Shame and Emotional Wellbeing
Shame is a painful emotion which is experienced when we have a conscious sense, or instinctual awareness that we have done or been involved in something we perceive as improper or dishonourable, or that very common feeling surrounding a particular event or situation in our lives where we feel that we could have or should have done something differently, for example in order to prevent something from happening to us.
In cases of abuse or assault, or something that impacted us greatly, we may experience painful feelings of shame that we didn’t do something to stop it, or that we could have done more. Where these experiences have occurred in childhood, during our formative years, we might interpret the feeling that we have done something wrong, or been involved in something wrong as ‘we are something wrong’. This can lead to feelings of unworthiness and we may also feel we should punish ourselves in some way for past events or circumstances. We might feel we are not good enough, or unworthy of forgiveness for something that we shouldn’t have done, or could have done more to prevent. These feelings can persist throughout our adult life, if we are not able to find the self-compassion and empathy to enable us to resolve and move on from them, with a positive belief and understanding that we are in fact worthy, and good enough.
Clearly these feelings of shame and unworthiness can have a negative impact on emotional wellbeing. They can hold you back from living your life to its full potential, with feelings of shame weighing you down and impacting on life choices throughout life. It is important to seek knowledge, support and understanding so that you can begin to accept that you have always done your best in every situation, with the resources available to you at that time, that what happened to you was not your fault and you are not, cannot be, to blame for somebody else’s wrongdoing. Shame is a natural response in these situations and it is possible to overcome it.
Feelings of shame are often associated with avoidance behaviours, from what has happened, or avoiding looking at others and focusing on what you feel you may have done wrong or might have done differently in the situation, regardless of the situation itself. This can be related to many different things including the body, the way you look, experiences of physical and sexual abuse and neglect.
Research suggest that if you have experienced shame in early life then you may be more likely to carry that shame into your adult life if it is left unresolved. In an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the events we perceive as shameful, we might avoid seeking the support and information necessary to allow us to resolve these painful feelings, which will impact on your emotional wellbeing negatively. Suppressing the emotion can also lead to feelings of low self-esteem, hostility or distress.
Seeking help for what you feel are shameful events is not easy, in fact it is very difficult to allow yourself to deal with the emotion when you seek to resolve these feelings. However, allowing yourself to positively address the event and consider your feelings towards it can lead to more positive outcomes than simply ignoring it or pretending it didn’t happen. Many therapies, such as Thought Field Therapy, now allow you to resolve the negative emotions, without having to even share the details of these events with your therapist, paving the way for a more accessible and positive therapeutic experience. Shame is very closely related to guilt, with a common belief that they are the same. However, where shame is linked to feelings that we are wrong, guilt is focused on the thing we feel we did wrong, and righting the wrong. There is no doubt that shame is a very painful emotion and is very difficult to deal with.
Acknowledging the feelings of shame you carry will often help you to move forward in your life to a more positive place, allowing you to overcome issues that you may not have realised are still having an impact on you, so that you can live your life free of negative emotions and connections to an outdated situation or person.
Shame is not the same as guilt and it can be overcome.
· Sheikh, S and Janoff-Bulman, R. (2010) ‘The “Shoulds” and “Should Nots” of Moral Emotions: A Self-Regulatory Perspective on Shame and Guilt’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36:2, 213-244.
· Velotti, P, Garofalo, C, Bottazzi, F and Caretti, V. (2016) ‘Faces of Shame: Implications for Self-Esteem, Emotion Regulation, Aggression, and Well-Being’, The Journal of Psychology, 151:2, 171-184.