We need to talk about shame

CW: emotional pain, bullying, emotional abuse, self-destructive behaviour, anxiety


Why do we need to talk about shame?

Shame is a normal human emotion that most people feel in varying degrees.

It becomes problematic when it starts to negatively affect our thoughts, emotions and behaviour, and so also our mental health, our self-esteem, and how we function.

I only recently discovered the extent to which shame has affected me. I realised it had fuelled my actions, emotions, and thoughts for a vast chunk of my life, and was most likely what kept me in cycles of self-destruction and pain.

Learning how to recognise and take control of this powerful but elusive human emotion has made a huge difference to my self-esteem, how I deal with anxiety-producing situations, and how able I am to engage with other people and feel confident to reach for the things I want in life.

It can be painful to learn about at first, but I think it is important that more people are aware of shame and how it affects them, and that we talk about it more. If I had learned about shame years ago, I might have been released from cycles of pain long ago.


What is it?

I realised recently that I didn’t actually know what shame was and how important it can be. I had always equated it with embarrassment and self-consciousness. It is similar, but much more powerful and potentially damaging to your self-esteem and mental health.

Feeling shame is feeling really bad about your worth and adequacy as a person, and often incredibly self-conscious about it at the same time. It is a disabling and debilitating emotion that can lead to us feeling that we are intrinsically flawed, bad, and unworthy of love or inclusion by others.

Feeling shame doesn’t mean you have done something bad. If you are feeling bad about something you have done, that is more likely to be guilt. Guilt can be easier to deal with because it tends to be due to something specific that has happened, and we are more likely feel an urge to talk about it with others and perhaps try to make amends in some way.

Shame is more often felt when you haven’t done anything wrong, for example feeling it due to how you look or for who you feel you are as a person. We are much less able to talk about shame because it is so tied up with our feelings of the bad or flawed person that we might feel we are inside.

Shame makes us want to hide away or hide parts of ourselves, because it is such a deep and painful emotion that makes us feel incredibly vulnerable.

It is important to know that shame is not about blame. It is not because of something you have done. We can feel bad about ourselves due to strict standards we hold ourselves to, but shame more often starts due to how we are treated by others or due to difficult situations we have found ourselves in, which go on to affect how we see and feel about ourselves.

If you feel deep shame, it could be due to having been mistreated, put down, made to feel small, or like you are in some way unacceptable, undesirable, unworthy, or defective. If this was particularly painful for you, shame can become internalised and it can stay with you for years, even a lifetime.

Shame is such a powerful emotion that it can cause us to react in strong ways in order to cope with how painful it feels inside us.


The Compass of Shame

These strong reactions are best explained using a model called The Compass of Shame (Nathanson (1992)).

This is one of the most useful concepts I have ever come across and I was able to recognise myself in it instantly.

It shows four ways that people tend to react when feeling shame. You may find you do any number of these in any combination and also may react using different ones at different times.



  • Withdrawal – wanting to isolate yourself, avoiding relationships, people and situations
  • Attack Self – negative self-talk, self-destructive behaviour, self-hate and self-loathing
  • Avoidance – denial, thrill-seeking, substance abuse
  • Attack Others – blaming others, lashing out at others

We all feel shame but when we have internalised shame over a long period of time it can have a much bigger hold on us and our reactions on the compass are more likely to have become ingrained coping mechanisms.

I immediately related to the ‘attack self’ and ‘withdrawal’ compass points, and even the ‘avoidance’ one.

All that time, I hadn’t consciously known what it was I was avoiding, what I was withdrawing from, or what I was attacking myself over.  All I knew was that I was in pain and that I felt really bad about myself and felt compelled to think and act these ways.

Understanding what has been going on all these years has made such a difference to how I am able to function today, and how I treat myself.


How to spot shame in yourself.

I had varying degrees of social anxiety for over 20 years before I discovered the shame compass, but I hadn’t realised that shame was actually the major driving force behind it.

It was a personal revelation.

The thing about shame is that it is sneaky and that it likes to keep a low profile. It hides underneath other emotions such as anger and anxiety. It stays powerful by staying hidden.

It was only when I learned about shame from a psychologist that I found out how to spot it.

