We have all been gripped by that unsettling and painful feeling of guilt and the feeling of regret that comes as a result of having done something wrong. This is normal, when we have fallen short of who we want to be and behave in a way that is contrary to our values. Guilt and regret can be good and adaptive. On the other hand, shame attacks our identity and is destructive.Shame is when what we have done is defined to mean who we are inherently. We haven’t just done something awful, but we are awful to the core of who we are. Shame inhibits you from living past your mistakes and failures, can lead you to feeling like you have to prove yourself, that everyone is judging you, and that you cannot let anyone in.
In life, we have all fallen short and made mistakes. Having the ability to look at our shortcomings, learn from them and commit to change is important for personal growth and development. This is what differentiates shame and guilt.
Guilt focuses on problem behavior and sets to make amends. Shame focuses on the self; it makes the mistake or failure a definition of the self. It takes away the ability to say “I did something wrong.” Instead, shame sees failure as proof of inferiority which says, “I am wrong.”
Feeling shame is universal. If we can learn to move through shame, through vulnerability and connection with others and remember the truth of who we are, we can become more resilient to shame when we experience it.
However, shame can become toxic when it is the bedrock of who we see ourselves to be, our sense of identity. For anything to be classified as toxic, it means that it is dangerous, unsafe, destructive, malignant, and hurtful. Shame can become all of those and more if not dealt with.
How shame develops.
People who grow up in shame-based cultures are raised in a belief system where honor or shame are shared commodities in the community. Everything that a single person does should be to bring honor to the family, which is why bad behavior is not easy to forgive and becomes magnified and dealt with at the community level. To the offending family member moving on and finding redemption can be hard.
Childhood trauma.Our first contact with the world is supposed to nurture us and give us a sense of love and belonging. Unfortunately, not all of us are that lucky. Many children suffer poverty, abandonment, abuse, and neglect, all of which can lead to shame and harmful behavior.
From feeling like we are not worthy because we do not have what everyone has, including our physical, mental and emotional needs and wants, to not feeling worthy of love because we were abandoned or mistreated by those who should have loved us, it can be hard not to be filled with shame.
Children who grow up in dysfunction often carry shame into adulthood. Because they could not do anything about their situation then, they feel they can’t change much in the life they live hence they are plagued by feelings of inferiority and insecurity.
Seemingly life-defining mistake.
A huge cause for shame is when someone does something they feel they can never be forgiven for. Fear of judgment leads to suffering from the effects of a secret sin because they do not confess it. This brings about a lot of shame. Sometimes even if they come forward and confess the repercussions can be grave as they have to live with the judgment of others. This is sometimes the case with those struggling with addictions or having an affair.
The world we live in can sometimes be unkind to people who suffer from certain health issues. Physical or mental ailments can bring about stigma. It can be hard to try and deal with a condition in an environment that is not loving and supportive. Many will either not disclose their illnesses and still leave in toxic shame, or disclose but suffer the double blow of judgment and rejection.
This is a huge one for most women, but for men as well. From when we were young, we were told, fed, and forced to conform to certain beauty standards. Many people live in shame because the world tells them they are not beautiful enough, not fit enough, not have the right skin tone. This can cause tremendous shame, and because most of the time it’s something about you that cannot be changed.
Shame and gender.Brene Brown is a leading researcher who has done extensive work on shame and vulnerability. In her Ted talks and her books, she talks about shame being organized by gender.
For women, it’s all about doing it all, doing it perfectly, and never letting anyone see you break down from it all. The standard is so high for women that most break down from the weight of it all, but it is regarded as shameful to not have it all together and not look pretty doing it. For women, feeling like they are not living up to this standard leads to shame.
For men, she says shame comes in the form of not wanting to be perceived as weak. There has been a lot of talk about toxic masculinity, which is a conversation aimed at trying to reverse some of the beliefs about manhood that are harmful to how they love, live, and work. The fear of being perceived as weak has led men to suffer in silence and carry the shame of why they are suffering in the first place.
Why shame is harmful.
Lack of confidence.
Toxic shame has a way of corroding someone’s confidence that it can be hard for them to believe in themselves for anything.
Lack of empathy.
It is hard to be empathetic toward others when we do not have empathy for ourselves. Shame makes us feel unworthy of love, redemption, or acceptance. When we can’t have this for ourselves, we, unfortunately, can’t have it for others and we can be more prone to judge others.
Difficulty in connections and relationships .
Building relationships and connections requires vulnerability and authenticity. When we live out of shame, it is hard to fully be ourselves and be seen, hence it’s hard to build and maintain relationships. That only reinforces the belief that we are not enough and keeps us isolated, where shame thrives.
Mental health issues.
Struggling with shame may contribute to developing anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and self-harm. The distorted negative self view can cause a lot of mental strain that can develop into a mental health issue.
Those struggling with toxic shame can sometimes use harmful coping mechanisms. The pain can be too much that they are not able to face it. For some, drugs and alcohol are used as a way of self-medicating. In a moment, they feel insecure and use substances to take the edge off.
Withdrawal from others.
When you are consumed by a negative self-evaluation and think you are not as good as everyone else, you start withdrawing from the world, believing no one can accept you or what you’ve done. This will in turn cause intense feelings of loneliness. As you stay isolated, the belief that no one will ever accept you only intensifies and continues this cycle.
Anger can coincide with shame. When the pain is too much to bear, we aim it at others. This is mostly seen in men who often feel the only emotion that they can show is that anger. Anger issues ruin our ability to relate to those around us.
Every one of us wants to be able to live authentically, to be loved truly, and to be seen and appreciated for who we are. When we are vulnerable to let love in, to ask for forgiveness where we have faltered, and to show ourselves compassion we open ourselves up for grace and greatness. We are not what happened to us, and neither are we the sum of our worst mistakes. There is hope, if only we dare to challenge our entrenched beliefs.
There is hope.
Living in shame is hard. No matter its cause, it is no way to live. If you or someone you know needs help untangling shame and learning to live wholeheartedly, we have trained counselors who are equipped to help you start this journey. Begin today by contacting our office.
“Depressed”, Courtesy of K. Mitch Hodge, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sad Man”, Courtesy of Ben White, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “White Flowers”, Courtesy of Ed Stone, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sunbeams Through the Trees”, Courtesy of Wonderlane, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
DISCLAIMER: THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE
The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this article are for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please contact one of our counselors for further information.