Building Tools to Escape Shame

How do you feel when you make a mistake or do something you regret? Does failing make you feel like there’s something wrong with you? Do you believe you deserve to feel alone in certain situations? These are common ways of experiencing shame.

Shame is a common feeling that can be caused by almost anything. It’s defined by the prominent researcher and author Brené Brown as: “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging”. It affects men and women differently, but everyone is vulnerable. People can shame themselves and they can be shamed by others. Some people believe feeling ashamed helps them learn form their mistakes, but shame is never useful.

Anyone can have anything about them targeted for shame, no matter their circumstances – details of their lives they can control (how they dress, their chosen career, or the type of car they drive), things they can’t control (their appearance, how others treat them, or their background), things they have (privilege, mental health conditions, or certain experiences), and things they don’t have (education, children, or financial security).

Shame is a highly painful and destructive emotion because when you feel ashamed, you blame your mistakes on who you are, so you feel incapable of changing or improving. If you were feeling guilty or embarrassed after a mistake, you would say “I can’t believe I did that – that was so stupid”, but if you’re feeling shame you would say “I can’t believe I did that – I’m so stupid”. When you believe there’s something wrong with you, you feel isolated and like you can’t connect with other people, which is an incredibly painful experience.

Rather than focusing on how you could fix you mistake or how your behaviour affected others, when you feel ashamed, you’re intensely concerned with how other people think of you while believing you deserve to feel the pain shame causes. It makes you focus on yourself while telling you that you can’t change, so you’re willing to do anything to stop feeling ashamed. Therefore, your reactions will be self-serving, even if they appear to be designed to help others. So shame can’t help you learn from your mistakes or improve – it can only be damaging.

Some people believe they deserve to be ashamed of who they are. This is often because of lessons they were taught growing up. Parents usually have more influence than anyone else in their child’s life, so the messages they send their children can be very powerful and difficult to unlearn. If parents use shame to punish their children or teach them to be ashamed of who they are, the child can grow up believing they deserve to be ashamed and isolated from other people.

If you feel shame regularly, it can become a defining feature of how you think of yourself.

How shame affects your behaviour

When you feel ashamed, you can’t make good decisions or act in ways that will improve your situation long-term.

Because shame makes you feel like you don’t have any control, it causes your brain to go into survival mode, which is characterised by the fight-flight-freeze reactions. When you feel like you’re fighting to save your life, you can’t think rationally or make decisions that will have long-term benefits. Your reactions will be to help you escape, no matter the consequences.

Some people try to fight their shame by lashing out at others. They could start yelling at their partner after work because their boss made them feel ashamed, and attacking someone gives them a sense of reclaiming some of the power shame cost them.

Fighting shame could also overperforming to please people so they’ll stop judging you. This could be flattering the person who shamed you, arranging situations to make you look good, or spending hours perfecting tasks. However, this often backfires because when it doesn’t work, you’ll feel even more ashamed because you did your best to take control of your situation and were still unable to change it or stop feeling ashamed. (This type of behaviour could also be considered the less-studied threat response of fawning.)

Flight can be doing your best to disappear when you’re ashamed. You could feel shame after realising you’ve gained too much weight to fit into the clothes you intended to wear for a date, so you stay home. Or you could feel ashamed after performing badly during a cricket game so you quit the team, even though you love playing.

You could also try to escape your shame by insisting you aren’t upset. You pretend everything is normal and you’re happy, but this is an act that takes a lot of energy to maintain. And you won’t do anything to change the situation or how you feel, so it isn’t helpful either.

When people react to danger by freezing, their subconscious intention is to become invisible and let the threat pass. Freezing in response to shame is doing nothing – you don’t try to leave or change how you’re feeling. You let your shame wash over you without questioning where it came from or if you deserved to be punished. Perhaps you are highly aware of your emotions, but you feel stuck and unable to do anything to change your situation; you might not even realise there is something you could do.

Or you shut down emotionally and try to make yourself as numb as possible. You don’t know how you should deal with your emotions but they’re overwhelming so you disassociate and try to stop feeling anything.

Because shame makes you feel like you need save yourself from danger, shame can only be a harmful and debilitating emotion.

dealing with shame

Even though you’re not in danger when you feel ashamed, your brain reacts as if you are

There’s no way to make yourself immune to shame. Because everyone needs to have relationships with others, you’ll always be susceptible. But you can build tools that make you resistant.

Tools to resist shame

By understanding what shame feels like and knowing how to stop yourself from being ashamed when it happens, you can reduce how often and how intensely you experience shame.

For most people, the best way to do this is:

1) Learn how to recognise shame

In order to protect yourself from shame, you have to be able to recognise it. This is difficult because shame so painful that most people would rather suppress these emotions than examine them.

Signs you’re feeling shame include (but certainly aren’t limited to):

  • Saying things to yourself like: “I can’t believe I did that, I’m so stupid”, “Who do I think I am?”, “I never should have tried”, “I look like such an idiot” or “Everyone is judging and laughing at me”
  • Worrying intensely about what people are thinking about you
  • Feeling completely alone and as if no one has made the mistakes or has the challenges you’re dealing with
  • The thought of sharing your experience with someone fills you with dread because you think they’ll judge you
  • Feeling trapped and/or defined by your mistakes

Realising you’re feeling ashamed doesn’t change what’s happening, but it gives you the opportunity to choose how you react, instead of responding instinctually and without questioning your thoughts.