This is what I discovered shame looked like for me:

When I was around others, whether they were strangers or good friends, I would begin to feel really bad about myself and my inadequacies as a person. I would have loads of negative self-talk going around my head, criticising me and telling me what a worthless person I was, beating myself up for the things I had said and making me feel like crap.

Sometimes I would feel physically sick with self-disgust and self-loathing so intense that I couldn’t even look people in the eye. I would desperately want to leave the situation, not out of fear I realise now, but out of feelings of such deep inadequacy and unworthiness to exist, let alone be around others.

I used to think this was all just part of my anxiety, but after looking at The Compass of Shame, I realised that it was deep-seated shame that was leading me to ‘attack self’ and ‘withdraw’.

Noticing that was the beginning of a process of slowly removing and releasing the shame I had internalised and had been feeling for so long.

I still get anxiety. It still makes me feel hot and shaky; my heart beats fast, and my mouth goes dry. I feel awkward and uncomfortable, but it is much more bearable than it used to be. This is because now it is largely a physiological reaction and not an emotional one.

Separating shame from anxiety has radically changed how I am affected by social situations.

Are you able to recognise any of the actions and reactions in the Compass of Shame as underpinning your emotions?

If yes, you may be carrying internalised shame.


How I began to release internalised shame.

Name it and acknowledge you’re feeling it.

Learning to spot shame was the first thing. Next, I began to label it as such and acknowledge that I was feeling it.

Whenever the negative self-talk would start up in the middle of a situation, or feelings of self-loathing, I would note it and then say and repeat to myself: “I am feeling shame”.

Acknowledging the fact that you are feeling shame in the moment immediately takes power away from it.

This is because shame works though opinions, such as ‘I’m a worthless person’. If you reject opinions in favour of a fact ‘I am feeling shame’, the opinions lose their power.

It also puts it into context: I am not thinking/feeling this stuff because I am a bad, unworthy person, I am thinking/feeling it because I am feeling shame.

And remember, feeling shame is normal and human and is not your fault. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you.

Shame thrives on being unseen and as soon as you start to notice and point at it, it weakens. It also thrives on opinions, so when you start to challenge them, they don’t tend to hold their own for long.


Challenge the ‘shame scripts’.

I made a list of all the things that my negative self-talk (also known as my ‘shame scripts’) was saying. It included:

“You’re weird and no one will ever like you”, “you’re a joke”, “no one cares what you have to say”, “you don’t deserve to be here”, “you’re nothing” … etc.

When I looked at what I had written in front of me, I noticed that all these phrases were things that I had been told or made to feel when I was a child and teenager. Decades later, I was still being plagued it.

It made me realise how long I had carried all this stuff, which was never mine to begin with, and how it had continued to affect me most of my life. It had been with me so long, constantly battering away at me, that I just assumed it must all be true. I had never sat down to analyse it or challenge it. It was something that I had simply got used to as a part of me.

Now, I took time to pick apart each phrase to see if it was fact or just an opinion. I also looked at whether it was helpful to me or my mental health – and then I argued with it.


Example 1: “You don’t deserve to be here”.

Is this a fact?

No, it’s not a fact, it’s an opinion, because there is actually no proof to back this up. I also think if you ask people who know me, they would disagree.

Is it helpful?

No, it’s definitely not helpful, in fact it is actually a really horrible thing to say to someone.

In fact, why don’t I deserve to be here, in this social situation? I feel like everyone else deserves to be here. I’m a good person with things to offer, so why the hell can’t I be here with everyone else?!

Example 2: “You’re weird, and no one likes you”.

Is this a fact?

Actually, no, it isn’t a fact at all because people on the whole don’t dislike me. I tend to get on well with most people. I’m friendly and kind and compassionate and I have friends who definitely do like me.

I have a unique look with tattoos, piercings, and purple hair, but that doesn’t make me weird. I’m sensitive, and sometimes I sense things others can’t, but that doesn’t make me weird either.

Is it helpful?

Definitely not – it is a nasty thing said to me by people decades ago and I refuse to believe it anymore!


I found that getting annoyed with the words and phrases and telling them how much I refused to believe them actually helped me fully reject them, but you could do it in any way you like really: whatever works best for you.

You could even write them out on paper and rip each one up after you challenge it. This way you are truly saying goodbye and good riddance!


