend on your reaction to this feeling.

If you apologize and try to be better, the guilt will pass and you will move on with your life. But if you decide to pretend that nothing happened, or start blaming your friend for moving frequently, and your mother for being born on the most inopportune day of the week, the guilt will intensify and turn into shame. It will become something terrible that needs to be hidden from everyone.

And it is this hiding and suppression, and not shame itself, that harms us: leads to psychological problems , poisons relationships with others and undermines ambitions. After all, believing that some part of us is “bad,” we begin to resort to unsuccessful adaptation strategies (read: acting like goats) to hide it and drown out this terrible truth about ourselves.

But, as with all other emotions, shame is not so simple. Joy is not always associated with positive, grief can bring wisdom, and shame can be useful.

Why do we feel shame

Psychologists distinguish between basic emotions and others. The basic ones appeared because they were needed for survival. The clearest example is fear . The fear of snakes and deep abysses obviously once helped us to survive.

The basic emotions also include anger, disgust, sadness, joy, and surprise. In other classifications, there are four of them, and disgust and surprise are considered subspecies of anger and fear. But in any case, everyone has them from the first day of life.

As we age, our range of emotions expands. We begin to realize that there are other people in the world and that their ideas and judgments influence us. This gives rise to the so-called emotions of self-awareness: shame, guilt, embarrassment, pride. These emotions are based on how we think others perceive us and how we perceive ourselves. And these emotions also appeared for a reason: they help people to cooperate and live in groups.

Let’s pretend we are children . I took your toy truck away from you and hit you over the head with it. If I have not yet developed the emotions of self-awareness, that is, I am two years old or less, I will not worry about it at all. I’m just not yet able to comprehend the thoughts and feelings of other people.

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But if I’m older, I’ll feel guilty, and maybe also a little embarrassed or ashamed. I will return the toy to you and apologize. I might even offer you my own machine and we’ll play together. Now I will feel proud that I am a good boy.

The emotions of self-awareness push us towards pro-social behavior. Without them, we would not be able to live together. They help to regulate the behavior of the whole group at the level of an individual. It is thanks to them that cities, states, economies and parties are possible. Simply put, shame keeps us from doing stupid and terrible things, and guilt motivates us to correct our mistakes .

What is the paradox of shame

There are no “bad” and “good” emotions. There are good and bad reasons for emotions. For example, happiness is usually considered a positive feeling, and many people say that you should try to increase the amount of it in your life. But if I’m happiest when I’m torturing the neighbor’s cat, then one can hardly talk about positive things here.

It’s the same with shame. If for some reason I am ashamed of my appearance and because of this I try not to leave the house, this is an unhealthy form of shame. And if I am ashamed that I cheated on my girlfriend at university, and this helps me not to undermine my current relationship, then my shame is useful.

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The problem is that many experience shame for the wrong reasons. Most of them are related to the family and culture in which we grew up. For example, if you were criticized as a child for having a funny nose, you may grow up with a terrible complex and then have one plastic surgery after another. If you have been laughed at because of your sensitivity , you may become rigid and emotionally closed. If you grew up in a religious sect where you were ashamed of any thought of sex, sexual desires can cause shame as an adult.

What to do about shame

Let go of the unhealthy approach we’re all drawn to, burying shame deep and pretending it doesn’t exist. Suppressing emotions is generally harmful , and denied shame will only intensify.

Instead, do the opposite: look at the roots of your shame and evaluate whether it is useful or not. If yes, try to accept it, if not, get rid of it and start over.

1. Separate your act from your personality

We all have regrets, we all do stupid things, let others down or let ourselves down sometimes. But the fact that you once screwed up does not mean that you are a complete loser and generally a bad person .

You can learn from your mistakes, use your failures as motivation to grow, and even help others by sharing your experiences. So try to change the thought “I’m a bad person” to “I did a bad thing.”

And in general, try to be kinder to yourself. When your friend makes a mistake, you most likely do not begin to consider him a villain, but you understand that he just stumbled. But for some reason, this approach does not always apply to themselves. Remember this and be your own friend.

2. Understand the real reason for your actions

It is unlikely that you undermined the working project, because you are a terrible villain. Maybe you felt that you were not valued or respected at work and did not want to try. Maybe you were angry about something and made an impulsive decision. Maybe you didn’t sleep for three days and at the most inopportune moment you just lost the ability to do anything.

In any case, by accepting the reason for your shameful act, you will understand what to do to change for the better.

3. Learn a lesson

Shame and guilt can be powerful sources of motivation to work on yourself. They encourage us to be better. Point out what we have done wrong in the past so that we do not repeat it in the future.

So shame can be a wise teacher. Listen to his lessons, even if his teaching style is not very pleasant.

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4. Share your feelings

Contrary to what our instincts tell us, openly admitting our shame and embarrassment usually evokes sympathy from those around us, and also strengthens relationships . We get a similar effect when, having drunk with a friend, we cry on his shoulder.

If your shame is irrational, that is, you are ashamed of something that you shouldn’t be, talking about it, you will feel how unfounded it is. You will see that people do not laugh at you, the world does not hate you, and the heavens do not fall. This can lead to a rethinking of one’s views, an increase in self-esteem and an improvement in well-being.

If you have truly done something shameful, then by sharing your disturbing feelings, you will pave the way for forgiveness. Now your mistake will help you get better, and not drag you back.

5. Learn to See Shame as a Reflection of Your Values

What values you have determines what you are ashamed of. Healthy values breed healthy shame, and vice versa. For example, if you feel ashamed that you didn’t help a friend when they needed you, it shows that it’s important for you to be someone you can rely on. Shame will help you act on it: speak honestly, apologize, and be there for the future.

And if you are embarrassed because your shoes are not as expensive as your colleagues, this signals that the approval of others is more important to you than respect for yourself and your tastes. Shame will help you notice this and reconsider your values. The main thing is to remember that emotions are not the root of your problems, but the starting point for resolving them.

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