Shame. It’s one of the most destructive and isolating emotions that we experience. Shame can make us feel like we’re bad, wrong, and unworthy of love and connection. It tricks us into thinking that it’s necessary to help us change, when in reality it only makes things worse. In this blog post, we’ll explore what shame is, how it affects our relationships, and how we can start to heal from it.
Shame is a Liar
First, let’s understand that shame is a liar–on a lot of fronts. Shame lies about your worth and your human connection. And then it tells you feeling shame is your punishment and will teach you to be better.
Here are some common lies doled out by shame that literally every human who is not a diagnosed sociopath has felt:
- You are the only one who has ever felt this way.
- You are the only one that does things this stupid.
- You know better and should be different.
- You can’t talk about this to anyone.
- You deserve to feel this way.
Why Shame Keeps Us Small
Shame’s main objective is to help us fit in with society and be better so we don’t get kicked out of the tribe and die. It’s funny when you think about how extreme that is, but for our survivalist ancestors, getting kicked out of the tribe was a legitimate concern. And honestly, in today’s society, it still is a legitimate concern. Except today, we’re no longer battling tigers and instead sparring with overwhelming anxiety and depression. The CDC reports suicide rates have increased by 30% in the last decade alone.
If I can force you to take all the unlovable things about you and stuff them in a box, shame coaxes, maybe no one will know and you’ll stay safe in the tribe.
The problem is the very thing shame wants to accomplish by making you hide is the fuel that actually perpetuates your self-sabotaging behavior.
The Shame Cycle
As an example, a struggling mom who yells at her child in frustration is overwhelmed with shame. She then berates herself for losing it on her child, telling herself that she’s a terrible mother and deserves to feel terrible. So the next time a frustrating interaction comes up, she yells even more, trying to pre-emptively protect herself from the shame she felt last time. And the cycle continues.
Or a man looks in the mirror and feels shame about the weight he’s putting on. He resolves to eat better so he will no longer feel sick about his appearance. But when he restricts his eating habits for three days and is presented with donuts at work, he eats three. Then he goes home and eats all the things he was restricting out of shame-based punishment. And the cycle continues.
Shame, in reality, keeps us small. It makes us believe that we’re not good enough, that we’re alone in our experience, and that we should be ashamed of ourselves. All of these things make it easier for shame to control us and perpetuate those untruths.
Why Shame Doesn’t Work
So now, we’re deep in the shame cycle, continuing our self-sabotaging behavior and . . . staying safe in the tribe? That’s what shame wanted, right? But is it working? Reality points to no.
When we feel shame, we are more likely to:
- Withdraw from social situations
- Avoid trying new things
- Not speak up for ourselves
- Believe that we’re not worthy of love or connection
- Feel like we have to hide who we are
The reality is that all of these things make it harder for us to form meaningful connections with others. And the more isolated we feel, the more power shame has over us.
The Antidote to Shame: Human Connection
The answer to shame is not more shame. The answer is human connection–the very thing that shame tries to keep from us. But not just any human connection–one-on-one connection with trusted, compassionate confidants. (Read: Social media is not the platform to attain this heart-healing connection: it’s quick, cheap, and hollow.)
When we feel isolated and alone, it’s difficult to remember that everyone feels this way at some point or another. When we’re in the throws of self-loathing, it’s hard to see that we’re just as deserving of love and connection as anyone else. But a true friend can see through the lies of shame and say, “I’ve been there too, and it’s a lie.” Slowly, the effects of shame peel away to reveal grief and self-compassion.
When we reach out and connect with others, we begin to see that our experiences are not unique. We realize we’re not alone in our shame; everyone has felt it. And we find compassion for ourselves and others. This process knits together our families and communities as we learn forgiveness and increase our human understanding.
How to Actually Influence Change in Ourselves
Once we break the shame cycle through connection, we have the emotional capacity to honor the grief, forgive ourselves, and resolve to do things differently in the future. We can actually make changes in our lives because we are no longer weighed down by shame; we are instead fueled by hope and love.
So if you’re feeling shame, reach out to a friend or family member, someone who will hold the space for your imperfections and remind you that all humans make mistakes.
And if thinking of a trusted person to confide in leaves you feeling even more alone, reach out to the trained professionals on the suicide prevention hotline. You don’t have to be considering suicide to find help, compassion, and resources here. Call or text 988 for help today.
You are whole. You are beautiful. You matter. You are not alone.