Five Tips to Break Free from Shame

How can you Break Free from Shame? A guest article by Kate Taylor

Do you have a deep, dark secret? Something you’ve never told anyone because it makes you feel ashamed?

I know I do. I’ve got few of them, actually. I don’t think about them much, but they’re there, lurking in the murkier corners of my mind.

And I’m far from alone, psychology experts say. Most of us have at least a few buried secrets — things we’ve done or said or even thought that are simply too painful to air.

That’s normal, experts say – as long as those secrets don’t torment us or interfere with daily life. But acute shame can be a devastating social syndrome, and one of the hardest maladies to treat.  

Few emotions are as difficult or intractable as shame, says Allan Schwartz, Ph.D., a psychoanalyst in practice for more than 30 years.

Acute shame “is a major attack against the self, in which the individual believes they will be found utterly unacceptable by society,” he says. “As a result of its overwhelming force, shame causes feelings of disgrace and dishonor. A person who feels shame wants to hide from everyone.”

That’s what makes shame so dangerous, says author and psychologist Mary C. Lamia. In contrast to those struggling with anger or grief, shame-plagued people often keep their problems to themselves. They refuse professional help and friends’ advice because they don’t believe they deserve it.

“Given that shame can lead you to feel as though your whole self is flawed, bad and subject to exclusion, it makes you want to withdraw or hide yourself. So it’s no wonder that shame lurks behind addictions that seek to mask its impact.”

Shame is also often at the root of violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders and bullying, experts say. That’s why it’s so important to find ways to free ourselves from it.

If shame is damaging your happiness in any way, read on. These expert tips can help you break free of it and start living a full and happy life.

 1. Talk About Your Feelings of Shame.

Shame and vulnerability researcher and author Brené Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” No wonder then that the last thing we want to do when gripped by shame is talk about it. If we do, others may discover just how horrible we are.

But that’s not the best approach. “The less we talk about shame, the more power it has over our lives,” Dr. Brown explains in her book Daring Greatly. “If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.”

To conquer a lingering sense of shame it helps to acknowledge it and share your experience with the people you love and trust, those who know you aren’t perfect and love and accept you unconditionally. Their empathy can help keep a sense of shame in perspective, as well as help you come up with strategies for dealing with it. This strategy has been used successfully in addiction and mental health treatment, where education can help clients identify, understand and move past the shame that can be blocking their success in life.

By acknowledging shame, you can release it. “When we bury the story, we forever stay the subject of the story,” Dr. Brown writes. “If we own the story we get to narrate the ending.” 

2. Is it Shame, Guilt or Embarrassment?

Did someone say, “You should be ashamed of yourself,” or is it that voice in your head doing all the scolding? Perhaps you are experiencing guilt, not shame. Shame implies “I am bad” whereas guilt implies “I did something bad.” This is a very important distinction and why it is so important that parents correct behavior without suggesting the child is a “bad” person. A parent would say, “Pick up your toys now” not, “You naughty, messy child!”

Being “bad” means you see yourself as incapable of changing or doing better. The remorse and regret that can come with guilt, on the other hand, can prompt you to make reparations or change your behavior.

What about humiliation or embarrassment?  Both are uncomfortable feelings, but they don’t destroy our sense of self-worth the way shame does. Humiliation can seem like shame, but it comes with the feeling that it was not deserved. If you are thinking, “I can’t believe my boss told me off in the staff meeting for missing that deadline,” that’s humiliation. On the other hand, if you say, “I can’t believe I missed that deadline. I’m such a loser,” that’s shame.

On the other hand, embarrassment can pass quickly simply because we realize an embarrassing incident can happens to anyone. You may flush pink with embarrassment when you trip on stage, but most people can soon see the funny side and know it will make a good anecdote later.

Take a moment to consider what you are feeling –is it guilt, shame or embarrassment? Knowing what you really feel can help you take the first step onto a more constructive path.

 3. Unhook What You Do from Who You Are.

We all want others to admire our accomplishments and our qualities, at work, at home and in our communities, but what if others don’t like or value your contribution? If your self-worth is attached to what you create or do, you might feel devastated by a sense of shame that can lead you to retreat and self-deprecate: “I’m so stupid. That’s the last time I suggest an idea in a meeting.” Or you might retaliate, “My idea may not be great, but yours isn’t going to light the world on fire!” If you define yourselves by what others think you have put your happiness in their hands.

When your whole identity isn’t being challenged, you’ll feel freer to be creative, to take risks and experiment.

Naturally you’ll feel disappointed if the world doesn’t meet your efforts with some acknowledgment, but you won’t have the soul-destroying impact of shame. Instead, you’ll be able look at both praise and condemnation neutrally, absorb any helpful feedback, and move on with your life.
4. Identify Your Hidden Insecurities.

Shame has the tendency to hit us where we are most vulnerable. A new mom who secretly feels out of her depth is more likely to feel shame when a well-meaning person questions her parenting style. A husband who worries that he doesn’t measure up as a provider may see his spouse’s admiration of a neighbor’s new car as an attempt to shame him rather than an innocent remark and he might lash out in response.

Our insecurities prompt us to default to shame. By being aware of what triggers shame you can nip this process in the bud. When you feel shame settling over you, try to identify the feeling behind it. It may be that an unmet need is lurking around in the background, demanding satisfaction. Some people feel embarrassed about their personal and emotional needs and feel awkward discussing them. If you aren’t clear on what your personal and emotional needs are, you can find out here by taking the free Emotional Index Quiz. Our unmet needs are often the root cause of feeling unfulfilled or discontented in life. 

Dr. Brown uncovered a variety of “shame categories,” and no surprise, the primary trigger for women still remains physical appearance. Most women still feel bad about their bodies. For men, the most common shame trigger is the fear of being perceived as weak.

Rather than give in to these triggers, go to the root cause, your unfulfilled emotional needs that create that sore spot in your life. Embrace who you are rather than try to fulfill an outside notion of who you should be. Your vulnerabilities will recede as you satisfy your hidden needs and shame’s power over you will disappear.

5. Connect with Friends.
“Shame is, at its essence, a fear of disconnection.” By reaching out to family and friends, to your communities, you can make connections that allow you to accept yourself and others as well.

Researcher Jessica Van Vliet wrote in the British Psychological Society journal Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice: 

“People start to realize that it’s not just them. Other people do things that are as bad or even worse sometimes so they’re not the worst person on the planet. They start to say to themselves, ‘This is human; I am human; others are human.'”

Feeling related to others increases our compassion for ourselves. You can manage your feelings of shame without using drugs or alcohol to desensitize or lashing out at those around us, or giving in to feelings of unworthiness if you have a circle of good friends to help keep things in perspective.

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