Three Unhealthy Ways We Deal With Shame

iStock_000016192491LargeShame is something everyone feels on a consistent basis. We have both overt and covert shame. Overt shame is where we recognize the messages our critic tells us in our heads. These are things like, “You will just fail again like you always do” and “You can’t do anything right because you’re not good enough.” Covert shame is where we don’t recognize those messages but they are indeed inside of us and run our behaviors. This type of shame manifests itself more in actions.

In order for shame not to have power over our behaviors and turn the mistakes we make into more healthy emotions such as guilt, we need to be able to recognize it and label it for what it is. Paying attention to the ways we usually respond to shame will help us to see the shame that tries to bury us covertly. Brené Brown talks in her lectures about three ways we primarily deal with shame: 1) Moving away, 2) Moving towards, and 3) Moving against.

Moving Away

The way we move away from shame is by isolating ourselves when something shameful happens. We don’t want to confront people. We just want to hide and keep secrets. A good example of this is when someone makes a passive aggressive comment towards our parenting or even our character and it produces in us a shame response. Someone who is moving away from shame would respond to their comments by moving away from the person or conversation, ignoring them, or pretending like it never happened, but inside they are hurting. Another example is if a child walks in on their parents having sex and the parents pretend like nothing happened. The parents are feeling so much shame about being caught in the act that they are terrified about asking how their child might be feeling about the situation. However, most of the time when people move away from shame they are trying to hide their true selves from the world. They don’t want their loved ones to find out about those things that bring them the most shame.

Moving Towards

The second way we move towards shame is by pleasing people. We do this by trying to be the person others want us to be. We deny authenticity and adapt ourselves to what we think people want from us. We also try to fix whatever mistakes we have made by something we said or did that might have influenced how people view us. A good example of someone moving towards shame is when a child is feeling rejected and unloved by one of the parents and then tries to earn that love by being the “perfect” child. They might try and do this by cleaning the house or doing other things that he or she might feel would please the parent. In the therapy world, the term we often use to describe this type of response towards shame is codependency.

Moving Against

The two most common ways we try to move against shame is blaming and perfectionism. People who respond to shame in this way can immediately go to blaming themselves or others in response to a shameful event, or they just might try to prove the shame wrong by being their most perfect selves. Perfectionism can also show itself in moving towards shame, but perfectionism associated with moving against is about controlling negative emotions such as anger and anxiety by trying to control the environment around you. Addicts fall into this way of shame living quite often. An addict is often going from trying to control their behaviors and fulfill the expectations that they have put on themselves to feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by their failures to the degree of acting out. An example of this would be a wife catching their husband looking at porn and responding by telling her, “I wouldn’t have this problem if you would just give me sex more often!” People who move against shame often try to control their environment. Unfortunately, this can lead to controlling the feelings and actions of people who are in their lives.

It is a normal process of life to respond to shame in these ways. Shame is a self-protective reaction. We do this as a survival mechanism. However, because it’s self-protective it leads to self-consuming perceptions and behaviors. We learn not to see other people’s perceptions and walk into judgment towards ourselves and others. Being too caught up in our shame is a very lonely and isolating road. When shame comes up for me in my daily life, I take a few steps to manage it effectively. First, I label it. Second, I excercise compassion on myself and for what I have been through. Third, I reach out to important attachment figures in my life and heal the shame by bringing it into the light. Although, sometimes we might do all the steps necessary to manage our shame and we still let it take a hold of us. In these situations, therapy can be invaluable. We often need a professional to help us get through the deepest parts of our shame and guide us into managing it more effectively in the future.

The Greatest Enemy to Your Happiness That You Never See Coming

Many of us try to rid ourselves of those things in our life that we feel weigh us down and prevent us from experiencing happiness (addictions, toxic relationships, depression, etc.). Sometimes we are able to do it. Other times it continues to plague us like something that we feel is apart of our selves that we can’t ever imagine our lives without. So what keeps us from getting what we truly desire and on to a path of peace and out of the constant suffering?……. Shame.

Fossum and Mason defined shame in their book, Facing Shame, as “an inner sense of being completely diminished or insufficient as a person. It is the self judging the self. A moment of shame may be humiliation so painful or an indignity so profound that one feels one has been robbed of her or his dignity or exposed as basically inadequate, bad, or worthy of rejection. A pervasive sense of shame is the ongoing premise that one is fundamentally bad, inadequate, effective, unworthy, or not fully bad as a human being.” Or in other words, we don’t take off our chains of unhappiness because we don’t believe we are capable or worthy as a person.

People often confuse shame with guilt. However, in reality, they are two very different things. Shame is a secondary emotion while guilt is a core emotion (see my blog on secondary vs. core emotions). Fossum and Mason also do well at defining guilt as “the developmentally more mature, though painful, feeling of regret one has about behavior that has violated a personal value. [It] does not reflect directly upon one’s identity nor diminish one’s sense of personal worth.” Guilt leads to change in behavior by feeling it and is an outward emotion (meaning it is about others and how we have affected/hurt them). Shame does not lead to change in behavior and experiencing it just leads to more shame and despair. Shame is an inward emotion (meaning it is self-focused and about ourselves). We use it to protect ourselves, but it just leads to more despair, isolation, and hiding.

There are only three ways that I have seen that helps us to get out of our shame. First, bring it out into the light. Talk to people about how you are feeling and what is happening with you. Talk to them about your fears and especially about the things you fear they will reject you for.

Second, building a connection with God. Prayer and a spiritual connection with our higher power helps remind us of our value and potential as humans.

Third, facing the shame. Notice when shame starts to creep up on you. Practice some self-compassion and mindfulness practices. Also, turn that shame into what your body needs to feel; the core emotion. This might be sadness and fear but is probably quite often…guilt. Let yourself feel how you might have affected yourself or the individuals around you by your actions. Whenever I catch myself going into shame I recognize it and start doing a guilt process. I think about other people and how they might have been affected by my actions. This gives me a sense of love and compassion for them and brings me out of the darkness and into a desire to do better and to change.

Getting yourself out of shame can be difficult to do. This is why it’s important to seek help from a therapist or coach to assist you in walking through these processes and out of the shame.