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Shame can be a destructive emotion when it’s left unchecked.
Yes, it is reasonable to sometimes feel shame about yourself. Everyone does. What’s unhealthy is to live in that mental space of not being worthy enough or valid.
It’s when you repeatedly tell yourself that you should be ashamed and reinforce these negative feelings that you will create problems with your growth and healing.
Therefore, shame is something to be overcome and conquered if you want to develop a better relationship with yourself and with other people.
How do you deal with toxic shame? How do you overcome it?
1. Talk about your shame with people you trust.
Shame is an emotion that obstructs and thrives in the darkness. You give your shame more power when you swallow it, refuse to acknowledge it, and refuse to address it.
In many cases, shame can be the result of a distorted perspective of a situation or your relationship with yourself. By talking about it with an empathetic person who knows you, or a mental health professional, you are allowing yourself to air it out and find some perspective.
What you may find is that you’ve assigned all of this importance to some flaw that you perceive yourself to have, whether it’s real or not. You may find that your confidante has similar experiences or can provide an additional perspective that you may not have considered.
2. Examine the emotions that you’re actually feeling.
Shame can be a useful mask for avoiding complicated, painful feelings that we just don’t want to deal with.
You may feel bad about a thing that happened and blame yourself, personality flaws, or perceived personality flaws to keep from feeling the real emotions that sit beneath it.
As an example…
Laura’s boyfriend completes suicide after a long struggle with mental illness. That kind of traumatic loss brings grief and shock with it. Laura may find herself blaming herself for his suicide. She may tell herself that if only she was more understanding, if she had just tried harder, if she had just reached out more, then maybe he would still be alive.
She tells herself she’s not good enough, and that must be the reason he completed suicide. In reality, some or none of that may be true. But what is absolutely true is that she is not responsible for her boyfriend’s actions. She will eventually have to let go of her perceived responsibility and the shame she is experiencing so that she can address all of the other emotions surrounding the loss.
Shame should not be confused with guilt. Shame is saying that I am bad things. Guilt is saying that I did a bad thing. Guilt is good because it prompts you to correct your wrong actions and not act in ways that hurt others. Shame is not, because it’s not productive and keeps people from dealing with difficult emotions or problems that need to be dealt with.
3. Do not attach your self-worth to your actions.
It may seem like a good idea to keep your self-worth attached to your actions. After all, we want to feel good when we do good. Right? Well, sort of. It’s one of those situations that works out better on paper than in reality.
What happens when you go to do a good thing, and it’s not appreciated? Or when the good thing falls short of what you were expecting? Or when you made a mistake, and the good thing turned out to not be good after all? Or you didn’t have enough information to see that you were doing the wrong thing?
By attaching your sense of self-worth to your actions, you are creating a catalyst for shame when your actions don’t live up to your expectations.
Furthermore, “good” is subjective. What if the person you are trying to do good for doesn’t appreciate, like, or want it? What if what you did was negative in their eyes?
And what happens if you can’t do the things that make you feel like you’re a good person? You’ll feel shame because you feel like you’re not living up to your own expectations.
Consider Jack, a man who is trying to get sober. Jack may have 130 days of sobriety, but due to a death in his family, he turns back to the bottle for some comfort that he knows.
He knows he’s taking a wrong action and doing a wrong thing, but he has a choice. He can slip into a spiral, tear himself down, call himself a bad or a weak person for giving in to that impulse, or he can make a better choice. The reality of recovery is that pretty much everyone relapses at some point.
Relapse is not a character flaw. Relapse happens because getting sober is hard. Instead of tearing himself down because he made a mistake, Jack can instead say, “Alright. I had 130 days of sobriety. Now I’m going to do it again and shoot for at least 131.”
It’s not necessary for Jack to feel shame about his relapse. He may feel guilty about it, especially if he broke promises to his loved ones or himself to not drink. But that doesn’t make him a bad person.
4. Identify and defuse your shame triggers.
Shame is an emotion that can be triggered like other emotions. A person who feels inadequate, like they are less than, may take innocent statements or observations as a personal attack. It’s not that the speaker is intending to do harm, it’s that the person harboring the shame is applying additional context to the statement that may not be there.
As an example.
A husband makes dinner for his wife. His wife comments that the chicken is dry because it is a little overcooked. That is an innocent enough statement.
The husband takes offense to this, feeling that his wife is taking his effort for granted because he feels that he is not good enough. Her statement taps on his feelings of abandonment. The resentment of his parents, who always made him feel ashamed that he just wasn’t good enough, is poisoning his perceptions.
Identify the types of statements that evoke those feelings of shame. A good place to start is with anything that makes you feel extreme emotions about a thing. Look below that emotion for the cause of it. What makes you feel that way in that moment? What causes you to give up control of your emotions when exposed to that situation? And then look for the remedies for those situations.
5. Seek professional help.
There are a lot of great self-help resources out there that can help you better understand the circumstances surrounding shame and how to work through it.
But there is a really good chance you’re going to need some professional assistance to work through the underlying reasons that you are experiencing such difficult shame.
Shame that harms your life is often rooted in areas of abuse, trauma, mental illness, and addiction. In many cases, these aren’t things that you can handle on your own.
And that’s okay. You don’t have to handle everything on your own. A certified mental health counselor can provide meaningful guidance and support while you’re trying to improve yourself.
Need more long term, guided help to overcome your shame? Speak to a therapist online today. Simply click here to get started.
You may also like:
- 9 Symptoms Of Toxic Shame: How To Identify It In A Person
- The Underlying Cause(s) Of Shame (+ Why It’s Not All Bad)
- 10 Things You Should Quit Being Ashamed Of