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shame and mental health

Shame and Mental Health

How relevant is shame to our mental health? My supervisor says that shame is at the core of all mental distress. Let that sink in. I think it’s a big statement. But from my experience and research for this article – I can’t disagree with it. So there’s a strong argument for all of us to understand shame a little better. But firstly – what do we mean by shame and mental health, and how is it different from guilt?

What is shame?

We experience shame when we break society’s rules. These might be clear and obvious as in the laws of our country, or they can be the more subtle social expectations we have of one another. Shame is that feeling of deep humiliation or deep mortification – the wish that the ground would open up and swallow you so no one can see you. Most of us have experienced this at one time. When we feel shame – it isn’t just because we have broken a rule – our whole self is in question because of it. Typical phrases we use toward ourselves might be “you idiot!”, “you’re so stupid!”, etc.

Guilt however, is slightly different – shame’s sibling perhaps. When we experience guilt, we have also broken one of society’s rules, but the focus is on how our behaviour or action has harmed others. It can be easier to remedy compared with shame, because we can take effective action such as apologising, going to confession, or, in severe cases, serving a prison sentence.

What is the link between shame and mental health?

Writers and researchers of shame discuss how there is a strong correlation between shame and mental health problems such as addiction, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicide.

When we talk about our mental health, I don’t think that we talk enough about the role of shame. Brene Brown states that for shame to grow, it needs secrecy, silence and judgment.

Take a moment. Did you ever have a conversation or a social interaction and later on you replayed that conversation in your mind? Typical comments might sound like “I shouldn’t have said that”, “Did they get my joke or do they think I’m a horrible person?”, “Ugh, I can never get it right..” and on and on it can go. As Kaufman says – we don’t need another person to witness our humiliation for us to experience shame, because we are always watching and judging ourselves.

Is shame necessary?

On the other hand, we do need a little shame – it is necessary for us to develop a conscience, to learn right from wrong, and it provides the necessary motivation for us to correct our behaviour. So, yes, shame can be necessary, but we have to find the right balance.

Where does shame come from?

If each of us reflects on our own experiences of shame, most of us will have had some experiences from childhood where we felt shamed by another – maybe by our peers, our family, or maybe a teacher.

To understand how shame grows, imagine a child coming home to their parents, delighted with their achievement from school and feeling good about themselves, but maybe one of their parents says something like: “Don’t let it go to your head now” or “No one likes a know-it-all!”.

In Ireland especially, I think there is a culture where celebrating our achievements and feeling good about ourselves is not encouraged. As a child, I remember hearing on the playground “You love yourself!” in a tone that was jeery and negative. Loving oneself in Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s was not a good thing!

So, for shame to develop, it can begin with that one experience which makes a huge impact on the developing child. As they grow older, they’re mindful of what they say and of their behaviour, for fear of being negatively judged by others. After a while, it doesn’t matter what we hear from others because we are already harshly judging ourselves, telling ourselves all manner of cruel things. Eventually, feeling good about ourselves becomes tied up with feelings of shame. Receiving a compliment then triggers those feelings of shame and instead of feeling good, we feel unworthy, undeserving, or even embarrassed.

Shame and mental health – How do we tackle it?

Shame can be very damaging to our mental health, so what can we do to alleviate this shame and release those feelings?

The answer is, by practicing self compassion.

Research shows that while shame and mental health are closely associated with regards to mental health difficulties, self compassion is strongly correlated with good mental health. Studies have shown that people who practice self compassion are less likely to experience mental health problems such as stress, depression and anxiety, and also tend to have a better quality of life and a greater sense of wellbeing.

So what do we mean exactly by self-compassion? Neff defines compassion as:

“the recognition and clear seeing of suffering…feelings of kindness for people who are suffering, so that the desire to help – to ameliorate suffering – emerges… recognizing our shared human condition, flawed and fragile as it is” (Neff, 2011, p10)

When we talk about self compassion, we are therefore talking about directing a compassionate attitude internally.

How do I practice self compassion?

Okay, that sounds good, you might say. But you might now be wondering, how do I go about adopting a self compassionate attitude? Well, there are 4 main steps.

1. Acknowledge the difficulty or suffering that you are experiencing

This means that you need to develop a practice of self awareness or mindfulness. You don’t need to meditate for 30 minutes every day! Even checking in with yourself for a minute a few times a day to notice how you’re feeling – physically, emotionally and mentally – can help build self awareness. If you’re not aware of how you’re feeling, you can’t take appropriate action, so this step is very important.

2. Normalise your experience

If you make a mistake in work, you could be really hard on yourself, or you could recognise that being human means sometimes making mistakes. When we feel shame, we can often be so focused on ourselves and our inadequacies, that we forget that we’re not alone in what we’re going through, and that nobody is perfect.

3. Be kind to yourself

Rather than telling yourself to get on with it, and ignoring your suffering, instead, taking an attitude of kindness and care for yourself is a way of taking back control, and tackling those feelings of shame. If you’ve made a mistake, instead of telling yourself how stupid you are, you could remind yourself gently that it’s okay to make mistakes, and that you will now know for next time.

4. Take positive action to alleviate the pain that you are going through

That might look like reviewing your work schedule – are you working overtime unnecessarily? Or perhaps engaging in self care – making sure you are getting enough sleep, or taking time to talk to a friend. For me, self compassion means valuing myself, taking care of myself, and developing a positive relationship with myself.

If you have the tendency to be hard on yourself, and to shame yourself, adopting a self-compassionate approach may seem alien, or maybe too American, or too cheesy! I get it. I think, in Ireland especially, a lot of us have that attitude of ‘just get on with it’. But maybe after reading this, you’ll keep a more open mind.

Written by: Louise Byrne, Psychotherapist, MIAHIP


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