Let’s be honest: we’ve all done things that we’re ashamed of. Shame is a universal human emotion. Social psychologists say that a healthy dose of shame, when rightfully felt, is crucial to our survival. It keeps us on track for behaving in “socially appropriate” ways so we maintain our relationships and repair them when necessary.
However, chronic and unnecessary feelings of self-directed shame can be exhausting and paralyzing. Shame of this kind is typically rooted in deep-seated feelings of inferiority, inadequacy and defectiveness and the degree to which these shameful feelings are felt usually do not match the reality of the situation that caused them in the first place.
It’s important to know the difference between feelings of shame and feelings of guilt. Guilt reflects emotions related to doing something wrong or bad, whereas shame reflects feeling fundamentally bad about yourself regardless of the situation or circumstance. Those struggling with deep-seated feelings of shame tend to withdrawal and hide from the world, only to be left feeling even lonelier and rejected.
Overcoming shame and rebuilding self-esteem and self-love takes time and patience—but it can be done. Below are a few strategies that could help get you started.
We are more likely to be critical of ourselves when we feel shame, but harsh self-talk only intensifies our shameful feelings and is in no way helpful. Practicing self-compassion is a good way to stop shameful feelings from spiraling out of control. Practice self-compassion daily by treating yourself as you would a friend, with a focus on developing an inner dialogue that is kind, caring, and loving.
Avoid situations and people that trigger feelings of shame
Work on being able to identify situations in which you feel shame and, when possible, avoid them. There may be people in our lives that we notice reinforce or trigger our feelings of shame. When this happens it is usually a warning sign of a dysfunctional relationship. Seeking marital or family counseling should be helpful with addressing dysfunctional dynamics and teaching new ways of relating that foster love, respect and compassion.
Avoid heaping on unnecessary layers of shame
We all experience feelings of shame. After all, we’re only human. Give yourself the permission to feel shame when you feel it. Avoid heaping more amounts of hurt and shame onto yourself by being harsh and self-critical about your feelings in the first place. When we accept our feeling we stop fighting against them and therefore giving ourselves the emotional space to begin the work of understanding and addressing the underlying causes of our shame.
Dr. Paula Durlofsky is a psychologist in private practice in Bryn Mawr, whose practice focuses on psychological issues affecting individuals, couples and families. She is affiliated with Bryn Mawr Hospital and Lankenau Medical Center.