Note: the information in this article was gathered from personal experience, reflection, and work with my own feelings. Take it as you will.
Definition of Shame
A sense of being lesser than, or bad, wrong, objectionable in some way. Characterized by a sense of lowliness or guilt that can be tempting to try and escape from desperately, or to fix through elaborate changes in behavior.
Probable Symptoms of Shame:
- Trying to “fix” yourself or your behavior in an obsessive or desperate way
- Getting confused with regards to what you’re doing wrong in a relationship
- Feeling like you’re trying to be a good person, and so not understanding what’s going wrong or why people get angry with you
- Defensiveness in the face of criticism or dissenting opinions
- Getting into arguments and conflicts where you try to prove the other person that you’re not the one who’s wrong
- A sense that certain aspects of you or what you do are wrong, bad, or need to be changed quickly
- Trying to remain superior, upright, and/or righteous
- A sense of distress about who and what you are
- Negativity or even hatred towards one’s self, or self-punishment of any kind
- Arguing with those who criticize you and trying to prove them wrong
- A fear of mistakes
- Not knowing what you want, and feeling like the things you do aren’t things you really necessarily want to be doing – feeling conflicted about these things, or pressured into them somehow
- “Impostor Syndrome”, where you’re afraid other people will find out you’re an impostor and really not as good as they think you are
- Placating others, or trying to put them at ease so they won’t be mad at you, being a “people pleaser”
- Rebellious behavior specifically aimed at antagonizing anyone who shames or is overly critical toward you
- Often engaging in behaviors that you feel guilty or very troubled about afterward
- Beating yourself up
- A disconnection from how you really feel
- A lot of drama in your relationships, and a feeling that by fighting the others you’ll win some relief for yourself
- Tension, perhaps around conflicts over how and when to act
- Trying to accomplish “great things”, ultimately to not have to experience shame
- Coldness and disdain towards others
- Clinging on to those who accept you, even if they treat you poorly
- Desperate desire for acceptance, love, kind treatment, or recognition, and distress when you don’t get it
- Lots of hesitation and confusion about what’s right or wrong to do – intense moral dilemmas, even in small matters
- Wanting, fearfully, to not be “wrong”, “bad”, or “evil”
- Social anxiety
- Feeling on edge around other people
What seems to cause Shame
Shame seems to come about as a kind of coping mechanism for fitting in and creating a sense of harmony in relationships with others, including yourself. We want to be our best, do our best, not necessarily just to be effective in whatever area, but so that we won’t be as subject to the judgmental attitudes of others or ourselves.
We can be shamed by our idea of “how we should be” or “what we should do”, we can be shamed by things that, disconnected from the reality of what we’re going through, seek only to have reality conform to its wishes and demands, and thereby evade how it feels to be without that reality.
For example, say a parent wants their child to “behave” at dinner time. Let’s say this behavior causes the parent to feel annoyed and rageful, perhaps due to feeling a lack of control. Not wanting to feel this way, they label any external behavior that triggers these feelings as bad, and rebuke the child in this way, trying to “put a stop” to them. The child, in this sense, may come to believe they are wrong or shameful, and try instead to either please the parent and conform, or to rebel and not listen at all. Then, they may carry this shame with them, feeling as though they’ve done something wrong, even though their behavior made sense to them at the time.
Or, take the person who does this to themselves. They make a mistake, and they tell themselves they’re stupid. Every further mistake hurts emotionally, and they can spiral ever further into self-loathing, doubt, or a low mood. They might not want to step forward, be themselves, or try things they might want to try, because of the pain those mistakes cause them. This may protect them from the emotional pain, at least where they can help it, but it also deviates their life course from avenues where they might learn and grow through the process of trial and error.
The Issue of Confusion
Sometimes, we may not know what the problem is – in our relationships, in our mood, in how we’re living our life. We might feel lost, often disappointed and unsatisfied, or just unfulfilled. What this can be is us not supporting ourselves and not living life in the way we want to live it, perhaps because we’ve been blocked from those things due to shame.
