The Importance of Identifying and Combating Shame

by Gary Gilles

Shame_girl_Fotolia_71305537_XSThough you can’t tangibly see or touch shame it is a constant companion for many. It is often a difficult term to define, so let’s start there and then see why shame can be so destructive to our lives.

Shame vs. guilt

To clearly define shame we need to distinguish it from guilt. Guilt is a natural feeling that follows a mistake or a poor choice. For example, say you were harsh with a co-worker over a simple error they made on a project you were both working on. Shortly after the incident you feel badly for how you behaved. What you feel is guilt. You said things you regret; you made a mistake. That mistake can be repaired by apologizing and talking it out with your co-worker.

In contrast, shame at its core is the feeling of being inadequate or defective as a person. Common mistakes are interpreted as a sign of your own incompetence or lack of intelligence. After the harsh words spoken to your co-worker, shame might prompt you to request a transfer to another department or find a new job. You want to hide or disappear. You feel exposed because others can see your flaws; those that you work so hard to conceal.

Guilt has a built-in motivation to correct or repair the error in behavior. Shame usually results in self-loathing, feelings of inferiority and persistent thoughts that you don’t measure up to those around you. Guilt propels you to engage with others to correct the wrong. Shame typically causes you to isolate from others to minimize the embarrassment or humiliation you feel.

How shame feeds the self-loathing cycle

Failure or perceived failure can easily trigger shame. It commonly works like this: you have normal life stressors that stem from your job, financial worries, relationship problems, etc. These stressors become overwhelming, your world begins to feel out of control and you may begin to feel inadequate or incompetent. So, you start doubting yourself or maybe even numb yourself to the shame by self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, food, or other addictive behaviors to help you cope. The more you repeat this cycle the less control you feel over your life and the more hopeless and disappointed you become with your inability to handle these life pressure without turning to some form of numbing. Other people may reach out and try to help you but it’s difficult to break free of the deep feelings of inadequacy.

But, there is the good news. Shame is not the final word. You can push back and reclaim those parts of your life if you are willing to do the work. Here are five ways to identify and combat the shame that seems to control you.

  1. Identify your shame

The first and most important step is to identify shame when it rears its ugly head. For example, let’s say you’re running late to work one morning and accidently drop the glass container of orange juice on your kitchen floor. You reflexively start cursing at yourself saying how “stupid” you are. Okay, so push the pause button to answer this question:  Are you really stupid or did you simply make a mistake? Shame says you are stupid and that is why you have made such a mess. Objectively speaking, you made a mistake. Yes, it’s a mess and you’re going to be late for work. But this is the first critical step: you must be able to recognize when shame pops up, call it what it is (shame) and refuse to feed it with negative self-talk.

  1. Accept your limitations

Another important way you can combat shame is to accept your limitations as a human being. You’re not perfect and never will be. You’ve made mistakes in your life, as has everyone. Some of these mistakes inevitably involve your addictive behavior. Shame tells you that you’ve made a wreck of your life and that you will never be good enough. But, you must focus your energy on repairing the mistakes that can be mended and give up the dream of perfection.

  1. Redefine your worth

When your cycle of shame has a long history, it is easy to define yourself as “inadequate” and a “loser.” Shame anchors you to the past and defines your worth by all of the missed opportunities, broken promises and failed attempts. But, your worth is not based upon what you’ve done or failed to do if you take full responsibility for those choices and commit yourself to positive change. This is where new hope lies.

  1. Challenge shame-based thoughts

Because shame relentlessly creeps into your way of thinking you need to constantly challenge these shame-based thoughts. For example, take any significant goal that you have for your life, such as getting a new job. If you listen closely to the shame-based thinking you’ll hear a voice saying, “You’ll never land a decent-paying job” When you hear that voice you must begin to challenge those thoughts by asking questions such as:

  • Is this shame-based thinking?
  • What lies am I telling myself?
  • What would my life look like if I were to let go of this thought?
  • What do I need to do to help move in the right direction?
  1. Take action to push against the shame

Your final step it to take action. Shame can only be pushed to the side if you do something tangible to overtake the ground that it’s claimed in your life. For example, say that you’ve repeatedly been unable to accomplish a goal, such as losing weight or improving your eating habits. You want to try again but feel it is useless. You’ve tried so many times that you feel as though the outcome will always be the same: failure. If you do nothing you strengthen the shame. If you push against the shame it means trying again and possibly reaching out for help. By taking this type of action you are putting all five principles together at one time: identifying shame, accepting that you are not perfect, establishing that you are worth making the effort to change and challenging your distorted thoughts. Do this over and over again in different situations and you are on your way to breaking free from a shame-based life.

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