We’ve all done things in life that we aren’t proud of and want to forget. When we start harping in on the mistakes we’ve made, shame starts to rear its ugly head. We start feeling like we aren’t good enough and don’t deserve good things. Shame is a debilitating feeling that takes over the mind and body. It can make you feel small and incomplete while building walls around you to keep out compassion. Despite the desire to be seen and known, shame causes people to hide behind masks instead. You’re embarrassed by what you’ve done and want to hide from the outside world.
Healthy Shame vs. Toxic Shame
Shame is felt universally across countries and different cultures. Homes and schools use social shaming to ensure expected behavior. While healthy shame is necessary to keep society intact and ethical, this isn’t what causes distress and pain in so many people. Healthy shame guides toward self-correction, growth, and making amends.
Toxic shame, on the other hand, can be very harmful psychologically. It’s deeply absorbed in the nervous system, meaning you feel it in your gut. Toxic shame is self-punishing and lingers on. Often, it uses negative self-talk. You learn these negative beliefs through shame-inducing caregivers, partners, teachers, bullies, and friends.
This leads to feeling disconnected, alone, and more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors. The less you talk about shame with someone safe, the more control it has over your life and psychological well-being. The fear behind shame is usually the belief that sharing your story and being who you are will make people think less of you. It fights against the human need for acceptance. Building up our defenses against shame entails recognizing when we’re feeling the emotion, moving through it, and ultimately coming out on the other side with more courage and compassion. Here are some tips on how you can deal with shame.
Face the Root of Your Shame
Maybe something happened when you were younger that makes you feel ashamed, or you recently made a mistake that you can’t seem to work past. It’s essential to understand and examine your feelings of why you feel shame. Finding the cause of your shame can help you move forward and start the process of getting over your guilt. Once you discover why you feel shame, you can understand why you think this way.
Recognize When You Feel Shame
When you’re aware of being in a shame spiral, you can be deliberate in your response to it. One of the easiest ways to know when the emotion has taken hold is to identify the physical signs that accompany it. Remember that these will be slightly different for everyone, but they often resemble the bodily changes associated with panic. Next, try to identify your default emotional reaction when you feel shame. Some people choose to withdraw themselves, while others choose aggression. Being aware of your typical knee-jerk response increases your chances of pausing, reflecting, and learning to recognize your shame triggers.
Share Your Story
Since empathy is an antidote to shame, sharing your story and receiving empathy in return can help dissolve this painful feeling. Authentic sharing requires vulnerability, however, and that can be anxiety-inducing, especially if you’re discussing something you haven’t told many people. Choose someone you trust. Perhaps you ask a close friend just to listen and not offer advice, or you can request that the person not try to talk you out of what you’re feeling. Feeling heard is essential, and so is using the word shame, not embarrassment or guilt. By naming this deceptive feeling, you’re taking away some of its toxic power.
It’s much easier to be vulnerable and share our shameful feelings when we engage with the world from a place of worthiness. Part of the process of cultivating worthiness is through self-compassion, treating ourselves the way we treat other people we love and respect. One self-compassion-building exercise is locating where the sensation of shame manifests in your body. Then, place your hand over that area or your heart and direct comforting, affirming energy to that part of your body. If you find yourself laughing during this exercise, go with it. Regardless of where you are in building shame resiliency, go easy on yourself.
Mindfulness and meditation can work wonders as you learn to observe your thoughts. Feeling shame forces you to react, so it can be compelling just to notice your thoughts and question them. One way you can practice mindfulness is to sit still for 15 minutes and just let your mind wander. Feel your breathe and notice your body. Don’t judge yourself or obsess over where your mind wanders, but recognize the thoughts that take over while being still. You can also practice mindfulness by living in the moment. Try to intentionally bring an open, accepting, and discerning attention to everything you do. It would help if you also accept yourself. Treat yourself the way you would treat a good friend.
Shame is a universal emotion that everyone will feel in their lifetime. It causes you to doubt yourself and question everything you’ve done in your life. Shame causes you to harp on the mistakes you’ve made, and it makes you think that you can never move past these mistakes. However, you can’t let your past hold you back from your future. You can’t allow shame to define who you are because you made a mistake.
Dealing with your shame is the best way to move past it and start living your life. When dealing with shame, the first thing to do is recognize the root of the issue. After identifying where the problem started, you can start working on techniques to get over it. The best thing to remember when dealing with shame is not letting your past define you. Everyone makes mistakes, but forgive yourself for your transgressions and work on moving forward. Shame can make you feel invaluable, but everyone has value and is worthy of love and compassion.