Why Understanding Shame Is the Key to Overcoming It

For one, it’s not the same as guilt, and that’s important

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Photo by Mitchell Hollander on Unsplash

In our image-driven, highly competitive culture, it is easy to see how shame plays such a large role in our lives. Whether it be from the pressures of personalised advertising, social media, our friends and family, or even ourselves, shame is a universal emotion whose pain we are all too familiar with. Despite its prevalence, it is one of the least discussed emotions. Unfortunately, this ignorance often makes shame more detrimental to our well-being than if it was faced directly.

Shame is an emotion that psychologists still struggle to understand, but has affected us all. It can range from the mild embarrassment you experience when you forget someone’s name to a vicious cycle of low self-esteem that, for some, can dominate every choice they make. Shame, particularly poor body image, is also one of the biggest driving forces of commerce. The fashion industry has a global value of $3 trillion USD alone, not to mention the health and lifestyle industries. So why is shame so misunderstood?

Shame has had an interesting history, and it hasn’t all been negative. Some social psychologists have argued that shame is adaptive in the sense that it leads to change for the better. Others argue that shame is a maladaptive emotion in the sense that one internalises their choices — for example, believing that you are inherently flawed for a minor choice. This schema of seeing oneself as flawed can lead to a downward spiral into psychopathology. Shame and many psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression are highly correlated.

Many people use the terms guilt and shame interchangeably, which could be part of the reason why the two emotions are so difficult to separate. Even among psychologists there is debate about the exact meanings of the emotions.

Interestingly, there is little consensus of what differentiates shame and guilt. Shame is seen as a social emotion in the sense that one has internalised a negative concept of themselves. This can be due to any deviance from the norm, whether that be from dubious choices or something as unavoidable as someone’s height. Guilt is similar to the shame in the sense that it is a moral emotion, but the negativity is not internalized.

The difference between guilt and shame may seem arbitrary, but in reality the two emotions have been shown to produce widely different actions. Shame, in this sense, has also been shown to lead to social aversion, higher stress responses and less inclination to compensate for wrongdoings.

Even physiologically, shame has been shown to be quite distinct from guilt. In one study, participants were induced to feel shame by placing them in a hypothetical job interview. The interview was designed to be difficult and embarrassing, creating in most participants state shame, a sense of shame that is particular to a particular event.

Before entering the interview, participants were interviewed for trait shame (a belief that one is inherently bad). It was found that trait shame had a major impact on stress responses, leading to a rush of cortisol and other chemicals that lead to a stress response.

Those who only experienced state shame had a minimal stress response: They interpreted the situation as something that may induce guilt for not meeting expectations but did not internalise this. Long-term exposure to cortisol results in allostatic fatigue, which is harmful to health. So it’s more of a matter of how you interpret the events than what happens.

Understanding the difference between shame and guilt and how they work in your life is a major part of overcoming the negative schemas you may have internalised. Because shame makes people more likely to avoid social situations (for fear of having their “flawed” self revealed), many people do not realise that shame is something everyone feels from time to time. Stress responses also make shame feel permanent. In fact, some stress responses are so powerful that they can make simple arithmetic tasks difficult.

Fortunately, many people are starting to realise the benefits of being aware of shame. Although not for everyone, mindfulness practices are making people see shame in action without eliciting a stress response or falling into the trap of negative beliefs. When working with shame, many psychologists recommend “witnessing” the thoughts as an observer, then evaluating their accuracy. Most of the time these thoughts are highly irrational or based on some unfounded belief of defectiveness.

Depending on how you look at it, shame isn’t all bad. Often this intense feeling, if interpreted adaptively, is actually guilt. No one is perfect, and guilt is the brain’s way of signaling that next time more constructive choices can be made. Even being aware of the role of rumination in turning guilt to shame is an effective way of addressing its tyranny on your life.

Some people argue that shame is necessary in order to do the right thing. The problem with this idea is that shame is a global attribution about the self.

This means that the belief ties into your understanding of yourself as a whole, that is, believing that you are flawed because of one (or even a few) choices, and that you will always make the wrong choice. Ironically, some people hold this belief with the utmost conviction. Liken this to the opposite: It would be irrational to conclude you are perfect for a few good choices. So why would it be fair to berate yourself for some bad ones?

Having a negative opinion about yourself as a whole actually deters people from compensating for any harm they may have caused or even seeking to improve their lives. On the other hand, a healthy dose of guilt is often all that is necessary to put you onto the path of right action.

But what if someone has done something undeniably wrong?

If you are still asking that question, then your relationship with guilt and shame needs some development. Not internalising irrational, negative schemas doesn’t make someone a conscience-free narcissist. As demonstrated, it leads to more positive choices. The past is done and the future is yet to be created. Even if the majority of one’s actions have been negative, it is very important to remember that this does not mean the cycle needs to continue.

The key to overcoming shame is to stop avoiding it and look at it with the skepticism it truly deserves.

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