Shame, what is it and what can we do about it?

People often confuse feelings of shame with guilt however, it is vital to understand that these two feelings are very different in origin and effect.

Guilt and Shame

How does shame differ from guilt?

Guilt is a feeling of remorse for an action or inaction as opposed shame which is a feeling one is a bad person, that there is something inherently wrong with them, that they were born unacceptable.

Guilt itself is often bad enough, as on many occasions it can be unwarranted, a result of circumstances beyond ones control, or a result of taking too much notice of other people’s judgements or standards.

Guilt is NOT an instinct despite the fact that it may feel like such. An instinct by its very nature, is something that any animal can feel. Fear for example is an instinct, any animal can feel fear because it is part of the fight or flight response designed to preserve life. If you were a rabbit in a field and a fox was lurking in the bushes, you would feel a fear response in your body (without necessarily even seeing it) that would prime you with an adrenaline surge sufficient to run away and hopefully escape. That is an instinctual feeling.

By the same token, if that fox later goes into a chicken coup and kills all the chickens, it doesn’t come out thinking, “I really shouldn’t have done that, I feel terrible, maybe I should go to confession”.

No, guilt is usually a product of society’s rules and religious teachings (which are often highly questionable in themselves).

Am I saying all guilt is bad?

Not at all, it can be useful when appropriate, in that it can guide us to behave in morally and socially acceptable ways and to feel good about our actions and conduct

Shame, however, is very different, it is far more perverse and damaging, it is a deep-rooted feeling of guilt for being, almost as if one should not even exist.

How do we develop shame?

There are many things that can contribute to the production of shame. Teasing or bullying at an early age. Verbal and no verbal messages from key caregivers e.g. parents, teachers, neighbours AND other children.

It is almost Inevitable in case of childhood abuse, whether physical, sexual, mental, emotional or a combination of same.

Childhood abuse and indeed abusive relationships create trauma, trauma almost always results in feelings of shame.

When helpless, a child’s psyche tries to make sense of the situation and find a solution. In a helpless situation, the childlike logic reasons, if it’s my fault, I must be able to change something and then the bad things will then stop happening. This is in essence and understandably, an effort to control an uncontrollable outcome.

As a result, the child in an abusive environment often tries to be extra good, helpful, caring (laying the groundwork for later co-dependence issues) all to no avail (inevitably because it was never the child’s fault, to begin with). These failed efforts leave the child feeling inferior and worthless (not to mention often terrified) and they begin to believe they must therefore be bad at the core, born with something terribly wrong with their character – the shame core is now well and truly formed.

The results of shame

The results of shame are many and widespread, they include but are not confined to, low self -esteem, feelings of worthlessness and helplessness, anger and rage, lack of confidence and they are almost always a major contributing factor in the formation of later addictions.

How can shame be treated?

Effective treatment of shame is not an overnight process and usually involves a combination of cognitive restructuring, the development of deep self-compassion, inner child work and building self-esteem. Contact us now for further details if you feel you need help with this.

Further reading

Homecoming and Healing The Shame That Binds You, by John Bradshaw.

Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff.

The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion by Christopher Germer

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