The difficult emotion of shame
Shame is a universal emotion that almost every person experiences at one or more points in life. It is often accompanied by physical sensations such as heat waves, nausea, or blushing. Shame, in itself, is not a mental health disorder, but research has shown that it hugely impacts mental health problems as well as social relationships and decision-making.
Shame has been found to be more prevalent in mental health clients than anger, grief, or anxiety. Many mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse or eating disorders, are influenced and exacerbated by shame. Also, mental health – the absence of severe emotional or behavioral problems – is almost impossible to fully achieve if a person has a high degree of shame.
Shame often surfaces when a person experiences rejection or ridicule. This triggers feelings of being exposed, deeply flawed, and completely alone. At the base of shame is often the strongly held belief that we are the only person with this problem, which, of course, makes it even harder to reach out and ask for help.
Shame and guilt are often used interchangeably but they are different things. Guilt is what people feel when they do something they think is wrong. Shame is what people feel when they are convinced something is wrong with them.
For example, a woman who tries to lose weight can feel guilty about indulging in greasy food but still feel OK about herself as a person. A woman who feels shame about her body will not feel good, even if she manages to stick to her diet. Guilt generally motivates a person to change things because he or she wants to feel better. Shame makes people focus on hiding who they are, instead of changing. Very rarely does shame lead a person to open up and seek help.
For women, shame in our society is generally centered on issues such as body image, weight, or being a good mother. For men, it is often more about success and virility, but it is also increasingly about body issues. Other common issues that may lead to feelings of shame for both genders are suicide, addiction, sexual abuse, sexuality and mental health. Problems with any of these topics interfere with feeling “normal” and make it more difficult to be accepted but easy to feel judged. People who experience shame around these issues feel disconnected from others because they are afraid to open up and instead try to hide what’s “wrong” with them.
The less people are aware of their shame and shame triggers, the more it influences their lives. The fear of being seen as deeply flawed leads to defensive strategies such as blaming, lashing out, or judging.
Many women I’ve talked to over the years (for some reason, I have not talked to men about this yet) describe what a friend called “the imposter syndrome.” It is a feeling, related to or even based on shame, that a woman does not belong in the position she is in. This is particularly true for women who are successful in their careers. Not all the time, but every so often, the thought, “Who do you think you are?” comes up. These women are convinced that, at some point, somebody will find out that they don’t belong there, that they are not good enough, that they don’t know what they are doing.
Shame can be alleviated and the negative effects basically eliminated by something that should come natural to us but is so hard sometimes: Sharing our experiences with someone who is non-judgmental, compassionate, and understanding. The more we talk about the things we are ashamed of and find others who have similar experiences, the more we will feel connected instead of alone, normal instead of “out there.”
Feeling accepted and validated eradicates shame and enables us to do the same for others. It also helps us to reach out and find solutions for the things we want to change in our lives instead of wasting our energy on hiding them.
- Antje Rath
- November 2013