We have all done things we wish we hadn’t. We say something mean, yell at the kids, eat or drink too much, don’t tell the truth, etc. That’s just part of being human. How we deal with those things greatly affects how we get along.
Once we acknowledge that we did something wrong, we can react by feeling guilty or by feeling ashamed. Guilt and shame are not the same. With guilt, we feel bad that we’ve made a mistake; the focus is on our behavior. We can admit our mistake and seek to make amends. When we feel shame after doing something, we think we’re a bad person. We focus on our personal unworthiness. The only way to make it better is to “fix” ourselves. When we think we are defective, we feel vaguely unhappy a lot of the time. When we feel that way, we tend to treat others badly. This just heightens our sense of shame and the spiral continues.
According to Brené Brown, the leading researcher into such things, we can break this cycle of shame. First, we need to start talking to ourselves the way we would talk to someone we love. That may sound corny, but think about it: we can be incredibly mean to ourselves. For example, we may say to ourselves “I’m such a stupid idiot to lose my temper!” or “What an undisciplined failure I am to still be overweight!”. How many of us would say the same to someone we love – our kids, spouse, or best friend? Such nasty self-criticism undermines our happiness and our ability to respond to others in a positive way. Instead, we need to catch ourselves saying mean things to ourselves and change our focus from who we are to what we have done.
Shame thrives in secrecy and silence. We need to reach out to someone we trust and tell them the story of what we did that brings us feelings of shame. Of course, we need to pick that person very carefully. They need to be empathetic and worthy of our trust. Our shame stories are incredibly personal and we become vulnerable when we share them. If the listener dismisses our story or judges us, that only reinforces the shame.
Often, we feel shame about something over which we have only partial control at best: body size or shape, the amount of money we have (usually shame for not having any), whether we have a job or what kind it is, how we were raised, etc. Knowing what triggers shame for us can help us begin recognize what’s going on and catch the shaming thoughts when they happen. Having another person empathize and validate our inherent goodness after hearing our story can help us rein-in negative self-talk.
Apparently, feeling shame is very closely connected with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, and eating disorders. It’s easy to understand that we would likely feel shameful when we’re addicted, depressed, and all. But it also goes the other way: when we feel shame, we’re more likely to become addicted, depressed, violent, aggressive, suicidal, eat too much, and bully others. When we think of our behavior, rather than ourselves, as bad, we are less at risk for those dangers. So, it seems that changing our thinking from being a bad person to having done bad things actually helps us be better people.
Also, we need to be careful not to foster shame in others. When we have issues with someone, we should focus on their behaviors rather than judging who they are. This can be difficult to remember in the midst of a disagreement, but it is one more way we can each work toward getting along better.