Note that this is different from just feeling like you don’t know what to do, and like you, for no reasons other than your own, should reevaluate aspects of your life. Sometimes we may arrive at that place, without shame.
But for shame, yes, sometimes we can end up lost in terms of what we want, even as we actively pursue things and wind up unfulfilled, unhappy, unsatisfied. We’re trying, but we’re either not getting, or even when we do get, it doesn’t feel great, and we’re sort of back in the slump where we started.
Compounded on this, we may become optimistic towards what we’re trying to achieve, and thus put more energy into it, when really we might not notice the desperate struggle to escape the shame eating away at us.
Egotism and Rebellion
Or, we might think, at various points in life, we have become shameless or superior, and end up with egotistic attitudes towards others. That or we may have a hard time seeing their viewpoints, even if we think “trying to understand conflicting perspectives” is a “good” thing.
Or, we might end up taking an aggressive stance towards sources of shame, and rebel constantly, seeking to undermine the objectives of whatever shamers seem to be exerting the most power. If they want “good” behavior, their “bad” ends up becoming our “good”. But this still not be connected to what’s good for us and what we, individually, want.
Fear of Vulnerability
Digging deeper into shame, there’s a certain vulnerability in taking a road that’s discerned and created by you. It’s a road defined not by ideas of what you should be or want, but by how you actually are, your feelings, your moment-to-moment reality, your emotions, and your own interests. You’re leading your own search, rather than running away from the spotlight others might shine on you. Whether it’s from others or yourself, you may find yourself running from the potential judgment, denigration, or rejection you might have to endure when your behavior is viewed from a different lens.
In a way, you’re made vulnerable by your own uniqueness, but also set free by it. Free to step forward as yourself, free to take care of yourself, to know your own troubles and cares and to care about them in a way that makes sense to you. Working with others may always present its own challenges, but the dangers there are weighed against the potential for freedom, and to be your own person, rather than trying to conform in an effort to avoid the attacks others might lob your way.
So, if you look at what might actively shame you, on the inside or out, you can consider if the fear of vulnerability might be behind such an attack. Examining the feeling, you may sense a certain kind of desperation to the attack, and a vulnerability and fear towards what you’re being shamed for. At such times, it can help to connect with your understanding of why you’re doing what you’re being shamed for, and doing your best to understand the dilemmas that are there.
When you see the complexities of your decisions and what you’re going through, as well as the good in your own perspective, it can become less tempting and easy to slide into a panic over whether or not what you’re being shamed for truly is good or bad. Rather, you’ll be able to see better why it’s part of your reality, and what interests, dilemmas, doubts, and other feelings factor into your approach to this topic.
You can definitely be shamed for something that feels right and good for you. But this may have more to do with the fear, confusion, and dilemmas the shamer is facing, than that there’s anything wrong with your approach, personally. It doesn’t mean there isn’t, or that you don’t, personally, have your own doubts and dilemmas. But just because others have doubts doesn’t mean you have to – you can consider their perspective without adopting it for fear of ostracization or abandonment.
And this doesn’t mean you have to reject them. You can still care about why they’re upset or fearful. But what solves their dilemma for them may not be you changing your behavior – it may have more to do with them finding a way to come to terms with or understand the situation and the feelings that the situation’s bringing up in them. For someone who’s lost, hurting, or confused, you can certainly care for that person without reacting to them and trying to change your behavior to try and avoid for them this situation.
How to work through Shame
For shame, probably the first order of business is to be aware of the possibility of feeling ashamed. You don’t need to chase ghosts or be afraid of shame, but you can know that there are aspects of your life that, even if you don’t feel are 100% bad, might be questionable enough to where criticism of those aspects might feel bad. You might feel like you couldn’t defend or justify your actions with some other person or group, or that you’re in danger of being excluded from a relationship in some way. In a desire not to be judged or shamed, you might make certain adjustments to try and help the relationship, but it still might leave you feeling unhappy and unfulfilled – not fully yourself.
Then, of course, there’s shame that doesn’t involve other people, but rather your own ideals and standards for your own behavior. Noticing where you might look down on yourself for your own behavior might help at this stage.
