There are a lot of books and articles out about what shame is and how to heal it. They have fancy definitions and origin theories about why people feel embarrassed and self-loathing about certain actions, memories or feelings. This is not one of those articles. This is about simply realizing that shame is common and insidious, and trying to put it aside.
Shame happens when we do something or feel something that we think others will judge as very bad. This is beyond our own conscience telling us we’ve done something that’s immoral; it’s more like we carry a nasty high school clique in our brains, sneering at our every move and laughing at us. We’ve taken some imagined or real judgments and swallowed them, making them our own, and very difficult to get away from. We often can’t even gauge if they’re sensible. Feeling shame for purposefully hurting someone is useful; it can keep us from acting this way in the future. Feeling shame for accidentally tripping in public, however, is exhausting and unrealistic. It’s linked to perfectionism and a false idea that people are judging us for every little mistake we make.
Because we are all fallible, and all make mistakes constantly, ranging from small (tripping) to large (screwing up a work assignment), feeling shame at every misstep keeps us from feeling confident and can severely limit our productiveness, causing more shame. If we are frightened of what others may think of us, we are more timid, less likely to take risks and less willing to have adventures. This apprehensiveness, according to recent studies in positive psychology, is one of the main barriers to happiness.
Plus, shame hurts. It eats away at us, says mean things to us, makes us feel small and unworthy. It is an infection that causes physical and emotional damage. And like every other feeling that drags us down, it can at times feel insurmountable. But as with every other feeling, we can control it.
First, analyze your shame. Ask yourself who the judge is: do you really think your action was that terrible, or are you imagining other people criticizing you for it? If it’s the latter, who is the person or people you think are judging you? Did you grow up with a shaming parent, and do you want to continue listening to them? Then ask two more questions: 1. Do you care? Are these people whose opinions you value? and 2. Are you sure? Would you judge them as harshly if they did the same? Is there any way to check if they are truly criticizing you, or if it’s all in your head?
Next, have compassion and kindness for yourself. Imagine what you would say to a friend who had done what you have done. Shower yourself with the kind of gentle loving you would give to a child. Turn to the activities that make you feel more calm and cared for, and treat yourself, even if (especially if) you feel that you don’t deserve it.
Finally, talk to someone. Call a friend who you know can offer you the kindness you can’t find in yourself. Find a therapist who listens without judgment. Surround yourself with understanding so that you can absorb it, copy it and learn to give it to yourself on a daily basis. A part of you knows that beating yourself up is not helpful and never leads to making you a better person. So try to stop the cycle of shame immediately, by reaching out and reaching within.