Certain emotions hold more gravitas than others – here’s how to overcome the feeling of shame when it next affects you
If you’ve ever felt your cheeks heat up, your eyes fall to the ground or a sense of defensiveness brew in your stomach, then you’re probably going through the motions of experiencing shame. At school, I was called quiet because I never put my hand up. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the answer – 90 percent of the time, I did – I just chose not to share it with everyone. At the time, I couldn’t label what it was that stopped me raising my hand. Like a lot of my emotions, it takes a subconscious effort to pull my mind out from under the whirling thoughts, assumptions and insecurities in my head and acknowledge that ‘ah, yes, that’s what I’m currently feeling.’ As I got older, I realised why: the shame of being told that I was incorrect in front of my peers was far more of a threat to my self-esteem than the thrill of potentially being right. Why then, does shame feel so bad? And how can we stop the fear of it being such a barrier in our lives?
“Shame is an intensely painful feeling experience,” explains clinical psychologist Dr Lucy Tinning (drlucytinning.com). “It causes us to become acutely aware of ourselves – almost feeling like we’re in the spotlight – and this can cause us to feel humiliated, exposed, flawed, powerless, trapped and even isolated. Shame makes us feel unworthy of love and belonging.” It’s easy to see then, why the fear of shame holds so much power over us. It triggers a plethora of different emotions that tap into that human instinct of not wanting to be left out or abandoned. “People who have a propensity to feel shame (a trait named shame-proneness) can often have low self-esteem and are at a greater risk of developing other psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, violence, bullying, suicide and addiction.” In a study published in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, it showed that the link between shame and depression was particularly strong.
Shame can not only be uncomfortable, but it is also a huge barrier to achieving our goals and it undermines our confidence. “It’s important to recognise what makes us feel ashamed and what the triggers to shame are,” says Dr Tinning. “Common triggers are appearance and body image, professional identity at work, sexuality, family, motherhood, parenting, mental and physical health, ageing, religion, surviving trauma and speaking out. When we feel shame, we are strongly motivated to get rid of that feeling because it’s so painful.” The symptoms of this emotion can include:
“Bestselling author of The Power of Vulnerability Brené Brown refers to these as ‘shame screens’,” says Dr Tinning. “This is where we move against, away from or sometimes even towards shame – they are defence mechanisms we use to protect ourselves from our primal survival response: fight, flight, freeze
“Shame, like most emotions, is a matter of perception,” says Professor Roger Giner-Sorolla, from the department of social psychology at the University of Kent. “Two people who do the same thing – say, eat greedily in public – might feel differently because one person thinks it’s bad for their image and the other person doesn’t. When you feel ashamed of what you’re doing, even if nobody is watching, you have internalised your sense of shame. At its deepest level, this emotion plays on existing inadequacies we believe about ourselves. So, if you have long-standing issues with how your eating behaviour is perceived, based on experiences you had growing up, then you’ll be more prone to feel shame over those actions.” There are four different types of shame that we can experience:
1. Unrequited love
2. Unwanted exposure – being called out on something publicly
3. Disappointment expectation – setting out to do something and failing
4. Exclusion – being left out
“We all feel shame, but feeling too much can be problematic,” says Dr Tinning. Some ways to cope with the emotion include:
“To build what Brené Brown calls ‘Shame Resilience’ you need to understand your triggers,” says Dr Tinning. “Being aware of them will help you to be less reactive at the moment, and sharing it with someone can feel like a way of owning it. Give yourself a moment to breathe calmly to reduce your stress response – use deep belly breathing or try writing what happened in a journal.” Fighting the feeling of shame can be hard, so understand it and yourself better first, then you can make peace with the emotion.
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