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Understanding Shame

Far more than feeling guilty, shame can be a debilitating condition that manifests in myriad ways, says a Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated therapist

Written By Molly Ramsey

Photograph by Juergen Bauer Pictures

Family get-togethers—complete with festive feasts and gifts galore—are a staple of the holiday season. And while commercials make family time look oh-so merry and bright, in reality, spending time with family can conjure up a host of negative emotions, from stress and irritation to shame: the latter of which is a deep-seeded feeling of inadequacy that John Walters, a Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated clinical therapist, says he works with people daily on recognizing, grappling with and moving past.

  • What’s the difference between shame and guilt? “Guilt is: ‘I did a bad thing,’ whereas shame is: ‘I am bad’—it’s tied up in your identity,” says Walters. In her 2010 book The Gifts of Imperfection, researcher, author and professor Brené Brown (whose 2010 TEDxHouston Talk about vulnerability and shame went viral and who stars in the 2019 Netflix documentary “The Call to Courage”) explains that guilt can often have a positive effect, causing a change in behavior for the better. Meanwhile, shame almost always leads to destructive feelings like rage or to the act of numbing (turning to things like food, alcohol, shopping, gaming or social media for distraction).
  • What causes shame? “I think 100 percent of people have felt shame to some degree,” says Walters. “It’s a matter of whether or not it’s toxic.” Chronic shame—a pervasive feeling that you are a bad, unworthy or inadequate person—can result from trauma, constant criticism or a profound sense of abandonment or rejection, Walters says. “Shame can get embedded in a person’s operating system, becoming the point from which they operate.”
  • What does toxic shame look like? “Shame can permeate every inch of your life,” says Walters. It can lead to low self-esteem, depression, social disconnection, indecisiveness and addiction. “Someone with toxic shame may not try hard at things because they just anticipate failure, or they may stay in a bad relationship because they feel unworthy,” Walters says.

Standing Up to Shame

How do you move past toxic shame or even spontaneous shameful self-talk, like that which might arise during dinner with a critical family member?

Identify the feeling. “The first step to overcoming shame is noticing it,” says Walters.

Talk about it. Whether it’s with a licensed therapist or a trusted friend, exploring where your deep-rooted shame may stem from, as well as the situations and/or people that trigger it for you today, can profoundly loosen its grip on you, says Walters.

Watch for negative self-talk. “When you catch yourself in shameful self-talk, try to break the cycle,” he says. Journaling, reciting a positive mantra, practicing mindfulness and exercising can all be healthy ways to do so.

Practice compassion—for yourself. “Many people are compassionate toward their friends, family and even strangers, but are hard on themselves,” says Walters. Make a point to be as compassionate as you are with others with yourself, to celebrate your successes and to focus on your strengths.

Set yourself up for success. Sometimes that may look like excusing yourself from a conversation that’s triggering negative self-talk, says Walters. From a day-to-day perspective, he recommends cultivating healthy habits like getting ample sleep and exercising, and surrounding yourself with people who build you up rather than tear you down.


Photograph by Juergen Bauer Pictures/Shutterstock

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