Shame is a word we attribute with many meanings. We say we ‘feel ashamed’ if we mess up at work, or disappoint a partner. Or ‘don’t shame me’ if someone is putting us down.
The examples above really talk about guilt – – our awareness that our actions have upset others. Shame might be triggered by a poor choice of actions or by your guilt, but it doesn’t depend on them.
So how, then, can we define shame?
Shame is a painful, deeply negative, and always present (if sometimes denied) feeling you have about yourself and your worth. At its strongest, shame leaves you feeling that you are damaged and faulty beyond repair, and will never be as good as those around you. Perhaps the biggest of all emotions, shame is often the real ‘master emotion’ hidden behind and supporting other ones like sadness and anger.
How do I know if I am secretly suffering from shame?
You might manifest shame in ways like the following:
When things upset you you feel a strong urge to hide or disappear
You focus on not making mistakes or doing things that upset others
If people criticise you, you get very offended (you’ve been accused of overreacting)
You secretly worry nobody would like you if they knew the ‘real you’
You hide things about yourself or have different selves around different people
You might be an overachiever or perfectionist but never feel quite good enough
You have secrets thoughts that you are a terrible person
Shame is also often connected to sexual experiences when young. This can either be a history of engaging in sexual activity from an early age before you had real confidence or a sense of self, or it can be that you suffered sexual abuse.
Shame can also develop later in life if a trauma occurs that deeply threatens your sense of self. This includes things being the victim of a crime or assault, or an accident that you feel responsible for.
Shame tends to act like a coloured pair of glasses you see the entire world with and can’t take off (but they aren’t rose coloured, sadly).
In your career, shame can either affect yourprogress or leave you highly stressed. A small criticism from a superior about a presentation can become something you lose sleep over, a joke about your desk upkeep can leave you feeling unable to connect with colleagues.
And shame often leaves you with low self-esteem, meaning either you don’t try for the jobs you are actually capable of, or you overwork to prove yourself, meaning that the rest of your life lacks balance and you have perfectionist tendencies.
In relationships, shame is a sabotaging force. Some people with deep shame issues find they have a fear of intimacy. So they jump from one relationship to the next, or stay in one relationship but with an exhausting pattern of ‘push pull’. In some cases, shame can lead you to stay in codependent or even abusive relationships, confirming your shameful notion you are not worthy of good things such as love. Shame can also cause sexual issues.
Socially, you may find you struggle to be fully yourself, always acting happier than you are, or that you have constant conflict with others that comes from your shame-driven tendency to be defensive. Again, shame can lead to friendships with people who don’t acknowledge you or treat you well, or relationships where you feed into others needs and avoid your own.
For some people, repressed shame ends up erupting into anger management issues, road rage, or even domestic violence towards others.
Shame has also been linked to the personality trait of narcissism. In some cases if shame is severe enough that an individual feels driven to hide their perceived ‘weak’ self, narcissistic personality disordercan develop, meaning that grandiosity and power are used to hide the shameful self.
What can I do if I suffer from shame?
Chronic shame, as discussed, has its roots in difficult childhood experiences that left you with damaging core beliefs about your own worth.
So unless those experiences are recognised and processed, it’s pretty impossible to just ‘get rid of’ your feelings of shame and inadequacy and all the behaviours they bring.
This is where psychotherapy steps in. Psychological talking therapies are designed with the very goal of helping you uncover the past experiences that have informed how you feel about yourself in the present.