The best way to combat shame is to build shame resilience. Shame is an ugly emotion but it is an emotion none the less and, unfortunately, it’s not something we can quite simply eradicate. Although that is what most of us would prefer…
Imagine all of those moments in life where you’ve wanted to hide something about yourself. If anybody knew or found out, you’d be mortified.
Recall those times where a feeling about yourself has made you feel small and worthless.
Perhaps you can remember a situation where this thing you were so nervous of anyone finding out about you was almost uncovered.
In this moment all you feel is sickness, dread and a desire for the world to just swallow you up.
All of these experiences and feelings are what we call: shame.
There are an abundance of reasons for building shame resilience with the most obvious being that shame can do some real psychological damage.
Shame is often associated with a vast range of mental health illnesses such as depression, anxiety, suicidal tendencies and…
Narcissism. (Oooh I just love that we get to touch on THAT sweet topic).
But shame resilience does not and should not mean removing shame from our pool of emotions but rather making sure that we understand what it’s useful for.
It takes courage but it’s necessary (no seriously, let’s tackle this shame thing once and for all!).
NEGATIVE IMPACT OF SHAME
Let’s start with the obvious shall we?
It doesn’t feel good.
Shame is an emotion which signals to us that we need to readjust our actions, take some responsibility or perhaps make amends for something we’ve said or done.
But it does so by making us feel pretty shit about ourselves.
The biggest problem, and why it is NECESSARY to build shame resilience, is that the longer we sit with our shame the higher our chances are of internalizing it until we become what we feel.
What do I mean by that?
Well, the person who feels depressed for too long a time eventually becomes a depressive person.
The person who feels worthless will eventually become a worthless person.
The person who feels inferior can, over time, become the inferior person.
Understand that these are the extremes of shame (to one degree on the spectrum. More about that later). These are the results of shame that has gone unchecked and unmanaged. These are the results of living with negative beliefs about ourselves and being too afraid to tackle them.
If you feel worthless and don’t tackle this feeling of worthlessness, building on shame resilience, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The person who FEELS worthless will eventually take on the persona of a worthless person.
‘I feel worthless, therefore I am worthless and so I will behave like the worthless person that I am.’
The problem with this is that it is a fine example of an UNHEALTHY form of shame.
That’s right; shame can be good for us.
HEALTHY AND UNHEALTHY FORMS OF SHAME
Understandably, experts in the field of shame have a pretty hefty stand point where this emotion is concerned. Something along the lines of – Eradicate shame. Eliminate shame for good. Don’t give in to shame.
While I agree that shame needs to be looked at and given some attention, it’s actually a necessary emotion. Like the rest of them.
It makes sense that when we build shame resilience we experience a great sense of anxiety relief.
Without shame, it feels as though life would just be that much rosier.
Wouldn’t life just feel so good if we didn’t have shame to contend with?
Like everything in life, it all comes down to context. WHY? This is a question that needs to be answered. Why do we feel this way? What is the root cause of my happiness, greed, sadness or fear and is it HEALTHY?
What motivates us to keep going and what hinders our ability to take action and believe in ourselves?
People often see jealousy as a negative emotion and feel shame when that little voice pops in their head saying, ‘I want what they have, damn it!’
We never like to admit that we feel jealousy toward someone else because we think it casts us in a negative light.
However jealousy, like shame, has its place.
Jealousy is your mind telling you what you want. Someone else has something that you want…
The life, the partner, the car, the career, the holiday and your jealousy is your minds way of signalling to you that actually, yeah, you’d quite like those things.
‘I’m pretty gutted that person has what I want but at least now I have something that I’m trying to aim for.’
This is a HEALTHY way of processing and experiencing jealousy. (Utilizing shame, like jealousy, in a way that is beneficial will help you build shame resilience.)
An UNHEALTHY way for experiencing jealousy is when it’s not something you want it’s just that you don’t want THEM to have it either.
‘I want what they have but I don’t want to work hard for it so instead I’ll fixate on the fact that this person has what I have always dreamed of having and hold resentment toward them.’
You disregard any effort and hard work they put in to get what they’ve achieved. You just sit and stew.
You’re jealousy derives from comparing yourself to someone who is completely incomparable. It’s unreasonable to feel jealousy toward this person because you are too different in too many ways.
So, while it might be slightly beneficial to think for a moment, ‘Oh that’s not fair. Why do they get that life and I don’t?’ Well, they might have had Mummy and Daddy pay for lipo when they were 16 and chubby. They might have received a massive inheritance that set them on the path to success.
They might be born into a family of Oscar winning actors so they know literally every contact you could possibly hope to know simply by the luck of the family they were born into.