After becoming aware of how you might be affected by shame, you can then start to work through the instances where you entertain or accept that shame. You can, instead, look for the truth of how you can view yourself. Are you being fair with yourself? Is it really so bad? What do you really want? Is the criticism another has thrown your way really fair, or, is it missing the mark?
Understanding and Standing up for Yourself
If you’re having trouble, try looking at things from an objective angle, where you can see the shamed version of yourself – being present to this version of yourself, what sorts of feelings come up? If you feel some aggression or anger, you can step back further, and examine what parts of your own consciousness may be berating, attacking, or shaming this part of you. Is this paradigm fair? You might end up being able to see, much more clearly, how wrong and unfair this treatment is, and be able to intervene in a compassionate way.
Shaming sides of you can take their anger out on shamed sides. This can be thought of also in terms of the coping mechanism idea from before. The side doing the shaming is the one who can’t cope, and they’re essentially blaming and attacking the shamed part of you, who’s taking the criticism seriously, possibly because they want the best for your life, and take the responsibility for the shamed side’s anger on themselves, feeling that if they could be “better”, then maybe they’d be able to solve things.
The main way, as I see it, that we resolve shame can be through self-kindness. If you want to be kind to yourself, fair to yourself, to care for and love yourself unconditionally, then resolving shame becomes higher priority. It isn’t really about being afraid of shame and its effects, though it can seem intimidating what shame can do. Ultimately, resolving shame is about seeing where you’re hurting and feeling bad about yourself, and instead of raising your hand in punishment again, or reinforcing that self-inflicted attitude of negativity, you can bring your kindness to bear on the situation, care for yourself, and provide for yourself a safe environment in which to experience your life, and to grow, share, expand, love, and give.
You may make mistakes sometimes, but learning to forgive yourself, and to have an attitude of understanding with yourself, can be a precious gift capable of transforming life from a hell where you and everything you do is wrong, to potentially one where you’re fallible, forgiven, allowed to make mistakes, and your ability to learn, grow, and try your best is recognized and encouraged. Resolving shame is about connecting with and supporting this kind of kinder, gentler place of being.
Much of the time we may see other people, such as ones who’ve shamed us, as a barrier to that healing, forgiveness, and being able to feel alright again. We may feel we need to change them or get them to stand down. But to a certain extent, with shame, we may be shaming ourselves, and certainly we are the ones who’re being affected by the outside world, and struggling with it. And the way we are to ourselves on the inside is something that we can address, evaluate, and change directly. We don’t have to blame other people.
If you’re having trouble finding self-kindness, then consider the following exercise:
Imagine yourself letting go of all action you are or plan to take. Everything you’re trying to accomplish, everything you could ever hope to achieve. Everything you hope to maintain, let it fall away too – consider life without all those excesses. Allow yourself to just be, without all the trappings of your capacity to change anything, or the hope that you’ll be able to. See yourself in the moment – let in the feelings, and the experience of just being this individual, this being, this experience who lives and experiences things. Let go of tension, here – let it subside.
Imagine, then, in your potentially weak, totally open, totally vulnerable state, that you were to be treated with kindness. If you, devoid of all excess action, excess trying, were loved, precisely as you are. All defenses down. Experience what it’s like to receive kindness, even at your most weak.
Then, try to feel what it’s like to give kindness like that – to be the one giving kindness to yourself. Consider the kindness inside of you, and your capacity for it. If you can receive it fully, then it should be pretty easy to consider what if feels like to give it, too – since to receive it and feel it, the kindness is already present, there, in you. You’re capable of giving kindness, and kindness is a perspective you can understand and access for yourself.
Ultimately, if you can release the shame and find a way to focus on what you actually want to do to make things more positive in your life, then shame in that area won’t be a problem anymore. But, more than just kindness, it can take facing the arguments of why you’re considering taking on that shame, and finding another way.
