Daily we all experience a variety of emotions. Certain things make us happy, others sad. We may see certain people and feel love, or see other people who make us angry. And although most of us don’t go around discussing each emotion we are feeling, we aren’t really thinking about hiding them either. There is, however, one emotion that people sometimes feel and go to great lengths to avoid discussing, showing or admitting. Shame.
Shame is a painful emotion that causes us to feel inadequate, unworthy and as though we have failed at, well, likely everything. It’s often confused with embarrassment or guilt, but it’s actually very different than either one. Although there are similarities between the three emotions, shame is a much deeper and damaging emotion than the others.
Embarrassment is generally a short-lived and fairly superficial emotion. It certainly can cause distress, and we would all rather avoid feeling embarrassed than embrace it. But typically embarrassment occurs over relatively small events and is gotten over fairly quickly.
Guilt is the feeling of remorse over actions or behaviors that have caused harm to ourselves or someone else. The feeling pertains to the action and not ourselves. We may feel shame at the same time, but they are two different emotions. In short, guilt is how you feel about what you did and shame is how you feel about yourself.
Why Shame Is Dangerous
Shame is a very powerful emotion and one that people don’t like to discuss. It can be triggered by a wide variety of circumstances and arise at any point in a person’s life. Because it’s often kept private and ignored it can take root, grow, fester and become incredibly toxic.
Shame, once rooted, is hard to shake. Even if the trigger was in childhood and the source has been outgrown, or is no longer a factor in adulthood, the feeling can persist. Even though it can be hard to explain the residual effects of deep feelings of shame are difficult to overcome.
Results of Dealing with Shame
Regardless of what triggers it, shame can cause a number of problems. Shame undermines an individual’s self-esteem, creating feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. People often feel like they are living with a secret, or like no one would like ever like them if they really knew everything about them. Someone struggling with feelings of shame can isolate themselves and refrain from creating any real or healthy relationships because of it. Depression, anger issues, and problems with addiction are not an uncommon byproduct.
Dealing with deep and ongoing shame over a long period of time will erode self-esteem and ultimately convince a person that they are unworthy of love and happiness. The isolation and loneliness that these feelings create can lead to long-term problems with depression, and many times lead to the use of alcohol or drugs as a form of self-medication.
Depression and substance abuse are big problems on their own, but these struggles can also deepen and add to the feelings of shame that a person feels. People in these circumstances typically see no other way to cope and will continue to spiral downward into a vicious cycle that only worsens every aspect of their lives.
Anger issues are another common manifestation of shame. It can be easier to attack others than it is to face whatever it is that caused your internal feelings of worthlessness. Anger can serve to distract from those feelings and project the pain onto someone or something else.
How Can You Deal with Shame?
Not ironically, the best way to deal with a feeling that most don’t want to admit to is to talk with someone else about it. The factors that contribute to this powerful emotion are generally too large to dissect and deal with on your own. The negative and damaging internal feelings of self-doubt and insecurity are difficult to combat without external guidance and tools to overwrite them. Counseling is the best option to accomplish this.
If you feel like shame is affecting your life or the life of someone you love there is hope. Getting the help you need to understand your feelings and reshape your perspective can be very freeing. Once you face your shame and learn how to manage your emotions life and relationships can look very different.