Keep at it.

Now when I’m feeling anxious and uncomfortable and I start noticing the ‘attack self’ scripts starting up again, I tell them to go away and that I don’t believe them anymore (though usually phrased as ‘piss off, you know that’s bullsh*t’).

It does take practice, and you have to expose yourself to some uncomfortable situations that might cause you to feel a bit of shame, in order to do the practice (go gently at first) but I have found it really does work.

I began to notice shame popping up here and there, such as when I was walking around in public and when I went into shops, and every time it did, I reflected and challenged it.

I had always felt really self-conscious, but now I could see it was shame making me feel that way because the script was telling me I looked weird, and that people were all judging me and hating me.

I began to understand that emotional abuse and bullying I suffered when I was young was the cause of me always feeling so uncomfortable around other people.


Combat it with something you know is true about yourself.

This is something I find works really well for me.

Sometimes I repeat things to myself inside my head to double-down on keeping the shame away. I do it when I’m sitting in meetings feeling anxious or even just walking along the street feeling self-conscious.

I repeat to myself:

“I am a good, kind person with a lot to offer other people”.

I want nothing more than to be kind to people and help them – that is who I am deep down. This is a fact, not an opinion. This is my fact about myself.

Remember, facts always crush opinions because they are much, much stronger.

Reminding myself of my intrinsic good qualities always makes me feel instantly more at ease.

If the self-talk is saying I’m ugly, or weird, or I don’t deserve to be somewhere, I basically argue back and say that even if those things were true (which they are not), I am a good, kind person with lots to offer other people, and that is what really matters.

You will have to find a phrase that works best for you.

It could be ‘I am kind and loving to animals’, ‘I am a good parent’, ‘I always try my very best to do the right thing’ etc. Search deep inside for one thing that you know is good and true about yourself – you don’t have to share it with anyone, so it doesn’t matter what other people would think or say about it. It is a fact about you that you know is true, so search deep inside yourself – you will know it when you find it.


I still find some social situations uncomfortable and anxiety-producing, but on the whole my work to combat my shame has completely transformed by life.

Now I mostly only have anxiety itself to deal with (the body reactions of thumping heart, dry mouth, feeling shaky). It isn’t pleasant, but it is manageable now, compared to when there was deep shame attached to it, where I sometimes felt in severe emotional distress, wanting to cry and run away.

I still feel shame, too, in areas of my life, and everyone does to some extent. I have managed to tackle the shame that was disabling me the most however – the shame I felt in social situations. As I notice shame pop up in other situations, I use the skills I have learned. I spot it, and acknowledge it and later I write down what it is saying and analyse it.

None of this has been easy, but it has definitely made a big difference in my life.

The reason I decided to write this is because I think it is so important to share with others. It has been like a magical healing potion for me!

We need to talk about shame more, even if that can feel hard to do.


Why is it so hard to talk and think about shame?

Talking and thinking about shame can make us feel extremely vulnerable. It can make us feel more ashamed.

It is an emotion tied up with very personal thoughts and beliefs about being unacceptable and unworthy and so we automatically feel we need to keep it to ourselves and not share it with others, in order to protect ourselves. That is a natural way to feel.

The very first time I learned about shame, I felt withdrawn for quite a few days afterwards as I needed to process the fact that I felt it at all. I realised it had been there my whole life, ruling me in so many situations, affecting my mental health, and yet I had not even known it was there. It was difficult to accept at first.

I recently read ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’ by Brené Brown (2010), and in it she says that shame has the most power when it is in the dark. To make it less powerful, the best thing you can do is drag it out into the light.

You can do that by doing what I have described in this article, but Brené says it is also useful to talk about it with someone who you can trust to listen and not judge.

After a week of reflecting on the whole situation, I was talking on the phone to a friend and began to tell her about what I’d learned about shame. I said something like this:

“Last week I learned about shame – it’s actually not what I thought it was at all. You know those times when you feel bad really about yourself, that you’re not good enough? That’s actually shame talking. I’ve started to realise all those times when I’ve felt bad about myself in front of others, I was feeling shame. I realise that it was shame making me attack myself with all the negative self-talk, making me do so many self-destructive things, and also why I’ve found it so hard to be around people so much. Do you think you’ve felt it sometimes too?”

