Shame is an incredibly toxic emotion that rises when one believes oneself to be unworthy, inferior, unlovable, bad, unwanted, defective, incompetence and inadequate. It is a hurtful dark emotion that grows in intensity and spreads its influence on all aspects of one’s life.
Shame limits our choices, relationships, growth and potential in life. In experiencing shame one feels the need to isolate oneself as to protect the ugly truth from being exposed to the world. Isolation minimize the risk of condemnation, rejection, humiliation and rage , but it also can lead to depression, anxiety, self- destructive behaviour, low self- esteem, relationships problems, rigidity and perfectionism.
Elison, Lennon and Steven (2006) built the Compass of Shame theory to describe the 5 poles of how people react to shame. The five poles are: 1. Attack Self- where the anger, self-disgust and blame are turned towards the self. 2. Withdrawal- Feelings of strong shame lead to seek isolation, withdraw from others. 3. Avoidance- The minimization of emotional and intimate contacts and becoming more distant and disconnected from others. 4. Attack Other- when feeling shamed and humiliated, disrespected or ridiculed by others turn into expression of rage externally towards them. 5.Adaptive- assesses acknowledgment of shame and motivation to apologize and/or make amends (Tangney et al., 2007, p. 356)
Shame becomes stronger when hidden due to the fear of exposure and thereby the core beliefs become unshakable. By talking about it in therapy and revealing the core belief in an empathetic, accepting, compassionate, non- judgmental therapeutic environment , these beliefs be challenged and the shame will be neutralized. As shame also relates to our moral compass, part of challenging the thoughts is also rediscovering core values and standards set for oneself and testing whether the values have truly been violated and whether the standards are realistically attainable or too rigid.
By voicing the negative thoughts and feelings one can also learn to be more self-compassionate, which will alleviate the intensive impact that shame has on one’s life. By being more self -compassionate there is a sense of acceptance of human imperfection and kindness towards the self that reduces the intensity of negative emotions and thoughts that previously could have potentially trigger the feelings of shame. It also involves perceiving mistakes not as determination of our value and definition of who we are but as learning experiences and points of improvements.
With challenging the core beliefs and being more compassionate there is also the development of self- acceptance, helpful coping strategies and self -care strategies. For some, for example, it may mean accepting that sometimes mistakes are made and that weakness are present and co-occur with strengths as it does for everyone, thus that does not mean that they are unworthy and inadequate…for others it may mean that feeling weak and vulnerable is OK and does not mean that they are not strong or defective and unlovable.
It is about accepting all aspects of the self and trying to live more authentically with the help of constructive and efficient coping strategies rather than avoidance, isolation and expression of anger inwards or outwards. Building up distress tolerance and utilizing self -soothing strategies , distraction techniques and meditation, deep breathing and even letting go are all helpful ways of dealing with negative shame-inducing affective situations.
Additionally, sometimes the most timely and precise thing to do while coping shame is participating in activities that make us feel better, comfort us or even pamper us. Therapy can help you cope and break the vicious cycle of shame. Seek help from a professional if you are struggling with shame and you could reap and experience its results in your life.
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Elison, J., Lennon, R., & Pulos, S.(2006) Investigating the compass of shame: the development of the compass of shame scale. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 34 ,3, 221-238.
Tangney, J. P., Stuewig, J., & Mashek, D. J. (2007). Moral emotions and moral behavior. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 345-372.