Shame is the feeling that a person is, at their core, bad or wrong. A person might feel shame for no reason at all, or long after they have made amends for a misdeed. Shame can lead to a host of mental health challenges, including depression and anxiety. It may also make it difficult to get close to others. Some people are so paralyzed by shame that they are unable to be productive at work or school. Shame researcher Brené Brown argues that guilt serves an important social purpose. It can drive people to apologize to others and avoid doing harm. Shame, Brown says, serves no purpose. It’s simply a source of suffering. Therapy can help people understand why they feel ashamed and work to break free from shame.
Toxic shame is a shame that leads to chronic negative emotions, or behavior that harms oneself or others. People who feel chronic shame may think they are unworthy of love. Others may fear connecting to others, convinced that others will eventually see the “real” person and reject them.
This can cause numerous relationship issues, including:
People experiencing shame may engage in self-harm such as cutting, binge eating, or restrictive eating. Some people attempt to mask or overcome their feelings of shame through:
Numerous studies have linked shame to suicidal thoughts and gestures. This may be because shame cuts deeply to a person’s core. People overwhelmed by feelings of shame may feel unable to solve their problems or unworthy of a better life. They may believe treatment won’t help. The social stigma surrounding mental health issues, and especially surrounding suicidal thoughts, can compound these feelings. This can deter a person from seeking help.
Brown argues that resilience to shame has four components:
Shame often stems from a traumatic experience. A person may fear that they deserved the trauma, experience guilt and shame about having survived, or feel ashamed of sexual or other abuse. When shame is due to trauma, it’s critical that therapy is trauma-sensitive, addressing the root cause of shame.
Some treatment options include:
These techniques may also work for other forms of shame, such as shame due to depression. Research consistently finds that the best predictor of therapy’s success is a strong relationship between the therapist and the person in therapy. Finding a therapist who respects your values and helps you set goals is key.
Some other forms of therapy that may help with shame, especially shame that is not due to trauma, include:
Shame after an affair: Trudy, 47, enters therapy due to anxiety and problems with her husband, to whom she has been married more than 20 years. Talking with the therapist, she is tearful, and soon begins to disclose that she had an affair early in her marriage. Therapy helps her achieve emotional release and move past her shame into remorse and self-forgiveness. She then resolves to disclose the secret to her husband. When she does so, he is hurt. This re-triggers Trudy’s shame, but their relationship survives, and Trudy is eventually able to feel a sense of peace.
Adult shame after childhood molestation: Pablo, 21, is starting to date seriously and finds himself anxious and ashamed about sexual matters. After a few sessions with a therapist, he is able to disclose that he was a victim of sexual molestation 10 years earlier. Pablo feels ashamed of this event, though he is not sure why. The shame interferes with his ability to be relaxed with a partner. The therapist helps Pablo uncover and examine the beliefs that reinforce his shame, and he attempts to discard the beliefs that are untrue and unhelpful and develop new beliefs that more accurately reflect reality and lead to a stronger sense of self and hope.
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