By Frank Sanchez, PhD, LMFT, Clinical Director, Promises Young Adults Program We all experience shame in our lives. It’s a natural human emotion when you mess up, say something you regret, or disappoint someone, or if someone says something you find embarrassing. But for some people, shame can be debilitating, destructive and toxic. Shame can be especially pervasive in the life of someone struggling with addiction. Because shame covers over the real self like a blanket that blocks out reality, an individual may not have the awareness that it is the underlying culprit and cause of their unhappiness. Sadly, left unattended, shame keeps people from their dreams, paralyzes them from fulfilling their potential and interferes with recovery. Awareness is the first step to lifting the veil of shame.
What Is Shame?
Shame and guilt are often linked together but they are two different emotions. Shame is a sense or a feeling that a person has about themselves, whereas guilt is a feeling that somebody has about their behavior or their actions. Typically, guilt is related to an action or something that has occurred. For example, the person made an unwise decision and felt badly about that decision. Shame is much more powerful. The person feels bad about who they are and there is a strong or overwhelming sense of being defective.
Understanding the Impact of Shame
- It can lead to depression. The sense of shame may not be obvious. It can lurk below the surface and drive self-destructive and isolating behaviors. A person may feel “really crummy” and can’t understand why they’re feeling so down. Studies show that shame can be a factor in depression.
- Early messages stay with us. Messaging about shame begins early on, in the course of a normal childhood. Children are often stopped from being themselves in simple ways, like a parent telling them how to act or yelling at them to stop singing so loud or not to dress in a certain way. When a playful child is told to be somebody they aren’t, it creates a sense of shame. They will get the picture early on that they’re not OK if they are fully themselves and that their behavior is not good enough for their parents, family members and others who care about them. So ashamed of their true self, they attempt to act differently and the pattern continues.
- Trauma adds layers of shame. Beyond the normal trials of childhood, some people are exposed to trauma that creates deep shame. That can happen in alcoholic homes where the family needs the children to behave in a certain way so the family can continue to survive in an alcoholic environment. It can also happen with abuse ― whether it’s physical, sexual or verbal abuse. Young children believe they are responsible for all the bad things that happen and will believe, “I caused the abuse, so there must be something about me that is bad to have somebody treat me in this way.” This shame can formulate their identity.
- It causes people to focus on failure. People often start out with dreams and goals and when they are not as accomplished as they imaged they would be, or they have failed at attempts to succeed at their pursuits for one reason or another, it triggers strong feelings of shame. It’s not uncommon for people overwhelmed with shame to berate and belittle themselves, and to see themselves in the worst light possible. It impacts an individual’s personal and professional life and can affect every relationship and every opportunity in life. When you feel this way it’s hard to feel comfortable most anywhere because you see yourself as a defective person or as this incomplete, un-whole person. And you imagine everyone else has it together in ways you never will.
- It can derail a life. A person who is mired in shame does not feel like they are good enough or worthy enough. Shame may stop someone from being with people who care about them, spending time with family and friends, going out, going to school, trying for a job they really want or having healthy relationships. Shame separates people from their potential. It can very easily stop them or keep them from pursuing something because they feel like they aren’t going to be successful anyway. Why try?
Creating a New Point of View
Everyone has had experiences that have made them feel ashamed. For example, it could be that time a teacher called on them and they were scolded for not being prepared, or the day when a younger sibling revealed a secret in public. Even though they were fleeting moments, the impact can last a long time. Some people are exposed to deeply traumatic situations in life that make it difficult to deal with shame and that may lead to maladaptive behaviors or depression. But shame is in many ways an illusion. It is a point of view people have about themselves that often is untrue. For example, a person may have grown up in a home where education was highly valued and they ended up dropping out of school. Through the lens of shame, it is the worst thing that could have happened and they see themselves as a horrible failure in all of life. They may think of themselves as someone who is almost criminal for what they did. But in reality, that is a false and exaggerated view. The way to conquer shame is to recognize, notice and to give a name to it. “I see you (name your shame) but you’re not who I truly am. You’re shame. I’m going to recognize your existence but I’m not going to believe everything that you say.” Shame is not the true essence of an individual. It is something they’ve acquired over time. When people begin to recognize the ways shame is influencing them or adding a layer to that person’s thought process, they are less likely to buy into it. That’s when the blanket begins to be lifted off and the person sees themselves in a more accurate light.