Those feelings of embarrassment and humiliation are a part of the shame experience. And realistically, everyone has experienced shame once or twice – some more than others. But then again, shame isn’t necessarily a good thing.
At its core, shame is defined as the feeling of being bad or wrong. It’s a direct injury to a person’s ego and can stem from an internal source or be caused by an external factor. And while many of us will feel shame at some point in our lives, there are others who are controlled by their shame, paving the way to a variety of mental health problems.
Shame and guilt are often confused, and that’s because both are closely linked. While the emotional experience is the same, guilt is the feeling that you’ve done something wrong. This emotion stems from poorly thought out actions, and means that you recognize that your behavior hasn’t been ideal.On the other hand, shame is the feeling that you yourself are wrong. This emotion plays with your self-esteem and makes you feel as though you’re worth less or that you’re a bad person. Take this example: an employee shows up late to work after a night of partying with friends. As expected, he gets a reprimand from his superior.A guilt-prone person would think, “I knew drinking so late would be a bad idea, I really need to stop doing that.” However, a shame-prone person would be more inclined to think, “I’m such a screw-up, I never get anything right.”On a deeper level, guilt and shame can also be markers of an individual’s ability to empathize with others. Studies have found that guilt-prone people are more empathetic than shame-prone people. That’s because guilt-prone people are able to put themselves in others’ shoes.Guilt is an acknowledgement that you’ve done something to harm, inconvenience, or simply offend others. It’s the understanding that your actions have been hurtful, and it may be the motivation for an individual to act and behave more consciously of the people around him.Then again, shame is internally motivated. It’s the inability to take correction and reprimand, and shows that a person is more interested in protecting their ego than understanding where others are coming from. Shame is in itself, the inability to accept that you are capable of wrong. It’s the feeling of having your ego hurt.However, there are instances when shame doesn’t stem from a person’s own actions or behavior. Some individuals will feel ashamed when their ego is under fire from external factors. For instance, body shaming is a common practice on social media that has been known to damage a person’s self-esteem.
One shame researcher claims that between guilt and shame, guilt serves a purpose. It helps individuals identify bad behavior, and makes it possible for us to restore relationships. Shame on the other hand, is a destructive emotion that targets a person’s self-worth, serving no real purpose
Shame can come from many different factors, and the extent of the emotions vary depending on how sensitive a person is to the causative factor. These reasons for shame can most commonly be identified as:
- Social Norms – Many of us operate within a set of cultural and social norms that guide our concept of what’s acceptable and proper. Social media makes up a large chunk of the social norms we follow, especially those involving our body image. Individuals who don’t fall within the parameters of what’s considered socially acceptable may be subject to either external shaming from the people around them, or from an internal shame.
- Trauma or Abuse – Children who have been abused in their early years typically shy away from opening up because of the shame that the experience imposes. Sexually abused children often feel it was their fault, that there’s something wrong with them, and that they’re unworthy of care and love because of the traumatic abuse.
- Self-Esteem Problems – Certain experiences can make it difficult for people to see themselves as worthy. Childhood upbringing, constant correction and discipline at home, school or work, and the lack of approval or attention from key people in a person’s like can make self-esteem fragile and prone to shame.
People experience shame in different ways, and some might manifest its markers more prominently than others. But more or less, people experiencing shame are likely to show any of the following:
- Recurrent, hyper-critical internal monologue
- Acting defensively
- Aggressive or violent action
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
- Deliberately making choices that hinder your own development or full potential
- Feelings of unworthiness
- Lack of self confidence
- Being emotional
- Refusing to participate in group activities
- Difficulty making or maintaining eye contact
- Feeling apprehensive in social situations
- Stage fright
- Under or over performing at work or school
- Eating too much or too little
- Sleeping too much or too little
It helps to remember that shame can look different depending on the person experiencing it. While others will try to compensate by over achieving or over working, there are others who are prone to letting the feelings of humiliation take over. This leads to a lack of motivation or willingness to engage in everyday tasks.
It is true that most of us experience shame, but the average person is typically capable of overcoming the emotions after some time. Some people – especially women – will experience shame depending on their monthly cycle. Hormonal changes attributed to the menstruation can make a woman more prone to feelings of shame and humiliation. The same is true for pregnant women, or those who have just given birth.
But while shame should resolve with time, there are others who are unable to overcome the feelings of worthlessness and embarrassment. The repeated damage to a person’s ego, if allowed to persist without resolve, could lead to the development of various mental health conditions.
Some studies found that individuals with prolonged or profound feelings of shame are more likely to develop depression. In fact, looking back at the manifestations of shame, it’s easy to see that many of the ways that shame presents itself are similar to the symptoms of a major depressive disorder.
However, depression isn’t the only mental health problem that individuals face after repeated experiences of shame. General anxiety disorder, dissociative personality disorder, substance use disorder, and panic disorder are just some of the different mental health conditions that may arise as the result of unresolved shame.
Medications are not a necessary treatment for shame unless the problem has evolved to clinical diagnosis. Fortunately, shame on its own is highly treatable, allowing individuals to cope and overcome the feelings before it progresses into a more serious condition. On the other hand, people who already have a clinical diagnosis on top of their shame may require more intensive treatment.
Counseling is an effective treatment for shame because it provides individuals with a safe, judgement-free space to vent and express their emotions. Here, counsellors can get an idea as to the deeper cause of a person’s shame. It’s also through counseling that many unaddressed, repressed emotions and problems are brought to light. Through counseling, experts and patients can work to unpack childhood trauma, personal esteem issues, and other deep-seated problems that might make them shame-prone.
Therapy on the other hand, provides patients with guidance on how to eliminate shameful thought processes. For instance, in situations where shame might be the knee-jerk reaction, therapists help patients figure out how to refuse shameful thoughts and redirect their thinking to other, healthier ideas and reactions.
By focusing on automatic thoughts which are ideas that an individual might use in reaction to embarrassing situations, therapists can show how irrational and harmful these ideas can be. An example of an automatic thought is “I’m worthless and a failure,” which some people might run to when faced with shame.
Stress inoculation therapy is another helpful technique that provides individuals with practical tools to respond to stress. Under high stress situations, individuals are more likely to feel shame. By helping them identify stress before it gets out of hand, individuals can get ahead of the situation and prevent subsequent shame.
Shame can be crippling, and in many cases, it can be the precursor for more serious conditions. And while the feelings of shame might be overwhelming and stressful to deal with, there are effective ways to manage the experience so you never have to be overpowered by shame again. A positive outlook and a willingness to hurdle the challenge of shame are the first steps to healing. With constant effort and a can-do attitude, you can effectively put those feelings of humiliation to rest.