by Dr. Becky Spelman on 17/01/2021
Dealing with Feelings of Shame
Shame is an unpleasant emotion that results from the person in question evaluating themselves, and reaching a series of negative conclusions. It is normal and healthy to feel ashamed when we have deliberately done something harmful or negative, but there is a big difference between healthy feelings of shame, (“I am ashamed of this bad thing that I have done,” and chronic shame, (“I am ashamed of myself because I am a bad person”). In the former case, the person who has slipped up can fix the situation, apologise, and make amends. In the latter, because they think that they are a “bad person”, they can feel utterly powerless.
What Causes Such Feelings?
In many cases, these feelings spring from negative core beliefs formed during childhood, when those taking care of them made them feel bad about themselves, or blamed them for things that were not their fault. They can also derive from experiencing trauma or sexual or physical abuse, or more subtle forms of abuse, such as verbal abuse or neglect, that led to them feeling that they were inadequate or somehow problematic.
Those who live with chronic shame can feel that they are intrinsically bad and that they need to live in such a way as to reduce the negative impact that they have on others. Those who live with shame of this sort often feel exposed and reduced in others’ eyes, and they can also feel that when bad things happen to them, it is because they deserve it. While their feelings of shame may be interlinked with the cultural norms of the society in which they live—norms around concepts of dishonour, decency, and so on—they are also deeply internalised.
Living with a chronic sense of shame is deeply stressful, and anyone in this situation is likely to experience a range of mental and physical symptoms associated with stress, including, but not limited to, issues with anger management, anxiety, problems sleeping, indigestion, substance abuse and/or disordered eating, and muscle aches and pains, as a result of the constant tension that they typically experience.
It can also be difficult for them to form long-lasting relationships with friends or romantic partners because, either consciously or implicitly, they can feel that they do not deserve to be loved. Conversely, when someone does try to befriend them or engage with them romantically, they may find their overtures rebuffed, as the person living with chronic shame often thinks less of them for being attracted to someone so “unworthy”.
Various approaches to therapy can help patients to overcome chronic feelings of shame. Most start by helping them to explore the negative core beliefs they hold, which are preventing them from resolving their feelings of shame, while also addressing trauma relating to childhood experiences.
Therapists further work with patients suffering from chronic shame with a range of techniques that might include Positive Psychology, Mindfulness, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and more, to deal with the root issues of the problem and to create a new, healthier, and more realistic way for them to understand themselves, so that they can move beyond this negative self-perception and towards a healthier and more adaptive future.
If you would like to talk to someone about issues relating to feelings of shame, please get in touch with us at the Private Therapy Clinic by telephone at: 020 3887 1738, book online or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Niedenthal, P. M., Krauth-Gruber, S. & Ric, F. (2017). Psychology of Emotion: Self-Conscious Emotions. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis Group.
Shein, L. (2018). The Evolution of Shame and Guilt. PLoSONE, 13(7), 1-11
Uebel, Michael (2016). “Dirty Rotten Shame? The Value and Ethical Functions of Shame”. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 59 (2): 1–20.