Overcoming Shame and Using Guilt toBuild Self Esteem
Shame and Guilt: Similarities and differences:
Both shame and guilt are negative experiences that are aversive and associated with the self-appraisal that one has done something wrong. Both are frequently linked to interpersonal transgressions (a person is hurt or harmed in some way by our actions) or situations in which some social or culturally acceptable mores has been violated (e.g. public urination when intoxicated). Both are methods of socialization and used in acculturating children to obey social norms and treat other people in socially desirable ways.
Despite these similarities guilt and shame are distinctly different emotions that have differing impact on the self and our interpersonal relationships.
In fact, shame and guilt have different implications for our mental health and behavioral responses to the world. Research shows that shame is linked to: substance abuse and other addictive behaviors, depression, relationship violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. Guilt is inversely correlated with those things.
So what is the difference between guilt and shame?
One important difference is the globality of focus. Guilt is typically attached to a particular action and does not condemn the entire self, whereas shame spreads out from the particular misdeed to encompass the self as a whole. In guilt, the negative affect and remorse remain linked to the particular action; in simple terms, one can regard oneself as a good person who has done a bad thing. Thus, guilt may therefore be far less debilitating and demoralizing than shame in which the experience is that one is wholly a bad person.
Secondly, the experience of guilt generates pro-social action tendencies. Since it is linked both to empathic recognition of the other person’s distress as well as to anxiety that one might lose the relationship/social bond with the other due to a transgression that hurt someone or because one’s mis-deed’s will lead to negative judgment rejection by others. It is an aversive state that promotes an appreciation of the other person’s perspective, insofar as the guilty individual reflects on how his or her transgression has affected the other person and how particular reparative acts (such as an apology, confession, other reparative action) will offset the harm and possibly restore the other’s positive attitude toward oneself.
Shame, in contrast, involves feeling that the entire self (rather than just one particular action) is bad. Since shame involves critical, painful scrutiny of the self as a whole, no simple apology feels like it would resolve such a far-reaching and complex predicament. The helpless distress that this produces might make one feel that talking about the situation would lead one to dwell on this latest reminder of one’s deficient person-hood and not lead to repair. Researchers have found that the only responses that seem to minimize the subjective distress of shame are:
(i) to ignore the problem,
(ii) to deny one’s responsibility,
(iii) to avoid other people, or perhaps
(iv) to lash out at one’s accusers
Such responses would obviously be unlikely to have the prosocial, relationship-enhancing effects and do not include empathy and perspective taking to appreciate the impact of one’s behavior on others. Thus, shame is less relational than guilt and leads to a preoccupation with the self and limits one’s ability to take the perspective of others. It is therefore easier to be with people who are prone to guilt than those prone to shame.
Dealing with guilt therefore requires the ability to hold something one has done, or failed to do, up against who one wants to be. As long as it does not take on a pathological flavor, mature guilt is incredibly adaptive. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s adaptive. Shame on the other hand, is about a sense of self. Shame is about protecting an idealized version of the self. If that ideal implodes, it can’t be rebuilt. Any little thing can send the person into a tailspin they’re anxiously waiting for a mistake, or the publication of a mistake, to torpedo their entire identity. People who feel guilt have more hope when they make mistakes, they can do a little leg work to make up for their mistakes, and feel okay again.
Do men and women respond similarly when shamed? Do women feel more shame?
Research suggests that:
(i) Women feel more shame than men,
(ii) Typically, women have dealt with shame through introversion and self-hate. They experience “shame-shame loops”, i.e. being ashamed of being ashamed, which makes them more ashamed of being ashamed, which leads to more shame, and so on. This circular process often results in withdrawal or depression.
(iii) Men have been more likely to exhibit extreme anger and violence as a consequence of shame. They tend to experience “shame-anger loops”, i.e. becoming angry that they are ashamed, and ashamed that they are angry, and so on. This creates an emotional loop that feeds on itself and often culminates in antisocial acts and relationship violence.
Causes of Shame and Healing:
Shame is about inner badness – a sense that one’s self is bad, unworthy, unlovable, defective etc. To the extent that a sense of self begins to develop early in life, frequently feelings of shame are a result of a childhood environments that did not contribute to the development of a healthy sense of self. Experiences of loss, neglect, and abuse are often identifiable in people who are prone to shame, but subtle ways in which one is shamed in the formative years can also contribute to the development of a sense of one’s self as inadequate and unlovable. Examples abound and include betrayal by others and a broken trust through disapproval or humiliation as well as parental withdrawal and rejection shown by looks of contempt cause instantaneous shame reactions in children. A child who believes that his parents favor a sibling often believes that there is something basically wrong with him or he would be the chosen child. Shame also occurs when the parents have high standards of behavior and react with anger or embarrassment when the child does not live up to expectations. Punishment for failure and humiliation over the child’s expression of vulnerability, distress, crying or pain typically create shame. Criticism, cruel teasing and ridicule further reinforce the child’s beliefs of unworthiness. Harsh parental discipline of a coercive nature creates fears of abandonment in the child and a sense of unworthiness. Sometimes identification with a parent who lives in shame induces shame based responses in the child.
Healing From Shame:
1. Understand: The first step is to begin to understand where one’s sense of shame came from and to appreciate the context in which it developed. The purpose of gaining this insight is not to blame others. Understanding the origins of one’s shame allows us to begin to attenuate the blame we automatically assign to the self and start to develop compassion and empathy for the self.
