Lots and lots of emotions out there, like lots. And they fall all over the map from positive to neutral to negative (with some fluctuating on severity dependent on the given situation). My personal opinion (and a popular one) on emotions is that not a lot of emotions are inherently “bad” or “negative” to feel, it’s what we do with that emotion that can be “bad” or “negative”. But there is an exception to this rule, and I will say, with confidence, that shame can almost always be classified as a “bad” emotion.
Now what is shame. We hear it from time to time but honestly a lot of people confuse shame with guilt. And it can get tricky to differentiate between the two sometimes. “What is shame?” or “What’s the difference between shame and guilt?” is actually the top Googled items when it comes to shame. So, let’s clear some things up before continuing on…
Gershen Kaufman stated that, "Shame is the most disturbing experience individuals ever have about themselves; no other emotion feels more deeply disturbing because in the moment of shame the self feels wounded from within."
Therefore, the difference is that “Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is, "I am bad." Guilt is, "I did something bad." – Brene Brown
So, from here on out when I talk about shame, I'm not talking about anyone actually doing anything wrong. I am talking about the feelings, and thoughts that we are somehow wrong, defective, inadequate, not good enough, or not strong enough.
To break it down a little more, lets walk through the some of the most common ways experience shame.
Seems to be the most common response to shame. When you feel rejected or humiliated, you may begin to isolate yourself from connecting with others to avoid running into this feeling again. In the moment this may look like slumping your posture, avoiding eye contact or lowering your head. All of this makes sense and at times is a natural protective factor response to humiliation, but this eventually turns into a cycle and you may start to avoid going out with friends or often feeling “checked out”.
No hidden psychological meaning here. This is what it says. Attacking yourself. The inner dialogue that we each have turns negative and says things like “I am stupid, I lack value, I am ugly, I am defective, I am unworthy etc.” After some time, these thoughts infect your actions and you start presenting yourself outwardly as if you are stupid, lack value or are ugly.
Lack of Balance
Avoidance: Don’t like experiencing all these negative feelings? Simple solution seems to just turn them off then, right? Unfortunately, emotions don’t work like this – they don’t have an off switch. They may be turned off/ignored/repressed by you, but they are still very much a part of you and inside you. Since you are not actively engaging with them, they show up in your life through excessive drinking, drug usage, spending etc.
Doing More Of: So, let’s say you are feeling shame around your sexual activity and you have a thought that if you just do it more, and get more comfortable with it, then the shame with dissipate. Now this would work (if shame wasn’t in the picture) but shame is in the picture for you, so this strategy doesn’t work. In the end you may become more promiscuous and therefore building up your shame opposed to working to lower it.
Over Doing: Maybe you notice that you often over do, over give, over share, over strive on things that you are proud of in order to ignore those situations that bring discomfort into your life.
Appears to be a common sign of shame and comes off in varying degrees. Maybe it is putting others down, demeaning them, being cruel or even emotional and physical abuse. These are often played out to show a dominance or power over someone else (since you can’t get a handle on or take power over your feelings of shame).
So now what? Don’t worry I won’t leave you hanging.
The following steps can assist you in breaking the cycle of shame.
Step 1: Name It!
Think back and determine when you started feeling this way
Assess how your body experiences shame
Process those feelings (either alone or with someone else)
By doing this your relationship with shame will change and it will start to play a less powerful role in your life.
Step 2: Set Realistic Expectations
Recognize your physical, emotional and cognitive restrictions and plan accordingly. Though it is good to do your own research and read blogs, you may not find relief there. Given that shame starts in infancy and gets built on throughout our lives, there is usually a lot of items to dig through and most people see best results with assistance from a mental health professional.
Step 3: Tell The World!
Not really. I mean you can if you want, but what I mean is talk to someone who will understand and not cast judgement on you. In the end it is our inner thoughts that are keeping us locked in the room with shame, so why not allow someone else into the room to assist in looking at it from a different light. This will often allow you to understand that we judge ourselves on a harsher scale than others judge us and eventually release the shame from the body.
Step 4: Change Your Inner Voices
Adding onto the thought that we judge ourselves harsher than others judge us, try to reframe your inner voice. Think about it in terms of “would I say this to someone else” (and if not, don’t say it to yourself). Most of the time you wouldn’t, so let’s try to be kind to ourselves and shift your inner dialogue.
I understand that the title of the blog (How To Name Shame And Then Let It Go) may be misleading to some and that “if I name it, then it’ll go away and won’t come back”, but that isn’t the case with shame. Working through the shame in our lives takes time, requires active effort (on your end and often others) and hard work (months, maybe years…). So, you may think “okay then, why not name the blog something else.” Thought about it (obviously), but I just kept coming back to the process of letting go. Often change is difficult, scary and intimidating and throughout the process it may make you feel vulnerable or exposed. Involved in this process is letting go of those maladaptive behaviors that covered your shame and eventually replacing them with different, more positive and adaptive skills therefore lowering the exposed necked feelings.
Written by: Shannon Gonter, LPCC, NCC
I specialize in working with men and young adults. I am passionate about my career and want to work with you to create positive change. I also strive to create a counseling environment where men and young adults can relate, feel heard, and find new solutions to their negative patterns. Some issues that I most commonly work with are stress, relationship issues, difficulty saying “no” to others, difficulties recognizing emotions and emotionally connecting to others, anger, and intimacy issues, among others.