If there is one thing I know 100% will undermine any efforts to be resilient it’s shame. This nasty little insidious emotional worm can burrow into your mind and pop up in all sorts of uncomfortable places:
- Your body doesn’t look like it should
- You should have behaved differently or said something different
- You shouldn’t have those dreams or desires
- You should be more accomplished/in a relationship/have had children
- You should be more organised
- You should take up less space
Etc. etc. Notice the word “should,” which is always an indication that what comes next will be judgmental (if said by someone else to you) or self-judgmental (if said about or to yourself) and a sign that the inner critic is at the wheel.
We all experience this from time to time because of the society in which we live in and the habits of older generations (who were also affected by the generations before them). But it’s not a harmless emotion. It can be crippling. Shame will destroy resilience. It is almost always at the heart of what leads us to self-harm or suicide. And feelings of shame can get in the way of making amends or recovering. It is, in short, a completely pointless emotion that is purely a tool for others to manipulate or control or for us to punish ourselves.
I really hate shame. Maybe you can tell
The reason I have such a strong reaction to shame is that it is a big part of the intergenerational trauma in my family. It has caused people to do horrible things. It prevented me from loving myself for a long time and it has destroyed the people around me. One of the reasons I spent so many years so low on resilience is because I had such high levels of shame. I don’t believe there is such a thing as “healthy shame” and I think if you look deeply and question what those who use this term actually mean, more often than not they are actually talking about guilt.
Shame vs Guilt
Here are the two narratives that come from shame and guilt:
Guilt. I have done something wrong. I said something that caused a problem.
Shame. I am wrong. I am the problem.
Guilt can be a useful indicator that you could make a change in your behaviour, reconsider how you approach a situation or might need to think about how you deal with emotions. This is useful data for resilience. It’s about something you’ve said or done – things that can be rectified and changed. Shame is not like this. There is no separation of the person from the action – it’s a feeling that you’re inherently wrong or broken. Shame produces a strong sense of lowness in someone who is feeling it, which is why it can be a powerful manipulative tool. Shaming someone means you can have power over them. That’s why shame appears in so many power structures, such as religion.
Prisoners who feel guilt don’t reoffend – those who feel shame, do
Here’s an example of the different impacts of shame and guilt and how they impact resilience to reoffending. Research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science on American prisoners looked at the factors that influence how likely someone is to re-offend after getting out of jail. The findings show that inmates who feel guilt about specific behaviors are more likely to stay out of jail later on. Those that are inclined to feel shame about the self are much more likely not to.
Recognising if shame is a problem for you
Our society is saturated in shame and you may not even realise how much this is controlling you. Or how much it’s undermining resilience for you. Start by looking for that burning feeling in your guts or chest – that’s an indicator that shame is present for many people. Feeling like you want to disappear is another sign. You might feel obsessed with what other people are thinking about you – paralysed by the idea of it being negative. You might have internalised the shaming that has been done to you and have developed an internal narrative that is constantly criticising and judgmental (“I’m so stupid I hate myself”).
Anger is also a very common reaction to shame – and it can disguise shame in many people because shame is the harder emotion to feel. Getting angry is much easier and more satisfying. Finally, a lot of numbing behaviours indicate the presence of shame, from addiction through to using food, sex, alcohol or even hours of Netflix to block out how you really feel.
2023 is the year to give up shame
Shame will come and go for all of us through life but the more resilient you are, the more able you are to simply let yourself notice that it’s there and then release it. Rather than feeling overcome by it. The less of a hold shame has on you the more confident you will be, the easier you will find it to be authentic and the more likely you’ll be able to make strong connections and live a purposeful and happy life. So, how do you free yourself from the grip of shame?
- Find out where your shame has come from. When you understand where shame arises for you, and why it arises for you, then you can take steps to help release its grip.
- Bring your shame into the light. Shame can’t survive compassion. And it rarely survives being shared. Mainly because when we are honest about our shame most people respond to that with positive affirmation or kindness. For example, “I’m afraid you’re not going to like me.” It’s important to make sure that when you do share your shame that you’re doing it in a safe relationship.
- Dial up the self-compassion. I think I will repeat to the end of my days that self-compassion is not about letting yourself off the hook. We are the survival of the nurtured and those who thrive know how to create a self-compassionate inner world for themselves. This is the fertile ground for action, growth and connection. Shame is barren ground and poisons your ecosystem.
- Come and see a coach like me. We often don’t realise when we’re shaming ourselves – or allowing others to shame us – and working with a coach can hold a mirror up to where you’re letting this happen in your life. Someone who recognises the signs and can help you find ways to stop.
Shame is a real, tangible problem but it’s not a barrier that you need to get stuck behind. Tackling its influence in your life is vital for resilience. If you often find yourself struggling with self love, unable to make confident decisions, deal with failure or forgive yourself for mistakes then reviewing how you handle shame could change everything.
Shame is a big theme among my clients – and something that resilience coaching can lead you safely out of. Get in touch and we’ll talk more about how this could work for you.