SHAME CAN BE HEALTHY
Shame is no different.
All of the emotions we experience are necessary in some form or another.
Every corner of the internet is crowded with sound advice from people who know what the hell they’re talking about when they say:
‘There is no such thing as a good or bad emotion, only good or bad reasons for them’
Case in point – jealousy.
Even happiness or joy which is always associated with being a positive emotion can be anything but if you’re feeling it for the wrong reasons.
If I experience an overwhelming feeling of joy because I just robbed a bank and now I’m rich, the reason behind the emotion is not positive.
If I feel happy because I’ve sat for hours burning my sister’s clothes because ‘she has what I want’ then the reason for this happiness is NOT positive.
An undisputed way in which to build shame resilience is to understand that all of our emotions are necessary but the reasons behind them are what make them healthy or unhealthy.
So, when we talk about shame, how can it be healthy for us?
Because it sure as hell never feels good!
So how can shame be healthy? It tells us when we’ve not addressed or taken responsibility for our actions.
BUILD SHAME RESILIENCE BY LEANING INTO YOUR SHAME
Generally speaking, most of us try to hide our shame.
Shame allows the world to see every ugly part of ourselves that we’re embarrassed of. The bits of us that we’d be pained to reveal to the world for all the humiliation it would bring.
What this is called, however, is our true self.
Your true self is who you are in your entirety, warts and all. Your true self INCLUDES all of those little nasty parts of yourself that you don’t want others to see.
When we HIDE these aspects of ourselves, we aren’t able to live authentically.
It’s understandable to want to show people the best version of you and why shouldn’t you?
You want to be liked; you want to be seen as fun, exciting, interesting, kind, loving and generous. These are the parts of ourselves that we want on show. We’re happy to peacock where these traits are concerned.
And so you should.
The interesting part about this is that when we’re discussing shame and how to build resilience towards it, it’s important to know exactly why we experience it in the first place.
Once we understand that we can see why it’s necessary to embrace it – for the sake of our true self.
SHAME IS A SELF CONSCIOUS EMOTION
All of these pesky emotions are necessary not only for survival but to help us conform to societal norms and behave in a way that is generally accepted as being ‘correct’.
We all have a basic set of emotions and the base emotions are seemingly simplistic and clear in their boundaries as well as how they help us survive in the world.
Emotions such as sadness, happiness or fear would come into this category.
Beyond these base emotions we experience what psychologists’ class as self-conscious emotions.
This is where we’d find shame, resentment, respect, inferiority, excitement, boredom and so much more hanging out – within our self-awareness.
As children we really only have the ability to function based on these base emotions. We only learn to understand the reasons behind them as our brains develop.
So, when 2 year old Delilah steals Tommy’s cookie and eats it herself she doesn’t feel bad.
Whether the cookie was baked by his Grandma especially for his birthday or not, Delilah isn’t likely to feel much guilt surrounding it.
Because Delilah is 2.
She wanted the cookie so she took it and has not yet developed the self-awareness or ability to take into account how this might affect Tommy, yet.
However, as an adult, if Delilah stole Tommy’s cookie she might later feel guilty about doing so. Perhaps she acted on impulse and didn’t think it would be too big of a deal.
Now she can see that Tommy is upset because the cookie was special and also realizes that actually what she has done was steal from Tommy, which is socially unacceptable.
As an adult she apologizes to Tommy and buys him another cookie even though she knows it could never truly replace the one his Grandma made him.
Self-conscious emotions like shame and guilt guide us to live in accordance with socially accepted norms. They steer us toward conformity.
We learn that stealing is wrong. We learn that murder, adultery, abuse and racism are wrong. And for the majority of people in the world, we conform to these learned norms and use our self-conscious emotions to guide us away from what is considered ‘wrong’ and toward what is considered ‘correct’ behavior.
This is how shame is healthy and useful.
To build shame resilience the most difficult but necessary thing you can do is accept that we NEED shame to help guide us through life.
Listening to shame comes first. Understanding the reasons behind our shame comes next. This is how to build shame resilience.
WHY IS FEELING UNWORTHY AN UNHEALTHY FORM OF SHAME?
Previously I mentioned how a low feeling of self-worth could be considered an unhealthy form of shame so let’s look at that in a bit more detail.
It’s all about understanding the context of the shame in which we speak. The questions are ‘Why do you feel unworthy?’
‘Why are you ashamed about feeling useless?’
‘What makes you feel useless in the first place?’
Do you feel unworthy because you’re in a toxic relationship and your partner needs you to feel inferior so that they can feel superior? Is it because you have tried to build a business empire and the failure off it has crippled your self-worth? Perhaps it’s an irrational belief that stems from your shyness that you believe to be a sub-par human characteristic.