Let’s say, for example, that you’ve been made fun of for the way you dress, and started to feel like, maybe there was something wrong with it. You end up feeling ashamed, doubtful, or discouraged. But is there something wrong with it? Imagine writing with yourself about this topic, and reasoning your way through it. You might decide “no, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it – it’s fine for most people I know, but it’s just, this other group of people who make fun of me, I want to fit in with them. But why? They’re mean, and care about how I dress – who made them the judge of something like that? But still, I thought we could be friends… it seemed good for a while – but now, it’s just depressing.” – in this sense, one moves on from the point in the issue where one internalizes the shaming, and instead investigates the real issue, that is, confusion and doubts over a specific group of people and how to approach those people.
This kind of reflection can be vitally important because it gives you a chance to reflect on and include what you want, like, and think in the discussion. Often we can get on autopilot, and just start trying to avoid the situations that cause our shame, rather than questioning the reasoning behind that shame. Ultimately, it can come down to the question of whether what we’re entertaining as “wrong” really is wrong. And, after discerning how we really feel, we can move on from that, towards what we actually, from ourselves, want to do, and feel good about doing. A place that feels secure, peaceful, or okay, rather than something anxiety-inducing or like some sort of a compromise on our values or how we’d like to behave.
Step-by-Step Process for Shame
The following is a process that may help you identify and work through shame you’re experiencing, or would like to try and bring to the surface:
- Consider your sources of shame – do you feel shame just in general, or like you’re being shamed from specific sources? Write these down.
- Write out a list of reasons you should feel, or probably feel, ashamed. Organize these by the sources from step 1. Even if you just feel a little disappointed in yourself from these, or bad, then still include them. Gaining awareness of even the little things hurting you may help you with mastery over them. If any of the items in this list leads to a discussion with yourself over it, then you can let it happen and engage with that discussion until you’re ready to move on.
- Below the list for each section, write why, in general, you should be ashamed of these things. Try to understand the logic behind the shame, and where it comes from. If this leads to a discussion with yourself about it, you can engage in it, and let happen.
- Now, below each of those, write out why you shouldn’t be ashamed of those things. Try to speak up for the other side, and see the good in what you do. Remember self-kindness. For instance, you might be ashamed of certain ways you behave towards others, but the good in it might be that you’re still trying your best to improve the way you treat them, and understand what goes wrong. If you get into a discussion with yourself here, you can let it happen.
- If you want to add to this list or add to the discussion in any area of this list, go ahead and do that. This is about self-healing, so you might feel drawn to the areas where you feel the most conflict or most hurt. You can bring your perspective, your consideration and fairness to these areas.
Probable Benefits of working through Shame
- Feeling a greater sense of peace and security in your relationships with both others and yourself
- Knowing how you want to be treated, and knowing how to work with others and set boundaries without antagonizing them, but rather doing it out of what feels like fairness towards yourself
- Feeling healthier, and like you are more able to support and find for yourself well-being, balance, and happiness
- A greater sense of independence, and thus not having to try get peace, well-being, or happiness from elements of life (other people, events, situations) that you have no direct control over
- Peace and compassion towards yourself
- Perspective on your own actions, such that criticism towards you doesn’t feel as harmful
- Knowing better what you want and what’s important to you
- Feeling self-kindness, self-love, and self-acceptance
- Greater sense of freedom to be yourself
Articles related to Shame
Self-Mistrust – Mistrusting ourselves is one paradigm we can fall into that’s related to shame. We end up internalizing mistrustful inner dialogue, and may end up feeling ashamed, or doubtful of our own capabilities.
Negativity – Shame is a form of negativity towards ourselves
Anxiety – Anxiety is one way shame can manifest, since we can worry about the effects our actions might have, or what might happen if we acted without trying to avoid shame
The Importance of Making Mistakes – this article is essentially about self-kindness, a way of life that’s part of working through shame
Beyond Morality: Beauty in the Ugliness – an article about seeing the beauty in what you might be inclined to judge, and moving from that judgmental morality towards self-acceptance and kindness
Why you Should Bother to Accept Yourself – an article about accepting yourself in general, and the benefits it can bring. In essence, this article warns against shaming your feelings
Find Your Unconditional Kindness, Feel Self-Acceptance – an article about finding your unconditional kindness, something that can be a powerful part of resolving and balancing shame