Shame is one of the most frequent reasons that someone comes to my office for therapy. It’s rarely the “presenting problem”; it coils like an insidious snake hiding behind anger issues, trauma, substance use, anxiety, depression, grief, loneliness, and mental illness. Sometimes people are aware it’s there. Other times, not so much.
Sometimes, brief moments of guilt are warranted. As people with a conscience, when we do something that harms others or violates our moral code, it makes sense to feel guilty. It’s healthy. And it’s also healthy to work through that guilt. It allows us to preserve relationships and maintain social contracts.
Shame is different. Whereas guilt holds to one action being wrong, shame says there is something wrong with you. Guilt encourages the making of amends and rebuilding relationships. Shame shoves us away from others, leading us only to hear its voice and breaking away from important relationships. Shame is rarely warranted.
What follows are five lies shame uses to maintain its stance.
1. The Lie: You Are Irredeemably Bad
Shame leads to an overwhelming sense of “badness.” It gives a message that your very essence is somehow flawed and should be hidden away.
The Truth: We can all grow and change. Often, we feel shame about pieces of ourselves that we can’t change such as the status of living with a health condition. This shame is not warranted. Health conditions do not break a moral code. We may feel shame about acts from the past. It’s true that the past can’t be changed. Still, we can change the future. We can change our choices. And one choice (or set of choices) is not all there is to a person or a life.
2. The Lie: If Someone Judges You, You Deserve It
We are a social species and tend to place a lot of weight on what we believe other people think. When we hear harsh words or feel unkind glances, it hurts. We are likely to internalize this.
The Truth: When people judge, it often says more about the person judging than the person being judged. Sometimes people judge to feel better about themselves or out of jealousy. The reality is that there will always be something for someone to judge. If someone can’t judge you for being young and inexperienced, they will judge you for your gray hair. Only you know your whole life—what led you to where you are today and where you have been before. Sometimes we are most judgmental of ourselves. Maybe you said something out of anger and now do not want to go around that person because you know you were in the wrong. Even our judgments are typically at the very least unhelpful and often marked beyond the impact of what we think we did.
3. The Lie: You Make Others’ Lives Worse
Shame tells us about all the negative ways we have impacted others. It draws from a bias toward these things. It doesn’t remind us of the many times we have brightened others’ days or contributed to the community.
The Truth: Shame is biased against us. It’s like a fun-house mirror exaggerating all the harm we have done and hiding the good things. When you have felt shame for a long time, especially if you also live with something like depression, it might be difficult to remember the ways you have enhanced others’ lives. This doesn’t mean that your impact has been a net negative.
4. The Lie: If You Were Hurt as a Child, You Were Probably a Bad Kid
As children, we see things as children do. This includes what psychologists call the just world belief. We tend to believe that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. We trust adults, and sometimes it is less scary to think we are bad kids than to realize we were not in control. This child’s thinking can follow into adulthood. If you experienced physical abuse, you might have been told you were being punished or that you “drove” your parents to it by being a bad kid. The shame associated with sexual abuse is often draped with isolation, fear, and misunderstandings.
The Truth: Abuse is never acceptable. It may be difficult to frame your experiences as “abuse”; in fact, many people do not realize until they are well into adulthood that they experienced abuse as children. Of course, abuse is not the only way that children are hurt. The same rules apply. Children are impulsive and vulnerable. If you were hurt, it is not your fault.
5. The Lie: Isolating Yourself Is the Best Thing You Can Do Now
Shame loves to hide. In isolation, shame can thrive. No one is there to challenge it, and you have no chance to redeem yourself.
The Truth: We all need social connections. Reconnecting with others is one of the best things we can do for shame. If you feel ashamed because of something you are struggling with, such as an addiction, meeting others through support communities may be key to your recovery.
In closing, shame is painful. But it can be worked through.