“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.” – Brené Brown
Shame is a powerful emotion, and it’s a sneaky one too. Shame thrives in the dark, in silence. It’s associated with low self-esteem, and it can also show up in unexpected ways. To name a few examples of how shame can present: imposter syndrome, addiction, people-pleasing, perfectionism, and contempt for others. There tends to be a core belief of “I’m not worthy.”
Let’s take a moment to distinguish shame from guilt.
Put simply, guilt says, “I did something bad”, and shame says, “I am bad”. When experiencing guilt, you are more likely to learn from your mistake and take accountability for your actions. When experiencing shame, you’re more likely to become defensive or shut down. This is because guilt feels fixable, but shame leaves you feeling permanently damaged.
So, if shame can be so ruthless, why have we not evolved out of experiencing it? Well, it actually does serve a purpose, which is to stop us from doing things that are hurtful or harmful to others. We don’t want to feel embarrassed or rejected, and shame is the emotion that keeps us mindful of our actions. Shame can be healthy in moderation.
Here are three steps to help you cope with shame, according to information from members of the Mindfully team as well as emotions researcher Brené Brown (who some may say is the unofficial shame expert):
- Identify Your Shame and Reflect – Label the emotion when you experience it and be aware of common triggers for your shame. Notice your self-talk; Are you having realistic expectations for yourself? Are these expectations helpful? Are you trying to be who you want to be or who others want you to be?
- Tip: If you’re having a hard time giving yourself grace, try thinking through the lens of this affirmation: “I’m open to the possibility that I may be too hard on myself”
- Face and Own Your Shame – As noted, shame thrives in silence. The more you acknowledge it and talk about it, the less control it has. Empathy is also the antidote to shame, so sharing your shame with someone you trust (as scary as it sounds!) can be incredibly healing.
- Tip: If you feel too uncomfortable sharing your shame with someone in your life, consider sharing it with a mental health provider who will keep the information confidential and help you to move through this step.
- Take Responsibility – In order to move forward, it’s important to admit your mistakes. There’s much strength in the ability to acknowledge and learn from your own wrongdoings. This step, as hard as it may seem, can set you free.
- Tip: If you feel stuck in a shame cycle, ask yourself: how long do you deserve to be beaten up for being human? What would you say to a loved one in the same situation?
You are allowed to forgive yourself and move on. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, you are worthy of love and acceptance.