There is no doubt, seeing the suffering of the depressed clients I work with, that feelings of shame can have huge consequences on wellbeing and sense of self.
Gershen Kaufman summed up many of the consequences of shame in one paragraph of his book on the psychology of shame (Kaufman, Gershen, Shame: The Power of Caring, Rochester, 1992):
“…shame is important because no other affect is more disturbing to the self, none more central for the sense of identity. In the context of normal development, shame is the source of low self-esteem and deficient body-image. In the context of pathological development, shame is central to the emergence of alienation, loneliness and perfectionism”.
As my previous post on the inner critic described, we all engage to some degree in a continuous dialogue with our inner critic’s voice. When our critic is very harsh, this is when shame can be felt and depression may follow. Unfortunately, as we tend to listen and believe our critic, we are primed to interpret situations in such a way that provides us with more evidence that our critic is right. Our inner critic develops as a means of keeping ourselves in line; as mentioned before, it tries its best to protect us from feeling rejected, left out, alone or abandoned. When it becomes too extreme however, it can become very destructive and increase this feeling of shame.
What can we do about feelings of shame?
Below are nine ways to begin working with your shame:
- Know that you were not born feeling shame about yourself. Know that shame is learned. Get curious about where and when and from who you learned your shame.
- Know that shame is NOT your fault, even though our shame tells us that it is and can be very convincing.
- Know that as adults, we can learn skills and get help in handling shame like learning to manage rejection. We can gain enough confidence to take chances and come out of hiding. There is always hope.
- Know that you can surround yourself with friends and partners who accept and love you for you. You can find people to share in your joy and excitement. You can find people who share your interest in being real and authentic.
- Practice changing your habitual reflex to shrink and hide. Slowly start experimenting with expansive feelings like joy, pride, interest and excitement when they arise by firstly acknowledging them. Notice if you immediately dismiss good feelings about yourself or towards others.
- Know that arrogance, contempt, perfectionism, pretenses, bullying behavior and aggression in general are often a cover for underlying shame. Notice (non-judgmentally) those defensive behaviours that you recognize in yourself and others.
- Practice offering compassion to the part(s) of you that feel ashamed or bad in the moments you are suffering most.
- Practice working with your shamed part(s) by asking it (them) as though it (they) were another person you were talking to “How did you learn to feel ashamed? From whom or where did you get this message?” Then be patient and listen to your shamed part(s). it might tell you something new.
Practice finding and validating the core emotions you have felt as a result of being shamed in the present or the past. (see my previous post on “Change”)