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Busting the Cycle of Shame Author: Radonda Rowton, MAC LPC

Shame is an intense feeling of embarrassment and is associated with humiliation that arises from the perception of having done something or having said something disgraceful, bad, or unacceptable. People who experience chronic shame spend so much time and energy trying to hide the things they are ashamed of because shame causes us to feel that we inherently flawed. Undoubtedly, we have all heard how important it is for us to believe in ourselves. The truth is that it’s importance cannot be understated. Belief in our personal worth is associated with success, satisfying relationships and a positive belief system. It has been proven time and time again that people who doubt their self-worth have lower life satisfaction, a negative outlook on life and a greater risk for mental health issues.

How we think about our personal value is learned through a lifetime of social experiences. What others think of us is the most important way that we determine our self-worth. We, as humans tend to be deeply concerned about what people think of us. We look for evidence that we are loved, accepted, and valued by people who are influential in our lives. Every time we are given positive feedback, it strengthens the belief in ourselves and our self-worth. On the other hand, criticism, rejection, and disapproval threaten our belief in our value from a personal standpoint. When this happens, negative thoughts of low self-worth and self-criticism are triggered, and a surge of negative feelings are released. These negative experiences lead to anxiety and make us fearful about what other people think of us.

Unfortunately, we live in a society that is often critical and unforgiving. Power and dominance are rampant, and that increases the likelihood of social experiences that can be very distressing. Even as young children, we become aware of the ‘pecking order’ of the social setting that we are in. This pecking order determines the power, control, recognition and influence we will have over others. Naturally, the desire is to be on top, so we tend to put a lot of thought and energy in improving our status and try to avoid anything that would threaten the approval and acceptance of others. So, why do we spend so much time worrying about our status? Because higher the social status, the higher our thought of self-worth.

Another one of the most important indicators of status is how much attention we receive from others. The most distressing thing that most of us can imagine is going to a social function and being ignored. Being ignored will cause us to question our value and the repetitive thoughts such as “I have so little value to these people that they don’t even acknowledge my presence”. It’s like being ignored causes our self-worth to come under assault. We begin to ruminate on what happened and we tend to write our own stories as to why things are the way they are. When this happens, we are launched into a more extreme negative social experience that threatens to reduce not only our social status but threatens our self-worth. We have entered a spiral abyss called shame. Shame can damage our idea of self, self-worth, respect, and dignity because shame is embarrassment on steroids.

Shame is an intense feeling of distress that causes strong self-judgement (I’m bad, I’m so stupid) that literally causes us to want to isolate ourselves because it paralyses our ability to believe in ourselves at all. Often it is associated with us making an insensitive or what we consider to be a stupid comment in front of others. When this happens, our mind is flooded with repetitive negative thinking about our perceived shameful experience. We automatically blame ourselves for the embarrassing situation. Our self-evaluation is always negative. Sometimes, we will practice humiliation, where we may believe that someone else is entirely to blame for the embarrassing situation, which leads to our feelings of powerlessness. Shame leads to depression, guilt, and even suicidal ideations, where humiliation will more than likely result in anger and a desire for revenge. Both are toxic in their negativity and will cause us to react in ways that are unhealthy and damaging.

So how do we shake the shame?

  • Look for a healthier perspective. Do not stay in your head because we tend to make things bigger the more we repetitively ruminate on it. Talk to someone that you trust and get their perspective. Is it possible the shame is due to a mistake or poor judgement rather than a personal flaw?

  • Count the cost. Set aside 30 minutes to think about the long- and short-term consequences of the shameful experience before we react to that embarrassing experience. Is moving towards shame worth the negative response we will experience because of the power we will give it to change the trajectory of our life?

  • Shame or blame? When we experience an unfortunate social event, we will feel shame of we blame ourselves, but we will feel guilty if we blame our behavior on someone else. Was the experience due to a flaw or deficiency in you or an error or misunderstanding that was specific to the situation or with someone else?

  • Audience. Who was present when you experienced the shame? There is no way to know what the people who witnessed the situation really think, so we are either guessing or writing our own story unless we ask them specifically. It is important to look beyond what we are imagining about what really happened at the time of the incident. If you we unsure, ask. It takes courage, but it can also give us the answers we desperately need.

  • The power of an apology. If we have offended in any way, be quick to apologize. Saying the words “I’m sorry” can be powerful and open the situation to others giving you the grace that you need. If they are not accepting after you have apologized and offered to make things right, then know that you have done all that you can do and the issue of carrying the heaviness of refusing to forgive is now on them.

The goal is to reduce shame and not strengthen it. In order to do that, we have to think differently. Remember that changing our way of thinking does not happen overnight. It takes a lot of practice. Every time that we think about a past experience and feel shame, we need to shift our mind to the alternative view and really give the alternative view the power that it needs by thinking on it deeply. Think about the advice you would give your friend and how this applies to you. Think about all of the ways that your life is not defined by the shame experience and remember that everyone has to live with embarrassment. Check the facts and only trust what is true and proven. Remember that there is usually always an alternative view, and when we learn to be able to shift our perspective, it can have a dramatic impact on reducing that shame.

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