Shame is about secrecy. It’s a painful emotion with the primary purpose of hiding who you really are because it doesn’t measure up with who you think you are supposed to be. You relate to it as feeling like you’re not good enough, it could manifest itself as a worry something is wrong with you. Or it may be associated with overwhelming thoughts of inadequacy, imperfection or insignificance.
Shame is not like guilt. Guilt is a healthy emotion you experience when you do or say something that fails to live up to your moral code or when you don’t meet society’s expectations. For example, if you lied on your tax return, you may feel guilt. Guilt is helpful when it prompts us to correct our poor behavior.
Guilt says: “I did something I didn’t want to do, I don’t want it again, I made a mistake.”
Shame says: “Something is wrong with me, I’m sorry, I am a mistake.”
Guilt can be useful, but we usually don’t stay in guilt. We speed past guilt right into shame. Shame is toxic and unnecessary.
What Causes Shame?
Shame is the result of a flawed self-perception. The root cause could be anything from a difficult childhood filled with neglect or abuse to an addictive habit or behavior. Sometimes we feel shame when we are to blame because something went wrong, and other times it is merely a result of the messages sent to our brain from a constant barrage of social expectations.
What Should You Do about Shame?
If you feel shame, it may be tempting to buffer those feelings by turning to a net negative behavior. Maybe it’s emotional eating, a shopping trip, or any other kind of addictive habit with a negative consequence.
The problem with using a buffer when you feel shame is it doesn’t change the emotion. It usually makes you feel worse.
We need our lives back. It’s time to reclaim the gifts of imperfection—the courage to be real, the compassion we need to love ourselves and others, and the connection that gives true purpose and meaning to life. These are the gifts that bring love, laughter, gratitude, empathy and joy into our lives.”Brené Brown
If you want to free yourself of shame, you’ll need to unpack it, examine it, and discover its source. Understanding your shame helps you release the associated emotions and experience healing and peace.
Letting Go of Shame-Filled Thoughts
When you’re living with shame, it’s easy for it to dominate your thoughts. You may find yourself bombarded with self-defeating thoughts and behaviors or being critical of others. When things go wrong, you might say, “Of course this happened. I don’t deserve good things.” Or “Why would anyone like me? I’m a pathetic wannabe!”
If thoughts like these continually play in your mind, don’t get overwhelmed with worry. There are three things you should know about your thoughts to help you let go.
1. Your Thoughts Aren’t Always True
Some people make the mistake of believing every thought they have. If they think “I’m fat,” then they automatically accept the idea as correct. But consider this: for centuries, most people believed the earth was flat. It was an untrue thought passed around for generations.
You may have thought patterns passed from generation to generation, too. Maybe you think things like, “I’m destined to be a loser. Everyone in my family is.” Or “Good things don’t happen to people like us.”
Spend the next week observing your thoughts. You don’t have to call them out as right or wrong. Just listen to them and pay attention to the ones associated with shame.
2. You Can Change Your Thoughts
Changing your thoughts isn’t easy, and it usually takes a long time before you feel like you’re making any progress. But think of it like learning a new language—the language of self-compassion.
Think of how you’d approach learning a new language. You’d give yourself weeks to learn and study. You’d buy books on the topic, talk about it with friends, and reach out to those more experienced in the language for help.
3. You Can Learn to Love Yourself
Of all the subjects you were taught in school or college, you probably never had a single class on how to love yourself. But it’s one of the most important things you can do.
When you’re living in deep shame, your self-perception becomes distorted. You may believe you’re worthless, damaged, or ugly. But the truth is you are a beautiful masterpiece, divinely woven together.
A straightforward way to begin practicing self-love is to repeat positive affirmations. Say them over to yourself again and again. The more you say them, the more you’ll start to believe. Here are a few to get you started:
- I am worthy of love and healing.
- I release my past. It has no power over me.
- I let go of the anger and hurt I’ve been carrying.
- I choose to practice self-compassion.
- I accept myself fully and completely.
Embrace loving thoughts toward yourself. Take it one day at a time and don’t be upset if it doesn’t feel natural at first. Time is a magic healer. With some patience, you’ll find it easier to shift your thoughts away from shame and toward self-compassion.
Healing from shame isn’t something you can do overnight. It’s a process that can take months or even years. The good news is that you don’t have to make the journey alone. Many professionals have written insightful guides to help you on this journey. Here are a few books you may want to pick up:
Healing the Shame that Binds You
by John Bradshaw
One helpful book for dealing with shame is Healing the Shame that Binds You. Much of the book has been influenced by Bradshaw’s own experience with alcoholism. He shares many of the same concepts found in the 12-step program. So if you’re dealing with addiction as well as shame, you may find this resource the most helpful.
Brene Brown’s book, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) isn’t just about shame. It’s about living authentically and letting go of the need for perfection. She encourages readers to embrace their flaws and imperfections and release their guilt.
Although this book could help anyone it does have a focus on motherhood and parenting. So if you’re struggling in these areas it might be a good choice.
If you want to learn more shame and how it’s affecting you, consider watching Brene Brown’s TED Talk titled Listening to Shame. It’s both educational and inspiring.
In The Soul of Shame, psychiatrist Curt Thompson invites you to look at how shame is affecting your life. He explores the different ways shame takes root and how to experience true and lasting freedom.
The author is an expert in interpersonal neurobiology, so it is a bit more academic in parts. He’s also a Christian and much of his content stems from a Christian perspective.
When you carry shame with you, it’s easy to hold onto negative thoughts. That’s why in Living with Your Heart Wide Open, the authors spend much of the content focusing on mindfulness and self-compassion.
This book is good for self-discovery and healing of internal wounds. There’s a heavy influence on meditation and Buddhist principles. The authors discuss common scenarios and recommend healing meditations for them.
Reading about how others are affected by shame can be freeing. It’s freeing to realize you’re not alone in your pain and healing can be found.
Shame teaches us to hide our struggles. It warns us of possible judgment, criticism, and blame then guides us to seek safety in pretending to be perfect. Letting go of our shame allows us to embrace our imperfections and find real connections and love.
The process of letting go of shame is not a one and done type of thing. It requires us to be deliberate in our thoughts and behaviors and to practice making progress every day.