A mental illness affects everything from your thoughts to your behavior to your relationships. It may sap your energy, mood and sleep. It may distort your beliefs about yourself and sink your self-esteem. It may feel like your days are regularly filled with a series of obstacles.
Navigating life with a mental illness is tough enough. But many people also feel an overwhelming sense of shame.
“Nearly all of my clients have struggled with shame about having a mental illness, or even about having feelings that are inconvenient or that seem out of sync with what others seem to feel,” said Lea Seigen Shinraku, MFT, a therapist in private practice in San Francisco. She focuses on helping clients relate to themselves and their lives with greater self-compassion.
People feel shame about not being what they perceive as “normal.” They may feel like they’re “broken” or “damaged” or “they’ll always be this way,” she said. They judge themselves. They compare their internal lives to others’ external lives, which they view as successful.
According to Shinraku, what makes shame so damaging is the isolation it creates and the stories it spins about “otherness.”
“Shame relentlessly repeats a very convincing story about how a person is not acceptable as-is; that in order to belong and to be lovable, they have to be other than how [and] who they are.”
Shame prevents people from honestly and compassionately acknowledging their difficult situation, she said. This makes it harder to effectively respond to your moods and patterns and realize that you do have choices.
Shame also can serve as a form of protection, a gatekeeper that keeps many people from dealing with painful feelings, she said. “As long as they stay locked up in shame, they can avoid facing what may feel even more deeply threatening to their sense of self and identity.”
For instance, for someone with an anxiety disorder, shame-based thoughts such as “What’s wrong with me?” keep them stuck on their “wrongness” and stop them from exploring what’s really driving their anxiety, such as a traumatic incident, she said.
“The uncovering of these underlying ‘drivers’ needs to happen at its own pace, when the person feels safe and strong enough [and] when their psyche is ready.”
“Shame conflates feeling ‘bad’ with being ‘bad,’” Shinraku said. It tells a person: “You feel bad, therefore you are bad.” This belief forms early when a child isn’t able to understand the distinction, she explained.
Their needs may go unmet by their caregivers, and so, “in order to preserve the caregiver as ‘good,’ the child will make sense of feeling bad by forming the belief that it must be their fault.”
Media and culture also reinforce this conflation, Shinraku said. They perpetuate the idea that mental illness is a sign of weakness or a character flaw. In our culture self-esteem is shaped by competition and being No. 1. When someone has a mental illness or life experience that isn’t rewarded by our culture, they may feel like an outsider, have low self-esteem or feel ashamed, she said.
You can chip away at shame, better understand it and become more accepting of yourself. Here’s how.
Self-compassion builds healthy, unconditional self-esteem, Shinraku said. Self-compassion may include learning about your mental illness and people who have created meaning from their experience, she said.
“Doing this can help you come out of isolation, tap into your sense of interconnectedness with others and recognize that you are not alone.”
Work with a therapist.
Seeing a therapist can help you cultivate a more compassionate relationship with yourself. You’ll “learn to accept and work with the circumstances of your life as they actually are, and recognize the times and places where you do have choices about how to respond.”
Notice and revise your stories.
“Bringing awareness to the stories you’re telling about yourself and your mental illness is also an important part of overcoming shame,” Shinraku said.
She shared this example: A person says, “I’m such a control freak, and I’m so critical of myself and everyone else when they don’t do things the ‘right’ way. There’s something wrong with me.”
To revise their story, instead of judging themselves, they become curious about their experience and start considering other perspectives for their thoughts and behaviors.
They explore other possibilities, such as: “I wonder why I need to control things. I wonder why it’s so important to me that things be done the ‘right’ way.”
Doing so helps them be more flexible in their story of who they are, rather than being stuck in a rigid narrative that says they’re defective, she said.
“It’s very important in my work with people that I share my perspective that there’s hidden wisdom in the ways that they orient to the world; even in their shame and in the things about themselves for which they feel shame. My view is that these experiences indicate that a part of them that is not yet integrated is trying to communicate.”
As Shinraku added, we have the power to create our own narratives and make our own meaning of your lives.
These are Shinraku’s favorite resources on self-compassion:
- Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself and Self-Compassion Step-by-Step audio book by Kristin Neff.
- “Self-Compassion Break,” a meditation from Neff.
- Radical Acceptance and True Refuge by Tara Brach.
- The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown.
- Brown’s TED talks on The Power of Vulnerability and Listening to Shame.
Shame can be painful and overwhelming. Being self-compassionate is a powerful way to explore your shame and overcome it.