Shame: Impact & Recovery

Shame can be defined as feelings of embarrassment or disgrace that arise in connection to the perception of having done something disgraceful, immortal, or inappropriate.

People who experience shame usually try to hide the thing that they feel embarrassed about. When shame is chronic it can make you feel that you are fundamentally flawed.

Shame can often be hard to recognize in oneself. While shame is a negative emotion, its agents play a part in our survival. Without shame, we might not feel the need to adhere to cultural norms, follow laws, or behave in a way that allows us to subsist as social beings.

Most research suggests that people from all cultures, environments, and geographic regions encounter shame.

Research on facial expressions even suggests that expressions associated with shame and guilt are widely recognizable, even among people viewing images of those from many different cultures.

Cause of Shame –

The experience of shame can be deeply unpleasant. People enduring shame are struck by the overwhelming belief that they, as opposed to their actions or feelings, are bad. In some people, this may inspire a change in behavior. In others, shame can be deadening.

Shame has many origins. Sometimes a person is plagued by feelings of shame without a clear cause. This is more common among people with mental health diagnoses. Some studies have linked conditions such as depression or social anxiety to shame. Because mental health conditions remain stigmatized, a person experiencing shame due to a mental health condition may continually become more ashamed of themselves and their condition, exacerbating symptoms and making it difficult to seek help.

Some other common causes of shame include:

  • Cultural norms. To understand, many cultures stigmatize certain sexual interactions, such as homosexual sex or sex between unmarried people. People who transgress these cultural norms may feel shame. In collectivist cultures, some people encounter shame when loved ones violate cultural or moral norms.

  • Self-esteem issues. People with low self-esteem may struggle with feelings of shame even when they can point to no specific source of the shame.

  • Religious conditioning. Many religions urge people to feel shame for violating religious prescriptions. Some use shame to “inspire” people to do better.

  • Trauma and abuse. People who experience trauma and abuse often experience shame. Childhood sexual abuse is a common cause of shame in adulthood, especially among adults who feel embarrassed about their abuse experiences. Some abusive families shame members who set clear boundaries or who call the abuse what it is.

  • Gaslighting. Trying to convince someone that their perceptions are wrong can lead to shame.

Impact of Shame

If you have experienced shame, you probably know that it can have a negative impact on your life. Below are some of the potential negative impacts that you might experience because of shame:

  • Makes you feel like you are flawed or there is something wrong with you

  • Can lead to social withdrawal

  • Can lead to addictions (e.g., alcohol, drugs, spending, sex)

  • Maybe cause you to become defensive and shame others in return

  • May lead you to bully others if you have been bullied yourself

  • May cause you to inflate your ego to hide the belief that you don’t have value (narcissistic personality)

  • May lead to physical health problems

  • Can be related to depression and sadness

  • May leave you feeling empty, lonely, or worn out

  • May lead to lowered self-esteem

  • May make it harder for you to trust other people

  • It May make it harder for you to be in therapy or stop feeling as though you are being judged

  • May lead to perfectionism or overachievement to try and counteract your feelings of shame

  • May cause you to engage in people-pleasing

  • May cause you to avoid talking because you are afraid to say the wrong thing

  • May cause compulsive or excessive behaviors like strict dieting, overwork, excessive cleaning, or having too high of standards in general.

As you can see, most of the impacts of shame lead to behaviors that create a vicious cycle. You feel shame which causes you to engage in behaviors that can lead to more feelings of shame. Or, these behaviors can be detrimental in and of themselves, creating potential physical or mental health problems on their own and are damaging effects of shame.

Shame is a universal emotion but everyone experiences it to different degrees. If shame is a problem for you, then it is time to start working on improving your thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes toward yourself.

Once shame is no longer a problem, you will also find that it is easier to accept the parts of you that cannot be changed but change the parts that you wish to change. Through this process, you’ll also learn that others can support you in a positive way.

This will be particularly helpful if your shame is the result of having been treated poorly. The end result will be less shame and more self-love, which will further spill out into all areas of your life.

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