Shame is the feeling that you are unacceptable. It is what you feel when you think you've done something bad enough that you need to exclude yourself from society, at least temporarily. It is the hide-yourself-away emotion. If you feel shame a lot it can make it very hard to ask for help, and to trust people to help. That's because shame tells you that you don't deserve help and that anyone who is trying to help you doesn't yet realise how awful you are. With guilt, regret and remorse, you might reach out to people to try and make amends, but shame tells you to push the rest of the world away.
Let's take a look at three things:
- Why human beings feel shame at all.
- Why we might feel shame more (or a lot more!) than other people
- What we can do to cope with or reduce our feelings of shame
When shame is useful
If you struggle with shame a lot then it might seem crazy that shame could be useful but the fact is that human beings evolved to feel shame. It is easy in modern Western societies, which idolise individuality, to forget that we evolved in small communities where everyone was highly dependent upon the group. In those circumstances, acting in ways that triggered great disapproval in others could be fatal. For this reason, we have a mechanism for evaluating how much disapproval others will feel about our actions. This influences what choices we make, allowing us to avoid doing things that risk us being rejected by our group. This mechanism is shame.
Why some people feel shame more than others
Shame can be thought of as the anticipation of rejection. People have different sensitivities to rejection. Those with antisocial personality disorder (which includes psychopaths) do not feel rejection. People who have suffered multiple traumas, for example those with borderline personality disorder, can be exquisitely sensitive to rejection. Other people lie between these extremes.
If we feel shame more than most people then it can be for a variety of reasons. We may have been conditioned to be ashamed of certain acts. This can happen as children when a caregiver "rejects" us for behaving in a certain way. If we repeatedly feel humiliated, or that we might be ejected from our family, for doing particular things then we will probably feel shame when we do those things later. This can be a big problem when those actions are part of our identity (e.g. our sexuality) or necessary for navigating the world (e.g. asking for help) or are unavoidable parts of life (e.g. making mistakes.) In this case we are punishing ourselves for just living.
What to do about excessive shame
Trauma rewires us neurologically. Conditioning (which can be viewed as a kind of trauma) can do the same. This kind of rewiring can cause us to feel a lot more shame than is useful. The good news is that as human beings we are 'neuroplastic' and this means that we can rewire ourselves.
Even though we are not deliberately doing it, excessive shame is a kind of self-punishment. One way of starting to unravel this reflex is to learn self-compassion. Self-compassion is a counterwieght to our tendency to focus mostly on our faults. It is usually more useful to aim for self-compassion than self-esteem. That's because self-esteem is based on our self-image, and as you may have noticed, even if our self-image is good we do not always live up to it. This makes self-compassion more robust and accessible than self-esteem, especially when we are feeling low. I highly recommend self-compassion practice and I list some resources below.
All the self-compassion practice that I am aware of builds on mindfulness. Mindfulness resources are easier to find than self-compassion resources in Western countries because mindfulness is now mainstream. You might find mindfulness very useful in its own right. It can be helpful in distinguishing between primary pain (physical pain and direct emotional pain like grief and shame) and secondary pain (the painful emotions we experience as a result of thinking about our pain.) If you would like to see a blog post about the distinction between primary and secondary pain then let me know.
It probably won't suprise you to hear that talking therapies are another way to work on trauma and excessive shame. I have a post (one of many!) in the pipeline on how to choose coaches, counsellors, and psychotherapists. Until then, my recommendation is to evaluate a therapist over the first few sessions in two ways: (1) Do you trust them to support you? and (2) Do they challenge you? If they seem very supportive but passive, or if they seem very challenging but you don't feel they are the kind of person you could open up to, then they might not be right for you. You may want to talk to them about this to see if that changes things (sometimes this can be very useful for both of you) or you might feel that you need to find another therapist.
An internet search for
find a therapist should help you to find a therapist in your country of residence.
Self compassion resources
- The mindful path to self-compassion by Christopher Germer. I like the steady feeling of progression in this book.
- The compassionate mind by Paul Gilbert. The first half is an accessible description of the evolution of our emotional systems. The second half is self-compassion exercises.
- Self-compassion by Kristen Neff. Neff is very open about her own experience of healing.
- A big list of self-compassion resources including lots of websites.
I spent a year living in a rural fishing community in Madagascar and I was struck by how little mockery I saw there. I was laughed at many times because I seemed strange in lots of ways to people unfamiliar with Europeans but I never once felt mocked. I had the surprising experience of enjoying being laughed at. When I returned to the UK, it occurred to me that some of the social circles I mixed in had a very strong culture of mockery. You might find this kind of thing triggering ("I look like an idiot again!") or comforting ("Everyone is ridiculous, not just me.") Either way, it might be useful to notice how people in your social groups treat each other e.g. when somone makes a mistake or when someone tries to talk openly and honestly about how they feel.