It was the beginning of a really frank and open conversation between the two of us.

I know not everyone has someone they can trust to talk to about their deep feelings. If you have a psychologist or therapist, perhaps you could ask them to look at it with you.

If not, just having conversations about shame in general, even without giving details about your own personal experiences, helps to raise awareness of this emotion. I think this is a topic that should be more acceptable for people to think and talk about because it could lead to better understanding what really lies behind our strong, often painful emotions. Perhaps it could help more people heal more quickly.

Spotting it, naming it, and talking about it gets it out of the shadows where it prefers to be and helps reduce the power it can have over us and how much it can rule our lives.

Even once we release internalised shame that has been there a long time, shame can still come along here and there through ongoing experiences. Learning to notice when we are feeling new shame and to recognise it for what it is and release it, as it happens, can make it much less likely to become internalised again and to have such a hold on our lives as in the past.


And finally.

Please remember – shame is not your fault.

You have no need to feel ashamed if you recognise shame in your emotions or in your life. It could mean that you have not been treated very well at times in your life.

Shame can become overwhelming and can really affect people’s lives, but it is a normal human emotion that everybody feels to some extent.

Nothing is wrong with you for feeling shame.


I recommend reading anything by Brene Brown. Her work on vulnerability, courage, and shame, researched and written as both a professional and as someone who has intensely felt both, is incredibly heart-warming and honest and I have gained so much from reading her books.

If you can’t afford them, ask in your local library to see if they have or can order you anything by her.

This is her website: https://brenebrown.com/


References

Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: let go of who you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden.

Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and pride: Affect, sex, and the birth of the self. New York, NY: Norton.

Nathanson, D. (1997). Affect theory and the compass of shame. In M. Lansky and A. Morrison (Eds.), The widening scope of shame. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press.

10 ways you might feel after your Mental Health Act section is over

Being detained under a section of the Mental Health Act is an experience that can be difficult and stressful.

It involves being removed from familiar surroundings, sometimes against your will, and being placed on a mental health ward for the safety of yourself or others.

Not only can it cause a lot of stress at the time, but it can also have profound and lasting effects on a person, which may continue to have an impact long into the future.

This is something people don’t tend to talk about much, and it can be difficult to know where to turn for help if you have been affected.


Although different people may feel differently about this experience, here are 10 ways you might feel.


1. Ashamed or embarrassed

No one should have to feel ashamed or embarrassed by needing urgent mental health care, however due to continuing stigma around serious mental health issues, this is a common experience for many people.

Those feelings could be about things you said or did that were out of character for you. Perhaps you feel that you let yourself or other people down in some way. This often goes along with feelings of guilt.

Perhaps people around you, such as your loved ones, or even your neighbours or work colleagues, know that you were sectioned, and it makes you feel embarrassed, and you worry about what they think of you. This can cause you to lose self-esteem and confidence, and not want to be around those people.

2. Guilty or sorry

Feeling ashamed is often tangled up with feelings of guilt. You may wonder why you acted a certain way, or why you didn’t do enough to stop it happening.

Perhaps you did or said things that you did not mean because you were so unwell, and now you feel bad about it. Maybe you caused other people to be distressed or upset, or even broke the law, because you were not your usual self, and you are carrying feelings of regret.

You might even want to say sorry to certain people, but you don’t have the opportunity, or you don’t know how.

3. Alone

The experience of being sectioned is one that not a lot of people go through and it is also deeply personal. It is not something that is easy to talk about with other people.

Your loved ones may be too close to the situation for you to want to talk to them, or perhaps you feel that they won’t understand because they have not been in the situation themselves.

Because your experiences involve services or professionals, you might not feel you can talk to them about this, or you may feel like the last thing you want is to be involved with mental health services again.

4. Like you don’t belong

You might find you feel differently around other people now. You might feel that you don’t fit in anymore because you have been through something that has changed you so much that you can no longer relate to others in the same way.

You may prefer to be alone and away from other people because of how you feel.

5. Angry

You might still feel angry about what happened, and even harbour resentment about what you experienced.

This could be due to feeling let down by loved ones or people you thought you could trust. It could cause you to avoid these people.