All of these indicate an UNHEALTHY form of shame.
I repeat, shame is ultimately supposed to be helpful to you. So, when you look at the above reasons for why your self-worth might be on the floor and you experience shame surrounding this, is it helpful?
Why? Because the reason for your low self-worth is not warranted.
Your partner is making you feel worthless for their own gain. Your perceptions of failure make you feel worthless surrounding your business and your belief that your shyness is a hindrance only feeds into your withdrawal from the world.
On the other hand, if you feel shame surrounding low self-worth and that low self-worth has manifested after being caught cheating by your partner, then it is a HEALTHY form of shame.
In this scenario shame is telling you that you’ve behaved badly and that you need to make amends and ‘hopefully’ not do it again in the next good relationship that comes along.
Shame is telling you to enhance your respect for your partner and treat them with consideration and love. IF this is something that you can’t manage then perhaps the shame surrounding this event is telling you that actually, you should just live the single life.
Be with a new person every day by all means, but be transparent about it.
Yes, shame makes us feel pretty shoddy but it also discourages us from bad behavior.
Ultimately everyone wants to feel accepted and appreciated so there’s nothing worse than having the ‘shame on you’ finger or eye squint pointed in your direction.
None of us want to feel poorly judged and for most of us this is enough to keep our behavior in check.
It all becomes a little hazy when we discuss things such as worthiness or illnesses because it’s difficult to understand sometimes that the reasons for WHY we feel shame are not good reasons at all.
One in particular that I can associate with is the feeling of shame surrounding my anxiety. And the reason is two-fold. Firstly, I have always had this feeling that I haven’t got a good enough excuse to have my anxiety and I felt ashamed by this.
Many people live through extreme trauma, life changing illness, heart-breaking losses and tragedies.
To all intent and purposes I have not experienced anything of the sort so I was ashamed to admit I felt this way. What have I experienced to truly warrant this anxious badge of honour?
Secondly, I came to the realization that perhaps my anxiety was making me appear selfish.
It’s an unexpected and not often spoken about side effect of mental illnesses like anxiety and depression that they cause this minor sense of self-absorption. Of course, how could it not when your brain is fixating negatively on everything that you say and do.
But in reality, it’s unfair to feel ashamed of WHY I’m anxious.
It can be hard to build shame resilience when you don’t understand that the reason behind your shame is unfair or irrational.
My reason for it is my own and I feel this way whether I like it or not so feeling shame around it is not helpful.
My anxiety used to make me feel bad enough as it was, I didn’t need added negativity on top of this.
Likewise, I am not selfish but I did suffer from a selfish disease.
Ultimately to build shame resilience is about raising your self-awareness to understand whether the shame you experience is helpful to you and if you can see that it isn’t then it’s most likely UNHEALTHY and UNHELPFUL.
Feeling ashamed of my anxiety did not help me deal with it but perpetuated the problem.
True success came when I accepted this part of me, the full ugly true self, and worked toward healing instead.
SHAME VS GUILT: SOME IMPORTANT DIFFERENCES
Shame and guilt are like brother and sister, distant cousins or perhaps Aunt and Nephew. They are closely related and live but a mere stone’s throw away on the spectrum of emotions.
When we talk about guilt, we’re talking about the emotions that occur when you feel bad about something you DID. Your actions have caused you to feel as though you’ve done something wrong that needs to be rectified.
When we talk about shame, we’re talking about feeling bad about WHO YOU ARE.
With this in mind, shame can be the outcome of guilt that has been left unacknowledged and untreated. Guilt like every other emotion is universal and is by no means a ‘new’ concept in human psychology.
Guilt is experienced by all of us. Every person that walks this planet, unless they can genuinely and without reservation say that they are an ACTUAL ANGEL, experiences guilt.
Because no-one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes.
The problem arises when we don’t acknowledge the guilt, understand WHY we feel guilty and act to make amends. Often times what this means is taking responsibility for wrong doing and issuing an apology.
And no-one LIKES to apologize.
Apologizing means admitting you’re wrong, accepting that you’ve behaved in an unacceptable manner and feeling belittled (if only for a brief period of time).
But when you DON’T take the necessary action to relieve yourself of this guilt by growing some balls and being accountable for your behavior, you begin to take a long walk down the path of shame.
Now, instead of pondering whether or not you’ve ‘done something bad’ you begin to internalize the feeling and suddenly you’re thinking to yourself ‘I am a bad person.’
This is of course, if you lean toward the vulnerable end of the spectrum. If you’re more inclined to live toward the grandiose way of thinking then you will probably experience things a smidge differently.
