Shame is an emotion with close ties to guilt, regret, embarrassment, and humiliation. Like other emotions, these emotions are part of the system that helps us to interpret our environment, which in turn signals for an increase or decrease in behavior in relation to its benefit. Depending then on the context, emotions may function in one of two ways. In a healthy system emotions, though sometimes painful, promote behavior that results in the organism achieving a rich, full meaningful life. In an unhealthy system, emotions may be corrupted to the extent that the organism operates in a toxic, life-distorting, or self-defeating manner. Shame and the depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations that it portends are all markers that the system has been corrupted.
Shame is internalized as, “I am bad.” This is in contrast to guilt, which usually conveys the message “I did something bad.” The distinction between these is the devastating impact shame has on a person’s spirit.
You may ask if shaming is so unhealthy why is it so pervasive? Humans are a tribal species and the tribe’s survival is contingent upon cooperation of its individual members. Shaming or the threat of shaming has proven to be an effective tool for protecting the tribe’s rules. But it comes at a high price for the individuals subjected to it and ultimately for the society that condones it.
Shame is negatively correlated with any number of societal and individual problems including divorce, addictions, child abuse, domestic violence, healthcare, crime, war, poverty, intelligence, suicide, friendships, life satisfaction, disease, and education to name a few.
If you or others around you notice you are avoiding activities that trigger the “I’m bad” narrative, or you are using drugs, pornography, alcohol, cigarettes to avoid the pain of shame, or you yourself use shaming to control others, it is likely shame is hindering your ability to lead a rich, full and meaningful life.
The antidote for shame is self-compassion and forgiveness. Begin with acknowledging the pain shame inflicts, practice self-kindness in thought, word, and action. And connect with others or find a counselor you feel safe with and when you are ready open up about the cost of shame has had on your life. You are not alone. You are loved and worthy of love.