Same is an ugly feeling.
We’ve all felt it: that moment when we mess something up, and silently curse ourselves for our stupidity. Usually this leads to a spiral of negative thoughts that we’d prefer to avoid.
Shame itself is normal, and can even be a way to learn from our mistakes or oversights. It’s when we start letting it overwhelm our thoughts and self-beliefs that it becomes problematic.
If you’re like most people, you’d probably like to learn how to get rid of that shame—or, at the very least, control it. The first step towards getting there is understanding what shame is and how it works. From there, you can learn how to overcome and learn from it so you can take back control.
What Is Shame?
Shame is often confused with guilt. Understandably so; both involve negative feelings towards something, whether it be your actions or something about your personality. Despite this, the two actually have a fundamental difference.
According to Positive Psychology Program, the difference between shame and guilt lies in where the negative feelings are focused. Guilt is typically external, and looks at regret for past actions. Shame is internal, and tends to focus on negative aspects of your personality or your identity.
Both shame and guilt are designed to help us be more moral and to look at people outside ourselves. Because we feel bad about mistakes we’ve made and empathize with the people those mistakes affected, shame can actually encourage us to make positive changes in the future.
When Shame Becomes Toxic
Shame, like a lot of difficult emotions, can start in childhood.
Feelings of shame can occur because parents scold their children for their personalities instead of their behaviors. This means children are more likely to be ashamed of certain parts of themselves (“I am bad”) instead of what they’ve done (“I’ve done something bad”).
Shame can also come from negative childhood experiences, such as abuse or neglect. In trying to make sense of a harmful situation, we may blame ourselves.
Or, perhaps, your feelings don’t originate in childhood at all. You might be prone to anxiety or low self-esteem, which tend to facilitate shame.
Regardless of its origin, there’s a line when shame can go from a potentially-helpful emotion to a damaging one—and it’s a line that’s unfortunately easy to cross.
Because shame has to do with how you view yourself as an individual, it becomes much harder to deal with over time; it’s more difficult to change your fundamental personality than your actions. This leads to avoiding people or activities you associate with feelings of shame. It leads to feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty which taint daily life. In worst case scenarios, it can lead to alcohol and drug abuse, or even suicide.
While we all feel shame at times, it’s important not to let it control your life.
How to Overcome Shame
Shame can be emotionally overwhelming. Thankfully, most of the ways to deal with it are relatively simple. And you can start using these tips today.
1. Be honest
Being honest means more than just acknowledging when you feel shame (though that’s important, too). The idea is to refuse to make excuses for your behavior—especially if the behavior in question isn’t something to be ashamed of. Take a critical look at whether or not your actions are actually bad. Being upfront and honest with others helps, too. By acting less ashamed, you’ll eventually start to feel less ashamed.
2. Talk to someone
Talking to someone you trust about why you feel ashamed can give you a much-needed outside perspective. And since shame is so often internalized, talking about it will lessen its ability to hurt you.
3. Remember what you’re proud of
Look at what you’ve already accomplished. Make a mental list of all the things you’ve done. This directly combats shame and can quiet negative thoughts by reminding you that you’ve done something of worth.
4. Choose goals that are challenging, but attainable
It’s important to have goals that push you to work hard. But setting unreasonable or unrealistic goals can have the opposite effect, and leave you constantly frustrated by your inability to meet them. This sense of failure is a breeding ground for shame. Allowing yourself to drop some of these goals means you won’t have them lingering in the back of your mind, and you won’t feel constantly ashamed of the fact that you haven’t gotten to them yet.
5. Practice mindful breathing
Research has found that mindful breathing sessions can significantly reduce feelings of shame by helping you gain new perspective. If you’re interested, this guide can help you get started.
6. Forgive yourself
Nobody’s perfect. Everybody has flaws; everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is to learn how to let mistakes go instead of dwelling on them. Remind yourself that everybody’s done something wrong or bad in the past. Transfer feelings of shame about yourself to feelings of disappointment in your actions, and then promise you’ll do better in the future.
For more help overcoming shame, check out this free self-forgiveness workbook.
You Don’t Have to Be Ashamed
Shame is natural; it’s something that we all feel at some point in our lives. There’s nothing wrong with being ashamed: when you approach shame with a healthy mindset, it can help you to become a better person.
It’s when shame starts to take over that it becomes a problem.
Remember that you don’t have to be ashamed of who you are. Instead of blaming yourself for who you are, focus on your actions, and be kind to yourself. No one is perfect, and you shouldn’t expect yourself to be perfect, either.