Shame – everyone experiences this emotion at some point or another. And I’ve got to tell you, it is not an emotion I would describe as pleasant. I would say it’s quite opposite to being pleasant if I’m being totally honest here. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have value or that we should try to completely get rid of it (spoiler, can’t even do that anyways). From an evolution stand point, shame is there to protect us from getting kicked out of our group. It is triggered when that group does not approve of your beliefs, values or behaviors.
Sometimes people confuse the emotions shame and guilt. I want to take a moment to talk about how guilt is different. Remember when I said shame is all about the group not approving of our behavior or beliefs. Well, guilt occurs when we ourselves don’t approve of what we’ve done or believe. One way to remember the difference is…shame says “How could of I done that?” whereas guilt is saying “How could of I done that?”
It is important to recognize that often times shame and guilt are experienced together. For example, someone committing a violent act may later feel guilt that they harmed someone and experience shame as a result of being rejected by society. The steps you take to manage these emotions can be different so using your mindfulness skills to observe and describe the experience of just one or both emotions are important.
The urge, or feeling to do something, that comes with shame is to keep a secret or to avoid those that know what you are feeling ashamed about. Often times, there’s a strong pull to run away, to hide, or to immediately shy away from connection with others. Sometimes it is effective to act on these urges whereas other times it is not. When determining if you should act or not, you first need to decide if the experience of shame is justified. Meaning, figuring out if the group you are in will truly not approve of your values or behaviors. This, at times, can be easier said than done.
If it is justified, you have a few options:
- Stay in that group and don’t talk about the value or behavior
- Find a new group that will not reject your values or behaviors
- Change your behavior
- Work to change society’s or a person’s values
If it is not justified, you do the opposite of what the emotion tells you to do:
- Disclose your values or behaviors to those who won’t reject you
- Repeat the behavior without hiding from people who won’t reject you
- Or if you violated your moral code, apologize, repair, forgive yourself and let go
Let’s see how these steps may play out in real life. Now, I urge you to remember…shame is experienced based off the threat we will be kicked out of or not accepted by the group we find ourselves in. We are not determining the rightfulness or wrongfulness of the behavior. Someone recovering from alcoholism may find it helpful to talk about their illness and progress they’ve made towards recovery. However, if they come from an overly strict and moral family, it may not be acceptable to discuss this with this group of people. It may be justified to experience shame if this individual talk extensively about their recovery at Thanksgiving dinner. Even though the they would have done nothing wrong by bringing it up at the dinner table, shame sends the message that their behavior is not acceptable to the group and hopefully encourages them to find a group where their behavior is unconditionally accepted. Alcoholics anonymous, would be such a place. Talking to a friend who wholeheartedly supports their sobriety would be another effective option. In this example, the experience of shame was justified when they were around their family. Hence, we would encourage them to not talk about their recovery. It would not be justified when around others who are supportive. Therefore, go on and proudly talk about recovery!
About the Author
Desirae Allen (she/her), Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist that specializes in dialectical behavior therapy. Desirae works with teens and adults, creating a compassionate and judgement-free space, where clients can find wellness and recovery. Desirae believes that DBT can make a long-term difference in people’s lives, and she strives to work collaboratively with her clients to provide adherent DBT. Click Here to learn more about Desirae’s experience and therapeutic style.