It could be due to what happened whilst you were sectioned and how professionals or services treated you. It might lead to you not wanting to engage with services in the future.

6. Afraid

You may find that bad memories of your experience come back to you, even years later.

You might see something on the TV, such as programmes about mental illness or movies where people are trapped, held against their will, or coerced into doing things they don’t want to, and find these things upset you because they remind you of your experiences.

You might get flashbacks or nightmares about things that happened, or physical and physiological reactions, such as panic attacks or dissociation.

7. Numb

You might not feel anything at all.

Sometimes when things are too painful and too much to bear, your brain may try to cope by shutting off, and that can make you feel numb.

You might be unable to properly feel happy or sad about anything. You might feel indifferent about everything and find it hard to connect with other people because of it.

You may prefer not to be around other people and might lose interest in a lot of things you’d usually enjoy.

8. Confused

Things may have happened during your experience that still don’t make sense to you. Things may have been said or done by people around you that you still don’t really understand.

Wondering ‘why?’, and not having any opportunity to ask or find out, can lead to thoughts, images, and questions that continually bug you. That can make you feel uncomfortable, confused, and make it harder to come to terms with your experiences.

9. Helpless

Being restricted and having your freedom taken away can make you that you have very little control over your life, even after you have your liberty back again.

It is very hard to forget that feeling of helplessness once you have felt it.

You might not have the mental strength afterwards to even think about your experiences, let alone talk about them, and prefer to push them to the back of your mind.

Unfortunately, intense feelings and emotions don’t just go away, and may continue to affect you deep inside.

10. Any way you like

Everyone can have different experiences whilst they are sectioned, due to many different factors, and that will have a bearing on the way you feel afterwards. Everyone is different, and people deal with things in different ways.

It doesn’t matter if you feel differently from other people who have had this experience. There is no one way you should or should not be feeling. Just because someone you know seems ok afterwards, doesn’t mean you are expected to as well.

You might be feeling all or none of these things, or some that I haven’t even mentioned.

However you are feeling, it is ok to feel like that, even after a long time.


Even if you went through the experience of being sectioned some time ago now, you have been through something very personal and difficult, and it is okay if you are still not over it.

If you do have someone you trust to talk to about it, perhaps you could share with them how you are feeling. You could try writing them a letter, or drawing pictures, if it is easier to get your feelings out that way.

If you don’t have anyone you trust, you could write how you feel in a private journal, which no one else reads but you. You could create art that helps you express how you are feeling.

Contacting a mental health charity is another a good idea. They are independent from services and people who work for these charities do so because they care about people like you. You could call a helpline and speak to a trained person who will listen to you. They won’t judge you, and could help you make sense of what you’re feeling.

Click here for a list of mental health helplines and listening services.


I want to raise awareness of the fact that there is a need for specific support for people who have been sectioned, on top of the support you might get for your mental health condition. Being detained in this way is an experience that can affect you very deeply, and it is important that this is recognised.

It is important that mental health treatment does not add to the trauma or distress that people are already experiencing, and that they don’t continue to carry that burden into the future.

If you are a mental health practitioner or healthcare worker who works with people who are/have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act, please be aware of the lasting psychological effect this can have on an individual. Checking in with how someone feels about their experience days, weeks, months, even years after a section is rescinded could be really helpful for that person’s wellbeing. Just being able to talk about it with someone who is compassionate and open to listening could make a huge difference to how someone feels about their experience.


You might also like to read 8 ways it is OK to feel when you’re sectioned under the Mental Health Act, which looks at how you might feel whilst sectioned and detained in hospital.


8 ways it is OK to feel when you’re sectioned under the Mental Health Act

Being detained under the Mental Health Act and confined to a psychiatric ward is something that is meant to happen in your best interests, but it most likely won’t feel like that at the time.

Of course, everyone will feel differently, but here are 8 ways you might feel.


1. Powerless

Being free to mostly do as we choose is vital for us as human beings in today’s society. Being told that you cannot leave somewhere, or go out for a walk to stretch your legs, or being forced to do things and go places you do not want to, can have a profound and lasting effect on how you feel about yourself and about the world. It can make you feel like you have very little personal power left.

