“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
Shame versus Guilt
We often confuse shame and guilt. However, these two aren’t the same emotion.
Guilt occurs because we feel remorseful about a wrong that we may have done. At its best, guilt prevents us from harming others and enables us to feel empathy. (“I feel terrible about making you cry. I am sorry.”) At its worst, guilt sets an unrealistic high bar for us to meet. (“I wish I were perfect enough for my parents.”)
Shame, on the other hand, makes us feel flawed and unworthy. Where guilt is associated with a behavior, shame doesn’t separate the behavior from the self. With shame, you are the behavior, and you will always be the behavior. Shame holds power over our sense of self, and in doing so, it makes us feel inadequate.
How Shame Affects Our Mental Health
Shame has a corrosive effect on mental health. Shame around a certain event or circumstance is the root cause of many mental disorders. For example, shame stemming from sexual assault, bullying or family abuse can play a large part in disorders such as anorexia, cutting, suicide and drug addiction.
Shame also results in social isolation, which prevents a person from seeking out social support systems. Furthermore, shame shatters self-confidence and self-acceptance.
Shame Resilience Theory
A 2006 study performed with women found that shame caused feelings of being “trapped, powerless and isolated.” Some examples of common triggers for shame in women were sexuality, family, motherhood, parenting, work, mental and physical health, aging, religion and trauma.
Fortunately, shame can be overcome. The Shame Resilience Theory identifies strategies to defeat feelings of shame. According to Brene Brown, shame researcher and author, there are four main steps to developing shame resilience:
Recognize the triggers and vulnerabilities that have links with shame.
Feelings like anger, depression and anxiety can sometimes stem from shame and vice versa. First, to overcome shame, we must acknowledge its presence and what triggers the shame. Our desires, addictions and shortcomings can be triggers for shame.
Recognize the outside factors that cause feelings of shame.
For many women, factors such as appearance, weight, motherhood, sex and trauma connect to feelings of shame. It’s essential to acknowledge how these factors cause shame. The trajectory of our lives is shaped by how resilient we can be when facing our shame.
Be willing to reach out to others to receive and offer empathy.
One aspect that allows shame to stay is how it isolates a person. Connecting with others and developing relationships enable a person to open themselves up, and seek help to do away with shame. Social support systems also empower a person to empathize with others and find that they are not alone in their shame.
Discuss and break down the feelings of shame themselves.
After connecting with others, disclosing one’s shame to those who have earned the right to hear them is key to shame resilience. Once the shame is discussed, it is no longer held alone in the dark and is released. Speaking about shame and the experiences that come with it leads to an unburdening.
Moving Forward Without Shame
The truth is that we all experience shame to some degree in our lifetime. What makes shame resilience so important is that it keeps us from carrying shame into the future. The best way to overcome shame is to acknowledge it and share it, which can make us feel vulnerable and exposed.
Shame’s power is most potent in the corners and in darkness. Fortunately, it is in this vulnerability and exposure that we can let the light in to banish the dark.