“Shame is a soul-eating emotion.” – Carl Jung
Like most people, you’ve likely experienced shame at some point in your life. To some, even the slightest violation of personal values is enough to trigger shame, while others feel no trace of shame unless and until the transgression is of major importance. Still, shame is a nasty feeling, one we all want to rid ourselves of as quickly as possible. Yet, how to deal with the aftermath of shame has both universal and uniquely personal elements.
WHAT IS SHAME?
Understanding where shame comes from is necessary in order to effectively deal with it. An American Psychological Association posting notes that shame is much more intense than simple embarrassment and likely stems from a moral transgression. While it is possible to feel solitary shame, most shame is experienced when others are around.
According to researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, shame is a biological capacity that is part of our human nature. It is not a cultural orientation some populations display.
Those researchers point out that the function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them if we do. At its core, then, researchers said, shame is part of a universal, evolved human nature.
The study’s lead author, Daniel Sznycer said that “feelings of shame move in lockstep with the values held by those around you, as the theory predicts.” There are, however, cultural differences in circumstances surrounding shame, along with guilt and pride, as a study published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology found. Another study found that shame and guilt are often found in suicide and suicide ideation.
Other research by this group found that moral wrongdoing is not necessary to feel shame, when they showed that participants felt shame when others viewed their actions negatively – even when they themselves knew the did nothing wrong.
SHAME AND GUILT
What’s the difference between shame and guilt?
- Shame is a feeling you experience when you feel disgraced or dishonored. It is an emotion that afflicts
- Guilt is an emotion you experience when you violate your own values. It belongs to the perpetrator of the action.
In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers found that participants – who related personal experiences of shame, guilt and embarrassment – were their own “harshest critics” when evaluating such events, judging themselves more negatively than others. Shame, while it often occurred in social settings, also occurred when participants were alone. Furthermore, researchers found that shame, guilt and embarrassment are distinct emotions, with embarrassment on the distant periphery.
Research in frontotemporal dementia shows that the origins of shame may be in the right pregenual anterior cingulate, which is damaged in this type of dementia. Other research suggests this brain region may play some role in embarrassment and possibly shame as well.
CHARACTERISTICS OF SHAME
While not everyone who experiences shame will feel or display it in the same way, these are some common characteristics of shame:
- Hearing hyper self-critical voices in your head.
- Dry mouth.
- Heart racing.
- Tunnel vision.
- Time seems to slow down.
- Plagued by many fears.
- Unsatisfying relationships, interpersonal difficulties.
- Inability to make eye contact with others.
- Being defensive, angry, in denial.
- Making choices that prevent you from living fully and vibrantly.
- Poor life functioning.
- Feeling unworthy, lacking ability.
- A constant awareness of defects.
Furthermore, as researchers found in two studies where participants recalled occasions when they experienced guilt or shame and rated their experiences, commonalities existed in the areas of pain, arousal and tension.
WHEN DO YOU FEEL SHAME?
Shame comes from feeling powerless and frustrated. It is a continued shock at the realization that this terrible thing actually happened to you. While both men and women experience shame, experts say that abuse survivors, women in particular, often feel more guilt, whereas men feel more shame.
More important than the healing of physical wounds is healing emotional wounds arising from shame. This requires a therapist, a professional with expertise in this area of overcoming the emotional aftermath of abuse and trauma. Most experts say that it is wrong and unfair to think that you somehow should have been able to stop the abuse. Victims of abuse don’t plan their abuse. Their perpetrator has the deck stacked against them. He or she had all the advantages and the victim had none.
COPING STRATEGIES FOR DEALING WITH SHAME
When trying to combat a toxic emotion such as shame, many may try to hide from others, preferring isolation to interpersonal contact. It’s as if they believe others can see the shame on their face and will judge them harshly because of it. Often, powerful negative emotions coalesce and form the foundation for mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Is it any wonder that turning to alcohol and drugs to numb the pain from such negative emotions is a common, albeit ineffective, coping method?
Besides, once the buzz or euphoria wears off, not only do the negative feelings still exist, the desire to be rid of them again may lead to another round of drinking and drugging. This vicious cycle can culminate in addiction, not resolution of the emotional turmoil.
Where, then, should you begin to overcome shame and start the healing process?
Start with now.
Begin where you are today. Know that you cannot move forward with your life until you do. Sure, it will be painful, yet you must allow yourself to feel any and all emotions that surface. If you try to avoid them or stuff them back down so you don’t think about them, you’ll remain stuck.
Determine where you want to go.
What is your vision? If you don’t have one, you must create one. To help in this endeavor, try creating a list or construct a vision board. This exercise helps you discover and work towards your better self.
Decide to move ahead.
This step entails that you feel confidant you can handle whatever happens on the journey forward. Expect some ups and downs, as navigating the path may not always proceed smoothly.
Honestly acknowledge your fears.
Can you do this? What happens if you fail? What if you succeed, what then? By acknowledging your fears as honestly as you can, you’ll actually free yourself from their burden. Those fears will no longer hold any power over you. You might want to write down each one on a list. Once you’re finished, have a cleansing ceremony where you tear them up, shred or burn them. Again, this act helps release the fears, so they can no longer hold any claim over you.
Find your higher purpose.
Locate something bigger than yourself, possibly a purpose affecting your loved ones. Once you’ve figured out your higher purpose, move forward and take action to help fulfill it.
Celebrate your inner strength.
It may not feel like it now, yet you are stronger for having gone through this process. Overcoming shame isn’t easy and you will be drawing upon your inner strength, resiliency and coping abilities to come out victoriously on the other side.
Do enlist the support of a professional therapist to help you both understand more fully the underpinnings of shame, what to do when you feel discouraged, where to find allies, and what works best in your personal situation to overcome shame. Compassion-focused therapy (CFT) may be helpful. It’s important to know that unresolved shame leads to feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety and depression and may also be significant predictors of mental health disorders, such as body dysmorphia. Talking about the emotional pain you feel is a powerful step in the healing process. Don’t allow shame to eat your soul. You can overcome this with time, perseverance and taking constructive action.