2. Angry

One of the most natural emotions to feel when you are no longer in control of what is happening to you is anger. You might feel angry with the professionals who assessed you, because you don’t agree with their decision. You might feel angry with your family or loved ones if you feel that this has happened because of them. You might be angry because you feel you are not being listened to, or because you feel that the staff are against you.

There are many things to feel angry about, and often other strong emotions, such as fear, can feel like anger.

Sometimes anger can lead to you lashing out and this is understandable if you feel stuck in such a confined and powerless situation. Unfortunately aggression may lead to further restrictive interventions or negative staff attitudes towards you, making you more angry and creating a cycle.

3. Afraid

You may not be sure what is happening, know where you are, or know who these people are who are stopping you from doing what you want to do. You might be scared of the ward you are on, the other patients, or the staff, or what you think is going on.

The way you feel and act when you are afraid can often feel and look the same as anger.

4. Ashamed

No one should have to feel ashamed if their health has led to them needing urgent mental health treatment or support, but stigma in society around serious mental health problems continues, so it is not surprising if you do feel this way. Many people do.

Your feelings of shame may be about how you perceive yourself, and also about what other people might think about you.

5. Alone

You may only be able to see or speak to your loved ones at certain times or for short periods. You might not get along with any of the other patients, or be interested in them, and spend a lot of time on your own.

If you are moved to a hospital out of the area, it may be very difficult for you to have anyone visit you, and you may feel very far away from anything and anyone familiar.

You might not even want anyone to visit or call if you are feeling bad, such as feeling ashamed, or if you are angry with people seemingly playing a part in your current situation.

You can still feel lonely, even if you have purposely decided that you don’t want to see or speak to anyone.

6. Irritated

When you are feeling irritable, you can get annoyed or stressed out at things very easily. This can happen for many reasons, such as in response to outside stress, or because you feel bored and fed up.

Psychiatric wards are usually not calm places. They can be noisy and uncomfortable, and boring if there are few activities, or if you don’t feel like joining in. All of these things can make you more irritable.

Other patients can be noisy or disruptive because they aren’t very well. Being stuck in a fairly small area, with people you would not normally choose to be with, can lead to you feeling irritable and agitated.

7. Worried

You may have children, a partner, or pets, and be worried about how you being away from them is affecting them. You might be worried about how being sectioned will affect your life in terms of your job or your reputation. You may be worried about your money situation or where you are going to live.

8. Trapped

If you are an informal patient on a mental health ward, you will often be allowed to come and go as you please throughout the day.

As a patient on a section, however, you cannot go out for leave unless it is legally agreed to and signed off by a psychiatrist. This is called section 17 leave. If the psychiatrist is not in over the weekend to do it, or if they decide you won’t be allowed it yet, then you cannot leave the unit.

This means spending all your time in just a few spaces – a bedroom, hallway, lounge area, dining room, a small yard, maybe a quiet room, and occasionally activity rooms – sometimes for some time.

Feeling trapped can make you feel irritable, stressed, and angry, and more likely to feel aggressive towards others.

It can also have lasting effects on you mentally because of the stress it can cause.


These feelings are all very natural responses to the experience of being detained under a section of the Mental Health Act.

Although I have set them out individually here, these emotions do not happen separately, but are all entwined with each other. Feeling one will often make you also feel many of the others.

You may not even be able to tell which of them you are feeling because they all get so easily tangled and jumbled up together.

Your stress levels can affect the way you act and how you come across, which in turn might affect the way others respond to you and the care that you receive.

All of this can lead to an extremely stressful experience, the effects of which you might carry with you sometime into the future.

It is quite normal to feel any of these emotions, or any others, when you are in this situation.


If you are currently on a section on a mental health ward of any kind, it is highly likely that you are legally entitled to an advocate.

This is someone impartial, who is not part of the staff who are caring you, that will listen to you and support you to be able to express your views, and who will help you stand up for your rights.

If you would like to speak to an advocate, let a member of staff on your ward know. They will be able to organise that for you.

Alternatively, you can find one and contact them directly by searching online.


Here are some great UK charities with resources to get you started:

Mind

Rethink

Voiceability

POhWER


You might also like to read 10 ways you might feel after your Mental Health Act section is over, which looks at how the experience of being sectioned can still affect you for quite some time afterwards.