Shame – is This Emotion Secretly Ruling Your Life?

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
  • When you get down or depressed you might have thoughts it would be easier to die 

But if you are  very out of touch with your feelings and thoughts, you might have a problem with shame that shows itself in different forms of self-protection, like-

  • being very defensive “that is not what I was asked to do, how was I to know”
  • blaming others all the time
  • claiming you don’t care about anything
  • deciding you are above normal emotions and problems
  • minimising other’s reactions to you (“I don’t know why you are making such a big deal of this”)

Why do I feel so much shame?

Deep shame, often referred to as ‘core shame’, stems from very difficult experiences that knock your sense of worth to the extent that you are left feeling damaged beyond repair.  

Most often the experiences leading to a shame-based personality stem from childhood trauma, such as –

  • a parent or caregiver who constantly criticised you
  • being neglected or abandoned, including emotional neglect
  • being unduly or severely punished
  • an alcoholic or addict parent
  • the death of a sibling when young
  • an environment of religious fanaticism
  • physical abuse

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.

Dealing With Shame – How Is It Running Your Life?

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 your progress 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.

Shame can also mean you never let yourself do well, which goes against your hidden core belief you are unworthy and flawed. The result is a problem with procrastination and a marked inability to achieve the goals you set.

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.

Shame and related psychological disorders

Shame can mean you suffer negative thinking that leaves you suffering depression and anxiety.

You might try to hide from such negative thoughts and feelings about yourself by using addictive behaviour, such as alcoholism or drug abuse, sexual addition, or overeating.

Or, your shame may lead you want to hurt yourself, which can manifest as self-harming or an eating disorder.

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 disorder can 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.

A good counsellor or psychotherapist can help you to:

  • identify just what happened that created your shameful feelings
  • help you process the repressed emotions and hurt from your experiences
  • gain a more objective perspective of what happened
  • stop blaming yourself for things beyond your control
  • see yourself and your life from a new and more empowering perspective
  • you to find new ways of building your esteem
  • make choices for your future from a place of worth over shame

Do you have a question about shame we haven’t answered? Ask below, we love hearing from you. 

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