2) Understand what makes you feel ashamed

You’ll be able to realise when you’re feeling ashamed more quickly if you know what types of situations are likely to make you feel this way.

Everyone has certain areas of their life where they’re vulnerable to shame. For most people, it’s a version of not being good enough. You could believe you aren’t strong enough, attractive enough, don’t earn enough money, aren’t a good enough parent or partner, and much more.

By identifying the people who tend to make you feel ashamed, you may be able to ask them to stop. You could ask a colleague not to mock your ideas or tell a friend you don’t appreciate their ‘jokes’ about your partner.

However, if they don’t listen or you aren’t comfortable asking someone to change, you can still manage your emotions in these situations by telling yourself you don’t deserve to feel isolated and judged. You could be angry and frustrated that they won’t be more respectful, but not ashamed because you don’t believe what they’re telling you. You won’t like what they’re saying, but you can think of it as a reflection of the sort of person they are, not an indication there’s something wrong with you.

Sometimes avoiding certain people is the best approach. You may be happier if you stop spending time with a friend who shames you, especially if you’ve asked them to stop. You may also need to avoid topics with certain people, such as refusing to talk about your career with your parents or lifestyle habits with certain friends.

If you know when and where to expect shame, you’re less likely to believe you deserve it.

3) Challenge the story you’re telling yourself.

Shame makes you tell yourself illogical stories about what others are thinking of you and how you deserve to feel. If you can realise when you’re shaming yourself, you can challenge the story and realise how untrue or exaggerated it is.

When you catch yourself feeling ashamed, ask yourself if what you’re thinking is accurate.

You should realise how extreme, presumptive, or unrealistic your thoughts are.

Don’t shy away from admitting to yourself what you’ actually thinking. It’s easy to have beliefs so ridiculous you don’t want to admit to having them. You could be telling yourself everyone at work thinks you’re incapable and a failure because you pronounced a client’s name wrong, or that you’re a useless parent who doesn’t deserve to have children because you forgot to pack your child’s lunch.

When you stop and listen to your thoughts, you can challenge them and remind yourself that you aren’t the only person who makes mistakes and although they may be painful, they don’t make you a bad person who deserves to be alone.

4) Tell someone what you’re thinking.

Shame flourishes in secrecy so the best way to stop feeling ashamed is to share your experience with someone you can trust. Talking to someone who can empathise and make you feel less alone is, for most people, the most effective way of turning your shame into a less damaging emotion like embarrassment or guilt, or realising you’re being too hard on yourself.

However, this has to be someone you trust and who has proven they can be compassionate and realistic. Not everyone can empathise with shame and opening up can make you feel worse if you talk to someone who won’t help you feel less isolated. They shouldn’t be someone who will dismiss your experience, pity you, or become overly-emotional, but someone who can listen and understand.

Telling someone your thoughts can be an effective way to reality check them. They can tell you that you aren’t the only one who makes mistakes and disappoints others sometimes so you feel less alone and therefore less ashamed.

5) Accept vulnerability

For many people, vulnerability is an uncomfortable emotion because it makes them feel weak and defenceless. But unlike shame, vulnerability isn’t a damaging emotion.

Vulnerability is “feeling exposed to being attacked or harmed”. Shame makes you feel vulnerable because shame is a response to being attacked. But if you react to shame like you’re being threatened – with fight, flight or freeze – you aren’t going to improve your mood or situation.

Telling someone you’re feeling ashamed is an act of vulnerability because you can’t know how they’ll react – they could reject you and make you feel even more alone.

You can’t accept you’re feeling ashamed without also admitting you feel vulnerable. Although it’s an uncomfortable experience for many different types of people, feeling vulnerable doesn’t always mean you should try to change your situation. If you can allow yourself to be vulnerable, you can improve a variety of relationships, including with yourself.

From shame to acceptance

There aren’t any situations where you should shame yourself or believe you deserve to feel ashamed. But you should still hold yourself accountable for your mistakes.

Because shame makes you believe you’re the problem and can’t change, you’re unlikely to learn from your mistakes if you shame yourself for them. And because you’re so focused on yourself, you’ll struggle to empathise with the people you hurt or know how to make up for what you did.

However, you shouldn’t tell yourself that what you did doesn’t matter in the name of protecting yourself from shame. The opposite of shame isn’t dismissal or flippancy, but acceptance. Accepting what you did may involve feeling regret, guilt, or embarrassment. Or there’s no reason to feel ashamed because you didn’t do anything wrong and are being too hard on yourself, so you should be forgiving. But you should always ask yourself why you’re feeling ashamed and what emotion you should feel instead.

dealing with shame

Shame can make you feel trapped, but there are ways to escape these emotions

Shame tells you that you’re a terrible person and there’s nothing you can do to change. The less often you think and feel this way, the more capable you’ll be of making decisions and acting in ways that benefit yourself and others.

The most important way to resist shame is to understand what shame is, what it feels like, and that you (and no one else) deserves to feel ashamed no matter what you did. You may deserve to feel guilty, remorseful, embarrassed, disappointed with yourself, or angry at your behaviour, but these emotions are all different and better from shame because they can drive you to fix the situation and avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Changing how you talk to yourself and react to emotionally challenging situations typically takes a long time and can be very difficult, especially if you try to do this alone. This can be easier if you have someone you can talk to, such as a friend or a mental health professional.

By understanding that you don’t deserve to be ashamed of your mistakes or who you are, you can be happier and more fulfilled.

(Visited 5 times, 1 visits today)

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *