This article is part of a series on accepting difficult emotions. I hope that this series will contribute to understanding and accepting some of the more challenging aspects of the shared human experience.
Seven Destructive Qualities of Shame
You’ve dropped your lunch right in front of your peers, and the food goes airborne! (Who knew spaghetti could fly?) You feel foolish and want to crawl into a hole in the ground. You are likely experiencing shame.
Feelings of shame can emerge in instances when an individual evaluates themselves too harshly. When left unchecked, it can be a powerfully destructive force. Below are seven harmful qualities of shame.
SHAME ATTACKS PERSONAL CHARACTER AND A GLOBAL SENSE OF SELF
Shame always includes negative thoughts about one’s own identity (e.g., I am a terrible person, I am a failure, I am unloved) and results in a personal feeling of being defective, unworthy, or damaged. When we believe that there is something fundamentally flawed about our character, we become unable to focus on our own goodness or accept ourselves.
SHAME LEADS TO NEGATIVE SELF-TALK
Because we believe there is something wrong with our character, shame often cultivates an internal dialogue or self-talk that is harsh and unrelenting. This internal critic moves with us through life, commenting on every situation, besmirching personal character, and pointing out all the ways we are unworthy of love, support, and connection.
SHAME CAN LEAD TO PERFECTIONISM
In response to the negative self-talk, individuals sometimes respond by maintaining a sense of personal perfection. Striving for perfection is usually considered a positive attribute, but perfectionism (or refusing to accept a standard less than perfect) can cause significant difficulties and distress. Individuals with perfectionistic tendencies often avoid tasks that they cannot complete with perfection. Interpersonally, perfectionism can cause conflict and stress both for those who work with them and for the person themselves. Shame does not only lead to a lack of self-acceptance but can create rigid standards. These rigid standards can further fuel negative self-talk and a lack of self-acceptance.
SHAME CAN LEAD TO SELF-ISOLATION
Because shame is such a harsh critic, and the potential for interpersonal conflict are high, a person experiencing shame may avoid, withdraw, and isolate from others. This can cultivate a vicious cycle where isolation results in further shame (i.e., characterizing the lack of social support as a personal failing) that in turn causes more self-isolation.
SHAME CAN AFFECT RELATIONSHIPS
Living with shame can make it difficult to connect with others. Unresolved shame can make you feel and appear distant. If at your core, you feel damaged and unlovable, it is hard to believe that others can trust or care.
SHAME IS ASSOCIATED WITH DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY
Shame and depression can operate in a self-reinforcing cycle. Experiencing shame can lead to feelings of depression. Similarly, the low energy associated with depression can induce shame when individuals are unable to meet the obligations and live in a way that is consistent with their values. For example, unmet deadlines, unkept promises, and uncompleted tasks can be interpreted as failures of character.
At times, shame is associated with anxiety as well. A particular type of anxiety, social anxiety (or the fear of being scrutinized by others), often accompanies shame. Social anxiety can emerge in instances when individuals are excluded from a group or feel like they don’t belong. The fear of being negatively evaluated by others leads to avoiding social situations that activate the fear response. In both shame and social anxiety, there is a strong desire to be accepted by others, but in both instances, individuals hold the belief that they are incapable of doing so.
TOXIC SHAME CAN LEAD TO OTHER MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
Substance use, self-harm, and eating disorders are common attempts to block shame.
Although shame can be a deeply rooted self-perception, there are healthy ways of dealing with the shame.
BEGIN WITH SELF COMPASSION
Self-compassion is extending to ourselves the same kindness and care we would extend to a good friend. Instead of judging, self-compassion recognizes that there will often be a difference between perfection and reality. Being “human” at times means that we will be fallible, flawed, and imperfect. It is important to remember that all humans are prone to shame. Because all humans err, it’s important to consider negative self-evaluations as an indication of a need for change and not take them on as a unique part of our identity.
Using self-compassion involves noticing the shame (and shameful thoughts) while at the same time acknowledging self-worth. Meditation can be helpful in some instances by acknowledging the presence of negative self-evaluations but not allowing them to be integrated into our more enduring self-concept.
PRACTICE HEALTHY SELF-TALK
Healthy self-talk can replace critical inner dialogue. Here are several examples of how to replace negative self-talk with positive self-talk:
–Avoid “all or nothing” thinking. Instead of telling yourself you are a horrible human being because you forgot an obligation, remind yourself that you are worthy of love and compassion. You may not have a perfect memory, but you may be a thoughtful and caring individual who loves and supports those around them.
–Avoid overgeneralizing. When something negative happens, avoid using vocabulary like “always” or “never.” For example, if you step in gum, avoid thinking that you are never lucky. This thought will make it harder to remember all the good things that have come into your life.
–Don’t discount the positive Our minds work as a mental filter. When shame is activated, our brain filters out the positives and leaves only the negatives. This dwelling on personal shortcomings leads to rumination and depression. Instead, try focusing on the positives. For example, when giving a presentation at work, there may have been one critique, but practice recalling the positive feedback that was given as well.
–Avoid “should” statements. Should statements cause significant distress during personal evaluations. Instead of saying, “I shouldn’t have made so many mistakes during my book report,” try saying, “I’ll try better next time and seek help from a trusted teacher.”
SEEK SUPPORT IN HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS.
Building healthy relationships is also protective against shame. If a trusted friend highlights positive qualities and characteristics, it becomes easier to internalize positive self-concepts. Healthy relationships rely on trust. They are defined by individuals who listen without judgment, validate feelings, and provide support when needed. Discussing shameful thoughts within healthy relationships can serve as a reminder that we don’t need to be perfect in order to be respected, accepted, or loved. Personal value (as a human) does not exist in capacities or perfection.
TALK TO A PROFESSIONAL
If you have tried the techniques above and still need support, contact a clinical healthcare professional. These trained individuals can be allies in helping to identify the sources of shame and reduce its impact.
Kim, S., Thibodeau, R., & Jorgensen, R. S. (2011). Shame, guilt, and depressive symptoms: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 137(1), 68–96.
By: Christopher Grandits, PhD