Have you ever found yourself replaying a moment over and over in your head at night? Why did I say that? What should I have said instead? Why did I act that way? Is that really me? Did you know that those thoughts are linked to the emotion of shame? We’ve all experienced it. Maybe it starts as a feeling of slight embarrassment. We get upset with ourselves; before we know it, that negative emotion is ruling our thoughts. Shame is commonly associated with rejection, and a core belief of shame can occur when we are scared of being rejected by those close to us. In the therapy world, we often call this chronic shame because it becomes the filter through which we see everything.

Chronic shame is linked to an increase in anxiety, depression, self-harm, and other forms of mental illness. Oftentimes, people seek therapy for one of the reasons stated above, but once they begin therapy, they often discover the real root of their illness is shame. This shame is birthed out of rejection and /or fear of being rejected again.

Shame shows up in our relationships, our work, and even in our daily habits. The voice of shame can also be known as the “inner-critic” we have in our heads. Most often, this inner critic evokes an idea of embarrassment, a fear of rejection, or a sense of deep shame in our thoughts. As we learned in our previous blog about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, these thoughts lead to negative emotions or feelings, which breed negative or unhealthy actions.

What is Shame?

So, what is shame? In its basic form, shame is a deeply hurtful, uncomfortable emotion that we feel. It is distressing, tormenting, and often arises when we believe we’ve made a mistake or embarrassed ourselves and chosen to believe that those actions now identify us. It’s birthed out of a deep-seated, negative view of yourself—a lie that you’re not good enough, that you’re a bad person, or that you’re unworthy. When we perceive these things shame causes immediate feelings of negativity, inadequacy, and low self-esteem.

As we mentioned before, shame is often birthed through rejection. We learn based on the experiences around us. If our upbringing and culture involved a lot of rejections, then we’ve probably acquired some shame issues, because it shaped our beliefs. Times when we were rejected in our childhood condition us to rekindle that feeling of shame when a similar situation occurs.

It’s not just in childhood, though, that we experience shame. Other times, we fall into feelings of shame when we feel rejected by our culture. We observe cultural norms around us every day. In social situations, our awareness of what appears “normal” is often heightened. We overthink and convince ourselves that we are unworthy of belonging to the culture around us. We believe rejection to be imminent, and shame suddenly controls our thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Traumatic events can also bring up shame. We identify a traumatic event as a negative event that took place in your life. The event is negative if you say it is negative. These past experiences of trauma may cause you to consider yourself responsible for things that are not your fault. If that takes place, then that is a good indication that you are dealing with some core shame issues. Then, when you witness or share in an event that causes you to think further about that past trauma, shame steps in to further pull you down into negativity.

Shame can even emerge when things appear to be going great! This is because you believe at your core that you’re not deserving. One moment, you are enjoying your life. But in the next moment, you have a sneaky thought: maybe I don’t deserve this. Unworthiness, inadequacy, self-consciousness—all these emotions tell-tale signs that core shame has been ignited in your life.

Reactions to Shame

There are a variety of reactions we might have when we have deep-rooted shame. Often, our responses are preventative—we do whatever we can to avoid that “inevitable” rejection. We put on a mask. The mask, we think, will hide our true selves, the version of our self we do not want to be rejected. If I wear this mask, I will be accepted. Shame makes us believe we have to pretend in order to be accepted. Our true selves feel unworthy of love and acceptance. Shame brings up past feelings and memories of something we’ve done or failed to do. However, shame is different from guilt. Guilt is remorse about actions, but shame is directly related to our feelings about ourselves. In the future, we will devote another blog post to distinguishing between shame and guilt.

We process shame both internally and externally. When shame is internal, we may experience isolation, perfectionism, addiction, self-harm, or low self-esteem. However, if we process shame externally, we are more likely to blame others, show contempt, shame others, control others, or express anger. Both reactions to shame can complicate and cause increased negativity in our lives.

The Anecdote to Shame

Vulnerability is the anecdote to shame. As we stated before, shame is birthed through rejection. Rejection happens when someone doesn’t accept the vulnerable version of themselves. We react by putting on our masks and feeling shame at who we are at our cores. Vulnerability is fully embracing who you are. It is not weakness; it’s wisdom and courage.

Brene Brown, an influential psychotherapist, life coach, and public speaker on the topic of shame, teaches that many of us continue to view vulnerability as weakness. Brown, however, points out that we view vulnerability in other people as a strength. When we notice those feelings of shame begin to creep into our thoughts, we have to remember to embrace the authentic version of ourselves.