At some point in life, all of us experience the uncomfortable feeling of shame. Shame is often unspoken of and unrecognized, and it is one of the most unpleasant and tormenting emotions humans experience (Powell, 2016). As humans, we tend to go to extreme lengths to avoid this nauseating emotion which has the power to shut us down. Projecting our shame onto others, lying and isolating ourselves are few of the things we do in order to diminish this feeling.
Many may confuse shame with guilt. Guilt is the feeling one gets when doing something bad. Shame is related to the thoughts, feelings, behaviours and beliefs accumulated throughout our lives, which as a result develop the core belief that one is unworthy of love and belonging (Sack, 2015). Moreover, shame emerges differently in each person. Some may have been made fun of by a significant other, or have been humiliated publicly by a teacher. If such situations happened regularly, one is more prone to attaching to shame which can become part of one’s identity (Jaffe, 2018).
Shame has been known to develop in destructive behaviours, including addiction, violence and anger, depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders and also bullying. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that we learn how to deal with it in a healthy way. One may consider the following tips:
1. Recognise and identify the origins of your shame.
As hard as it may be, revisit your childhood and past major events and acknowledge them. Explore how your life was at the time, including your influences, any messages, labels or feedback you received from others, and what beliefs were instilled in you (Jaffe, 2018). Such events may have influenced the person you are today, however they do not need to influence your future.
2. Reach Out
When being gripped by shame, we find it hard to share because if we do, we are only showing others how unworthy, or unlovable we are. However, the less we talk about shame, the more powerful it emerges in our lives. Through my personal therapy, I have learnt that the more we talk about our shame, we develop awareness, it becomes easier to name it and share our story, and the healing comes along easier. Authentic sharing requires one to be vulnerable, and that can induce anxiety. However, in choosing people we trust, who accept us and love us for who we really are, their empathy can allow us to hold a realistic view of our shame and help us find healthy strategies of dealing with it.
3. Practice Self-Compassion
Care for yourself, talk to yourself and treat yourself as you would with a good friend or a child. Shower yourself with kindness and love, until you being to notice a change in thoughts and feelings. Through self-compassion, oxytocin is released, a hormone that enhances the feelings of trust, calm, safety, emotional stability and connectedness (Davenport, 2020).
4. Reconnect with your Inner Child
Reconnect with what made you feel happy and peaceful as a child. Explore hobbies or activities which make you feel content, for instance painting, swimming, collecting stones, story writing, and so on.
5. Recognise Triggers
Try to notice what triggers your feelings of shame. Start with noticing your behaviours, your reactions to pain, and then ask yourself what could be the reason behind your reactions. Did the event take you back to a painful situation in your past? Did it make you feel vulnerable? Once you recognize such triggers, it is easier for you to manage them and learn healthier coping responses.
6. Challenge your Thoughts
Identify your negative self-talk, thoughts, and doubts. Reflect on whether such things are really true and check if you honestly believe them or if you’re being hard on yourself. A part of you knows that your thoughts are not the entire truth. Challenge yourself and try to reframe the negative to something positive. Rather than believing what your mind tells you, try to find something contrary to that. Practice telling yourself something different which is 100% true about yourself.
7. Allow yourself to be vulnerable
In doing so, we realize that we have survived a lot in our past, no matter the outcome. This enhances the courage within us to take the next leap and in just knowing that we can survive anything which comes our way, the shame tends to loosen up.
Michela Aquilina is a trainee Gestalt Psychotherapist who is currently reading for a Masters in Gestalt Psychotherapy at the Gestalt Psychotherapy Training Institute Malta (GPTIM) and is working as a Trainee Gestalt Psychotherapist with Willingness Team. Michela offers therapy to young adults and adults who are experiencing various challenges and issues relating to mental health and psychosocial, emotional wellbeing.
Davenport, B. (2020). 13 top strategies for overcoming shame. Live Bold and Bloom. Retrieved from: https://liveboldandbloom.com/09/self-confidence/8-strategies-for-overcoming-shame#5-13-strategies-for-overcoming-shame-and-restoring-self-esteem
Jaffe, A. (2018). How to overcome shame and build self-confidence. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/all-about-addiction/201807/how-overcome-shame-and-build-self-confidence
Powell, M. (2016). Exploring the territory of shame: building awareness of ways in and out of shame through a co-creative investigation of metaphors around the shame experience. Middlesex University Research Repository. Retrieved from: http://eprints.mdx.ac.uk/21310/
Sack, D. (2015). 5 ways to silence shame. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/where-science-meets-the-steps/201501/5-ways-silence-shame