“Not this again,” says my shame. “You’re so annoying. Why do you even try? Nobody cares what you have to say, so you should just stop talking, writing, texting… everyone will be relieved. You disrupt everyone’s peace with your insecurity, anxiety, and incompetence. Just stay out of the way.”
That’s what my shame tells me almost every time I sit down at my desk to work, write, research and communicate with my clients. It’s the same thing my shame has always said, since middle school drama class, into college creative writing courses, and when I had my first job in Chicago. Shame wants me to believe that I’m useless, or worse, irritating to everyone around me. And it’s taken me a very long time to learn how to deal with that voice of shame.
Until I started learning about what shame is, where it comes from, and what it means, I often stopped myself from expressing thoughts and feelings, from taking exciting opportunities or trying new things. For a long time, shame stifled who I could have been, making me too afraid to take risks or be vulnerable.
What Is Shame?
I used to think that “shame” was something big that happened in epic tales of family dishonor, war, and infidelity. Game of Thrones comes to mind. I thought if I did something “shameful” and people found out, it’d be really, really bad.
But then I started working on my mental health and noticed a lot of advice about self-compassion. Isn’t compassion something you feel toward others? I needed to know more, and I found the work of shame researcher Brené Brown.
In “Shame vs. Guilt,” Brown says, “I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
Bingo. That was how I felt. All the time. It turns out I’m not alone.
In “Listening to Shame,” Brown also says that she believes we’re in a shame epidemic. This feeling of unworthiness is so common, it’d be hard to find anyone that doesn’t feel shame regularly. What makes this epidemic dangerous is that living in shame can be debilitating. Your social life, your career, your mental and physical health are all at risk when you’re living in constant shame.
Shame Versus Guilt
There’s a difference between shame and guilt. Guilt can be helpful. Guilt points out that you’ve done something you’re not proud of, whether that’s getting a C in a class, lying to your parents, or cheating on your romantic partner. Guilt identifies that the behavior isn’t something you want to repeat so that you can grow and behave differently next time. Shame identifies you. Shame says if you get a C, you’re stupid. If you lie to your parents, you’re ungrateful and dishonest. If you cheat on someone, you’re a bad person and you’ll cheat again and again and again.
Guilt empowers you to make changes. Shame strips that power from you, leaving you stuck, desperate, and hurting.
The Negative Effect of Shame
When you experience shame, it can take a huge toll on your life. You may feel permanently broken, and start to withdraw from people and activities you used to enjoy. You start to engage in behaviors that distract you from your shame—drinking, abusing drugs, unsafe sex, overspending, self-harm, etc. Your shame could also lead you to spread more shame—if you make everyone else feel bad about themselves, at least you aren’t the only one.
Other impacts shame can have on you:
- You become defensive.
- Your world becomes very small, and all you can think of are the negative beliefs you have about yourself, your own mistakes, your own misfortunes, etc. Your personality becomes narcissistic.
- You may feel anxious, depressed, lonely, or exhausted.
- Your self-esteem is low.
- You have trouble trusting people.
- You may become a people pleaser, an overachiever, or a perfectionist because you’re trying so hard to make up for your shame.
- You may shut down, underachieve, struggle in school, and lose jobs because you don’t see your time and effort as valuable contributions.
- You may avoid talking to people as much as possible.
My shame stopped me from pursuing healthy relationships, stopped me from applying to jobs, stopped me from being proud of my achievements, and some days stopped me from getting out of bed.
How Do You Overcome Extreme Shame?
I’m still working on it, but I’ve learned a few things about how to deal with shame. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
1. Notice the shame spiral. Sometimes I’ll just be walking my dog, having a nice day, and suddenly all I can think about is that one time, five years ago, when a roommate accused me of being lazy and inconsiderate. My steps get heavier, my face and shoulders tense up, and if I’m not careful, that one memory can ruin my entire day. When I’m able to notice that the voice of shame is telling me that I am lazy and inconsiderate and anybody around me would agree that I’m the most selfish person on the planet, that’s important. Once I’ve noticed the shame, I can interrupt that thought process.
2. Interrupt the shame spiral. Shame is uncomfortable and clingy and gets bigger every second that you listen to it. If you can learn how to make it smaller, you can stop it in its tracks. Amy Morin, LCSW of VeryWellMind says, “The goal is to reduce [uncomfortable feelings] enough that you can think clearly. Then, you can make healthier decisions for yourself.”
- I get my mind on something else. Whether that means starting a conversation with my dog, calling my brother, or turning on a true crime podcast, my brain needs something else to think about and fast, before shame convinces me that my life is meaningless.
- If I don’t get my body to change gears, I’ll probably lose the mental battle too. Sometimes, I’ll literally stop what I’m doing, do a forward fold, and start taking deep breaths. With each breath I try to relax something that feels tense. This may sound weird, but drinking super cold water does the trick—learning about the vagus nerve taught me that one.
3. Determine the source of the shame spiral. When I’m thinking more clearly, I can think objectively about what triggered that bout of shame. This step gets easier with practice, and to be honest I couldn’t do it by myself at first. This is where a licensed therapist could really help. If you’re able to, find one in your area and ask for help determining why you’re struggling with shame. Knowing the source(s) helps you figure out a plan of attack when shame rears its ugly head in the future.
4. Ask for support. You’re not a burden. I promise you. If you have a decent relationship with your parents, go to them. Ask a trusted friend to grab coffee. Text someone who you know will tell you that shame is lying to you. I wouldn’t be where I am with my mental health today if it weren’t for close, compassionate friendships. Sharing what your shame tells you, makes shame be quiet for a while, I’ve found.
5. Learn more, and share what you learn. Building your knowledge about shame, mental health, and self-esteem makes it easier to identify when you’re feeling shame and to know what to do in that moment. Sharing what you’re learning and talking about mental health more openly will help others who may be struggling too. Make your life a safe place for yourself and others to wrestle big feelings, heal, and grow.
In “Courage Over Comfort,” Brené Brown says, “People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real badasses in this world.” And I agree.
What’s Faith Got to Do With Shame?
I’m in a complicated relationship with faith and shame. Some of my shame struggles come from lessons I learned in Sunday School involving blood, gore, punishment, and hell. When you fear the retribution of an angry God from an early age, it’s not surprising that you start to internalize every mistake as a sign that you’re unworthy of love on a cosmic level. However, as I’ve learned more about what Jesus was like, I’ve been able to reclaim my faith as a source of forgiveness, grace, and freedom.
My faith tells me that Jesus considers me to be worthy of love, that I belong here and I matter, that I have a spark of the divine in me—created in His image—that can never go out. My faith doesn’t necessarily give me all the answers, but it does create space in my heart to feel loved instead of worthless, held instead of alone, and hope instead of despair. Basically, once I’ve sent my shame through those 5 steps above, my faith is where it goes to die.
I can’t let you go without one more good word from, of course, Brené Brown, who says in The Gifts of Imperfection, “Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.”
If I can do this, you can do this. It’s terrifying, and it’s not easy, but if you’re struggling with feelings of shame, please reach out for support today. You can chat with a Hope Coach, text a good friend, or look up a licensed therapist near you. Whatever you do, don’t give up. Shame is not really that strong in the end—you just have to call it out into the open and it’ll run screaming.
Have you heard of Imposter Syndrome? Imposter syndrome involves feeling self-doubt despite your accomplishments. Read my article on what imposter syndrome is and how to overcome it.