It’s a difficult emotion to deal with, and yet we’ve all felt it at some point. Shame can quickly turn into a self-destructive spiral – here’s how to cleanse your mind…
Whether it’s the moments after saying something mean to a friend, or a sense that sweeps over you soon after losing your job, the emotion of shame – the feeling that you don’t look good in the eyes of others – is a tough one to cope with. Shame is a self-conscious emotion that often derives from feelings of inadequacy, guilt, remorse or disgrace, and it’s a feeling that everyone will go through several times during their lives.
“Shame is a dark and uneasy emotion, lurking within the depths of our psyche, which when stirred, fires up a host of painful emotions and a deep, unavoidable desire to change how we feel,” explains Carolyn Cowan, therapist and yoga teacher. People feel shame for all sorts of reasons – a quick Google search reveals that being poor, unemployed, in poor health and even lonely can lead to a sense of it. But often, we don’t know how to overcome it or how to feel immediately better.
This isn’t great news for our health. Psychologically, shame can give you that ‘sick to the pit of your stomach’ feeling but, physically, it has a trade-off too. In fact, one study from the University of California in Los Angeles shows that people had higher markers of inflammation and levels of the stress hormone cortisol immediately after feeling shame. Further data in the Journal of Psychology reveals that shameful feelings are often associated with low self-esteem, hostility and psychological distress. “Shame is insidious, hard to identify, awful to feel, tricky to contain and easy to pass on,” adds Carolyn, “And thus it can be a major trigger for an addictive personality.”
It’s clear then that shame does make people feel bad about themselves and can have negative consequences, but it is also an important emotion for mental wellbeing. Some experts have argued that shame acts as an important social regulator that helps an individual to balance their desires with the needs of others. Further studies show that, when damage done is repairable, shame can make a person feel bad enough to fix the situation and even motivate them to be or do better in the future.
“Shame, from a cultural perspective, is useful,” agrees Carolyn. “We actively need it to manage our behaviours – we will not pick our nose in front of someone, or we will close our mouth when we eat. A lot of shame has its roots in social management – perhaps the earliest roots were in the 10 commandments and how we each behave within cultural norms is bounded by shame.”
Not all shame is beneficial, however, as Carolyn explains: “In certain cultures shame is used to control the population. In the communist era it was absolutely how the entire population was managed and we still witness the results of this in some cultures and their expectations of citizens today.”
It’s not only about how shame affects a society, but also how it can impact on an individual. And shame can be particularly harmful when it becomes internalised – when the feeling of shame shifts from being about what we’ve done to being about who we are. This can lead to feelings of complete inadequacy and a lack of worth, and psychologists call it ‘toxic shame’.
“Toxic shame is different,” adds Carolyn. “Guilt might happen after you think ‘I did something – I broke, stole, spilt something’ but toxic shame equates to the sense that ‘I am bad – in my deepest soul, I am a bad thing, and I do not deserve anything’.” The upshot of this is that it can lead to behaviour that can take a toll on emotional health, whether that’s addiction, depression, violence, aggression or more. “We all have different ways to experience shame but, if you are reading this and you have toxic shame, you’ll know,” asserts Carolyn. The good news? There is something you can do to detox your emotions by pushing the sense of shame aside.
Many experts note that a willingness to feel imperfect, knowing that this is the human condition, is a great antidote to shame. “Shifting shame can be difficult,” says Carolyn. “It takes huge courage to face one’s toxic shame.” But it can be done, and Carolyn runs workshops that achieve this feat in as little as a matter of days! “Shifting toxic shame can take a long time in conventional therapy, but in group work, which is what I do, over three days, you can move through a lot of history and make many new neural pathways into thinking about yourself differently,” she reveals. Carolyn’s workshops are for those who realise that toxic shame is really affecting their life experience. She uses different tools, games and questionnaires to help people connect with their shame and see the extent of it. Here are a few therapies that can be drawn upon to help ease the emotion
1. Kundalini yoga
Kundalini yoga is an ancient, spiritual practice that uses movement, dynamic breathing methods (called pranayama), meditation and chanting mantras (such as sat nam, meaning ‘truth is my identity’) to bring about a greater sense of self-consciousness. It uses kriyas, or a special set of exercises, to increase awareness and relaxation. Carolyn reports that kundalini movements and sequences can be used to release shame and reset the nervous system, promoting an emotional change.
2. Talking therapy
Talking therapies exist to help individuals work out how to deal with negative thoughts and emotions to bring about a positive change. There are many types of talking therapies, whether cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or a mindfulness-based approach, and the aim of them is to talk through problems and distressing experiences. Carolyn says that talking oneto- one with a therapist is a wonderful way to move through shame gently and slowly.
3. Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy (EMDR)
EMDR is a form of psychotherapy that aims to minimise negative feelings that are linked to memories of a traumatic event. Carolyn reports that traumatic memories can often be the trigger of shame, so this form of talking therapy can help. It focuses less on the event and more on the distressing emotions. The goal of EMDR is to completely process the negative experience and leave the individual with emotions and perspectives that can lead to healthier behaviours.
Got that sinking feeling that you’ve done something wrong? Quickly shift shame with this 10-minute guide from Carolyn Cowan:
• Stretch – do some yoga or stand up and gently flex your limbs.
• Breathe gently – take the time to notice each inhalation and each following exhalation.
• Go for a walk – look around you, rather than focusing on what was or wasn’t said or done.
• Ask yourself – do you need to take the recent event as seriously as you may have done?
• Have a break – whether a run or another calming activity, take some time out to do something that diffuses the heat of the emotion that comes with shame.
Carolyn Cowan runs Shifting Shame, a three-day workshop addressing the issue of toxic shame, at her private studio in Croydon, South London. The workshop uses a variety of techniques, including kundalini yoga, pranayama, meditation and frank discussion, to provide a clear view of how to identify shame, how we hold shame for others, and how we shame. Breakfast and a vegetarian lunch are included. For information or to book, visit carolyncowan.com.
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