NARCISSISTIC VS EMPATHETIC
So I recently began reading ‘How To Kill A Narcissist’ (not literally!) by J H Simon and it’s a very simple and easy read but written with some excellent points.
I wouldn’t take its word for law but there are some great ideas floating around that make a hell of a lot of sense to me. One thing that is touched upon early on in the book is what’s known as the Shame/Grandiosity Continuum.
On the far left end of the spectrum you would have what you would consider the particularly empathetic (or vulnerable) individual vs the far right of the spectrum which seats the narcissists of the world.
Now, it’s important to understand that shame can make us behave like arseholes.
Yep, it’s true.
Think about it. For whatever reason a narcissist ends up on that far right side of the continuum their behaviour is always the same – passive aggression, belittling of others, playing the victim, have an over bearing God complex and having an extreme lack of responsibility.
Indeed, a LACK of guilt or shame can perhaps be worse than too much.
Narcissism can derive itself from the irrational belief in their superiority, the idea that everything they do is just BETTER than you. But it can also derive from irrational INFERIORITY and when this is the case, narcissism is the result of an extreme form of shame avoidance.
We all most likely have a sound understanding of the bullied becoming the bully.
The cheated becoming the cheater.
The sexually abused becoming the sex addict.
To avoid facing the extreme shame they live with, each of the people above ultimately become the person they never wished to be.
With a narcissist, they over inflate their ego to protect themselves from the negative beliefs they hold surrounding themselves. The only way to avoid feeling shame is to inflict it on others. In its purest form, narcissism is a way of protecting themselves and unfortunately the result of this is that they become pretty dislike-able people.
On the flip side we have the empaths.
Empathy in itself is an excellent way to help deal with shame.
By living and sharing our stories we can heal. What’s more, when you connect with someone who shares similar experiences with shame you can feel supported and capable of tackling it head on.
Increasing empathy and sharing our experiences with shame and (ironically) not feeling ashamed doing so is a great way to build shame resilience.
When empathy tips too far the other way however, we begin to see moments of UNHEALTHY shame as mentioned before with the feelings of low worth.
Irrational shame surrounding your body that goes so deep that you try to hide it, wearing over sized clothes and refusing to be part of family photographs.
Irrational shame surrounding your ability to be loved that stops you from seeking it in the first place. Perpetuating the cycle of loneliness and amplifying the feeling that you’re completely undesirable and destined to be alone.
An empath will be quick to internalize shame and not only that; they are great targets of prey for the narcissists of the world.
THE HEALTHY MIDDLE GROUND
With healthy shame comes the acknowledgement that we are all humans.
I know, I know, ‘You’re not repeating that same old mumbo jumbo are you, Emma?!’
Well, yeah actually, I am. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone feels ashamed of their actions or behavior at some point or another and everyone experiences shame and guilt more often than you might think.
Build shame resilience by realizing that we all screw up.
The important thing to remember is that you need it. Perhaps you need to apologize to someone, perhaps you need to rectify a misdeed or maybe you need create better boundaries between you and someone who is toxic.
Regardless of what it is, the healthy experience and response to shame is to acknowledge its existence and understand what it’s trying to tell you.
Avoiding it might turn you into that narcissist that everyone loves to hate.
Internalizing it might have you living for years or decades with an opinion of yourself that will stop you progressing and chasing your purpose in life.
And trying to hide it will cause discontent as you try to live a life where you’re never fully exposing your true self.
BUILD SHAME RESILIENCE USING THESE 7 TECHNIQUES
These are pretty much a simple summary of what has already been discussed throughout this article but I wanted to make the techniques for building shame resilience really clear.
This is not an extensive list but certainly great starting points on which to build.
1. Accept that shame is necessary and has its place
You need your emotions, all of them. Even the ones that cause you pain and hurt, they all are simply trying to TELL YOU SOMETHING.
Use shame as signal to guide you in life and remember that everyone in this world experiences shame or guilt throughout life. It is a universal human emotion that lives in all of us and you are doing yourself a disservice by ignoring it.
2. YOU ARE NOT YOUR EMOTIONS so start separating the two.
This goes for every emotion you have in your arsenal. FEEL your emotions but understand that they are not who you ARE.
Perhaps you might feel bad but that does not mean you ARE bad. You might feel stupid but that does not mean that you ARE stupid or you might feel as though you are fat but that does not mean that you ARE fat.
You must separate yourself from your emotions.
Just like how you might feel the sickness in your gut after hurting someone you love, even if it’s for a good reason, and think to yourself ‘I am a terrible friend/partner/daughter’. In that moment you might FEEL as though you have behaved poorly, you may FEEL as though you are a bad friend/partner/daughter but it does not mean that you are any of these things.