2. Recognize and Face: Facing the shame requires recognizing how and when it gets stirred. The recognition alone creates a gap between the experience of shame and the automatic behavior (withdrawal, attack, giving up, avoidance etc.) that it generates. When shame can be seen as a signal and it can be recognized and named as it arises, it loses its power to automatically dictate behavior. When you see the shame coming up you might be able to ask yourself, “what should I do? Shall I engage in my usual way to avoid/get rid of this horrible feeling or can I try to tolerate/assuage/ manage this feeling in another way? If I could be compassionate toward myself, how would I support myself at this moment?”
3. Use guilt: Convert your shame into mature guilt. Shame is the feeling that you are not good enough and that there is no hope for you. Guilt is the feeling that in this particular regard your are not doing something you should be doing. Can you identify what it is you “should” be doing and find a way to support yourself to do it?
To illustrate: Margaret feels shame that she is not the sort of person who can ever excel at in her studies/work. Whatever happens, a poor grade/ a critical performance appraisal by her boss, she senses that this is because she is “basically inadequate,” so she withdraws and stays to herself. She makes no effort to talk to her teacher/boss, figure out what she could do better, change her major/job, get additional tutoring/coaching, recalls her previously failures and avoids the subject at parties. Changing the narrative from shame to guilt requires the courage to re-evaluate herself as “guilty” of inertia and poor training. She then begins to create and achieve goals that are possible for her. So if she sets certain standards, and then if she doesn’t achieve them, she can rightly feel guilty that she is failing and can increase her efforts to succeed, or redefine her goals. She has moved into consciousness that her worth can be defined by realistic possibilities, not held hostage by “hidden” demands of shame-making expectations.
4. Find support: We know who we are (develop a sense of self) when we see the reflection of ourselves in the eyes of the other. Thus, this journey to heal shame and accept the self as loveable, worthy, adequate and desirable requires developing relationships with those who can reflect those aspects of the self. The success or failure of your journey to heal shame can be influenced by the ability to surround oneself with those who think you are lovable, who support you, who back you up in the way you lead your life, and who can convey to you that they are for you even when they don’t like your behavior. However, more important than having these people around you is to allow them to influence you! When they provide positive reinforcement and support don’t discard/minimize/reject or otherwise ignore what is being offered even if it is difficult to trust and take in positive feedback and support. No one can help us heal if we are not open to healing.
Compassion and empathy are the antidote to shame!
Research suggests that self-compassion and resonant empathic connection with others can act as an antidote to self-criticism—a major characteristic of those who experience intense shame.
1. Neurological benefits: Self-compassion is a powerful trigger for the release of oxytocin, the hormone that increases feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness. Similarly, relational safety in a secure relationships has been shown to be related to the release of oxytocin. Self-criticism, on the other hand, has a very different effect on our body and activates the bodies stress-response which sends signals that increase blood pressure, adrenaline, and the hormone cortisol. Over time increased cortisol levels lead to depression by depleting the various neurotransmitters involved in the ability to experience pleasure. The practice of self-compassion has been shown to decrease symptoms, including, self-criticism.
2. Psychological benefits: Self-compassion encourages us to begin to treat ourselves and talk to ourselves with the same kindness, caring and compassion we would show a good friend or a beloved child. It enables the development of healthy self-esteem and self-regard that are essential for effective functioning in life and enhanced mental health.
3. Relational benefits: Shame is alienating from others since it generates withdrawal or aggressive behaviors. Compassion toward self and others are attractive behaviors and help us enjoy the benefits of positive support and caring and feel less isolated and alienated from others.
Practicing self-compassion: Be patient with yourself it takes time and understanding!
There is no magic pill. Healing shame requires a conscious practice of overcoming the grip of negative self-related emotions every time they come up.
• Begin to generate compassionate feelings toward yourself and soothe yourself in positive ways. Write them down and read them to yourself frequently.
• Begin to replace self-criticism with kind self-acceptance and understanding
• Begin to create a nurturing inner voice to replace your cold, critical, bullying inner voice
• Begin to generate alternatives to your self-attacking thoughts, including stimulating underdeveloped pathways of the brain—pathways that stimulate inner support and warmth
• Help yourself to develop appreciation for yourself, including feeling pride in your accomplishments–pride is the opposite emotion from shame
• Encourage yourself to practice accountability versus self-blame, self-correction versus self-criticism.
• Allow others to impact you in positive ways and surround yourself with supportive others.
An Exercise in self compassion:
1. Think of one of your most shaming experiences from childhood. Now think of what you wish someone had said to you right after that experience. What would have been the most helpful and healing for you to hear at that time? Write this statement down on a piece of paper.
2. Imagine that someone you care very much about, someone you admire, is saying those words to you now. Hear those words in your ears. Take those words into your heart. Notice how those words make you feel.
3. Now say those words out loud to yourself. Take a deep breath and really take in those words. How does hearing yourself say those words out loud make you feel? Can you experience both the compassion from someone else and the self-compassion toward yourself.
In essence, in order to heal your shame (past and present) you need to provide for yourself nurturing, encouraging words to counter the typically self-critical words you normally tell yourself whenever you make a mistake, disappoint yourself or someone else, or in some way fall short of your own or someone else’s expectations. Self-compassion involves telling yourself what you most need to hear at the moment—words of understanding and encouragement.
Downloadable Brochure: Shame and guilt