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 the majority of 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.
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, you can internalise the shame 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 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, being mean to yourself, self-hate and self-loathing
- Avoidance – denial, self-destructive actions, 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 I had definitely spent a large part of my life using ‘avoidance’ to cope.
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.
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 have had terrible social anxiety for over 20 years now, but I only just discovered that shame has actually been a 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 in my psychology sessions that I discovered 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 get 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.
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 can’t stop moving my body and 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 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 (crappy) opinions, so when you start to challenge them, they don’t tend to hold their own for long.
Challenge the ‘shame scripts’.
My psychologist and 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 young teen. 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 asked 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 pink hair, but that doesn’t make me weird. I’m sensitive, and sometimes I hear voices and sense things others can’t, but that doesn’t make me weird either.
Is it helpful?
Definitely not – it is rubbish spouted 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 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 or burn them – safely! 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 silently tell them to go away and that I just 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 a bit in order to do the practice (go gently at first) but I have found it does work.
Even when I wasn’t practicing it, I would reflect on it, and just try to notice it popping up here and there. I began to notice it when I was just walking around in public and when I went into shops.
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 understand now that the emotional abuse 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.
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 when I’m 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.
Reminding myself of these intrinsic good qualities always makes me feel instantly stronger.
If the self-talk is saying I’m ugly, or weird, or I don’t deserve to be somewhere, I’m basically arguing back and saying that even if those things were true (which they are not), I am a good, kind person with lots to offer other people, so who cares what you think!
You will have to find what phrase 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 to be true, so search deep inside yourself – you will know it when you find it.
I still find social situations uncomfortable and anxiety-producing, but now I mostly just have the anxiety itself to deal with (the body reactions of racing 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 sat there in severe emotional distress, wanting to cry, and run away.
I still feel shame, too, in areas of my life, but I have managed to tackle the shame that was disabling me the most – 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, acknowledge it and then later write it down 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 worth sharing with others.
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.
After my first psychology session about shame, I felt withdrawn for quite a few days 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, massively 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 been doing in my psychology sessions recently. It felt too difficult to just dive into the subject, but leading up to it generally seemed to be a good way in. I went on to say 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?”
I know not everyone has someone they can trust to talk to about their deep feelings. If you have a psychologist or therapist, they might be happy to look at it with you.
If not, just having conversations about shame in general, even without talking 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 and that it could lead to many of us understanding what really lies behind our strong 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 future experiences. Learning to notice when we are feeling new shame and to recognise it for what it is, 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.
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.
In fact, noticing it and being aware of it makes you one step ahead of the many, many people who still have no idea that they are feeling shame and continue to be ruled by it.
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 her.
This is her website: https://brenebrown.com/
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.