The same goes with shame.
Jump back to the UNHEALTHY feeling of shame surrounding low self-worth. You must separate who you are from how you feel if you have any chance of helping yourself.
You must change ‘I AM worthless’ to ‘I feel as though I am worthless’.
With that second way of thinking it allows you to see that there is a possibility of change. I feel this way NOW but I do not have to feel this way ALWAYS.
That is so much easier to manage.
3. Understand the real reason behind your shame
You’ve separated yourself from your emotions, now you need to understand why you feel them in the first place.
Remember, shame can be helpful if you’re willing to respond to it effectively.
Ask yourself ‘Why am I feeling this way?’
Did you hurt that friend because actually you’re a terrible person and they were easy to take it out on? Or is the truth that you’ve had a rough week and you didn’t even want to meet them this evening but they insisted? Perhaps you’ve been ill or unable to sleep so you had a short fuse? Or do you always have to be their rock and support but this week it was you that needed help and guidance and it made you angry when you didn’t get it?
Cut yourself some slack when you do something wrong and try to understand exactly why it happened in the first place.
When shame appears in its healthy form it will help you rectify the problem.
4. Don’t hide, internalize or reflect shame – respond to it.
To build shame resilience that withstands the test of time and quite frankly will make you an all-round better human being, you must feel the shame and react to it accordingly.
React in a way that someone sitting right in the middle of the shame/grandiose continuum would react. Remember if you reflect then you’ll be heading toward narcissism (grandiose) and if you internalize you will be heading toward the unhealthy empathetic (shameful).
Accepting wrong doing and taking accountability for our mistakes is one of the hardest things for us human beings to stomach but, friend, the truth will set you free.
(I’m annoyed with myself that I even managed to write that sentence)
But it is a beautiful cliché for a reason. The only way to move onward and away from shame is to accept it for what it is and respond accordingly.
What does this mean? Apologizing if you need to. Rectifying a mistake if you can and addressing those fears and concerns that hold us back from lifelong progress.
It takes courage to walk toward the shame when you know how shit it makes you feel.
It takes courage to approach someone bearing that shame and asking for forgiveness.
Only doing so will relieve you of the emotional burden of shame and trust me, you want to get rid of that as soon as you can!
5. Share your experience with shame
Although for many of us this goes against the grain, the beauty of sharing your shame with others is that it actually brings you closer to those around you.
Vulnerability is the key to being able to open up about these things that you want to hide and bury but by doing so; you allow others to see who you really are.
And, more often than not, they will relate.
Your shame will connect you. When the walls and barriers come down people are able to empathize with you and connect with you on a level they could never have before because they weren’t being shown your true self.
Something I wish I could stamp on everyone’s forehead is that people APPRECIATE HONESTY more than we give them credit for.
An apology for the right reasons will strengthen your bond.
An ability to expose yourself is an HONOR to the person who you are willing to share yourself with and people love this. Not only are they likely able to RELATE but they feel privileged to be able to truly know you.
6. Live according to your values
Could your shame be telling you that you aren’t living in accordance to your values?
Your core values and beliefs are what drive every decision and action you make but a lot of us don’t realize that as we become older, our values and beliefs are easily influenced. Why? Because a lot of us who seek love and attention are prepared to alter their values to fit someone else’s.
Now, on the surface that doesn’t seem too harmful but when the values that you hold true in your heart remain the same what happens is a friction and a discontent that can bring about a form of shame.
Perhaps your partner doesn’t mind nabbing the odd thing from the shop without paying because ‘F*ck the system!’ but you actually have a healthy respect for the laws of the land. You might steal the odd thing occasionally to appease them but you feel shame surrounding this because you are going against your value that stealing is wrong.
It never hurts to check in with yourself and make sure that you are living in accordance to YOUR core values and beliefs.
The more successful we are at doing this, the more chance we have a living an (almost) shame free existence and feel content with who we are as individuals.
7. Use shame to improve
Lastly, shame and guilt can be powerful tools to help encourage us to do better next time.
Simply put, if we experience shame and guilt surrounding an action and it feels just so damn awful and the pain and embarrassment to rectify it feels humiliating then why would we want to live through that again?
It can be a great motivating factor for personal growth and self-improvement.
As mentioned before, it guides us to live by socially accepted norms and part of that is helping us understand what negatively impacts us and others so that we can actually take the necessary steps to make positive differences instead.
Your shame can help get you where you need to go, maybe it’s time to show it some love and use it for what it’s really meant for.
This is how to build shame resilience.