Shame is an emotion that most humans will have experienced occasionally. It can be a helpful emotion if it encourages people to behave well, but when it becomes too much a part of the individual’s life it can be highly destructive. Some people are so troubled by shame that they will turn to substance abuse for solace. This can lead them to addiction and all the misery that this entails. Those individuals who later escape their alcohol or drug problems can still feel shame and this can get in the way of their recovery. It is therefore vital that people learn to handle this negative emotion.
Shame can be defined as the painful feeling arising from consciousness of something dishonorable or improper that the individual feels responsible for. It is usually accompanied by a sense of guilt or embarrassment about whatever has occurred. Shame can be classified as an emotion, a mental state, or cognition.
The words guilt and shame are often used interchangeably but they actually mean different things. When people feel guilty it is because they think they have done something wrong, but when they feel shame it is because they believe they are wrong. In order words when people feel shame they believe that there is something wrong with them rather than what they did. Shame has been described as a sickness of the soul, and it can lead to depression, paranoia, loneliness, and low self-esteem.
Shame and low self-esteem are closely related. In fact it is usually the case that they go hand in hand. The individual with low self-esteem does not value themselves very highly – they feel unworthy of respect and affection. It is suggested that feelings of shame in early childhood lead to low self-esteem in later life. Once the individual has developed low self-esteem they are highly susceptible to further feelings of shame and embarrassment. These uncomfortable emotions can drive people into addiction. This may be one reason for why so many addicts also suffer from low self-esteem.
Shame can be a beneficial emotion in moderate doses. It helps the individual to moderate their own behavior. When people do something wrong they may feel shame as a self-inflicted punishment. The benefit of this is that they should be less likely to commit the act again in the future. If nobody felt any shame the world would become a far more dangerous place.
Shame can be a highly destructive emotion because:
* It can lead to maladaptive behaviors such as addiction, eating disorders, domestic abuse, social phobias, and sexual violence.
* Many of those who feel a great deal of shame in their life will live in fear.
* It prevents the individual from getting the most out of life.
* It interferes with their ability to form healthy relationships with other people.
* It can prevent addicts from seeking help. They believe that they deserve their misery.
* If people feel shame they will not be able to enjoy their successes in life.
* When anything goes wrong in their life they will be tempted to blame themselves.
* Shame can motivate the individual to engage in violence against themselves or other people.
Shame can be a liability in recovery because:
* The individual may believe that they do not deserve to have a good life in recovery. This may mean that they are unwilling to put in the necessary effort that will help to make their life better.
* Access to a strong support network of sober friends can be vital for people who are in early recovery. Shame could prevent the individual from forming such friendships.
* This type of emotion will prevent the individual from enjoying their successes in recovery.
* In order to develop in recovery the individual will need to develop emotional sobriety. These feelings of shame could prevent the individual from becoming emotionally sober.
* If the individual finds that shame is making their life in recovery uncomfortable they will be tempted to relapse back to addiction.
* Family and friends can suffer a great deal when a loved one is trapped in addiction. If the individual becomes sober their behavior may still be self-destructive due to shame.
There are steps that the individual can take to help them overcome shame such as:
* If shame is preventing people from living their life to the fullest it may be a good idea to speak to a therapist. This professional will be able to help the individual get to the root of their shame and overcome it.
* Even just talking to a trusted friend can be a great help when it comes to overcoming shame. This emotion is at its most dangerous when the individual is alone with it.
* When looking at any action that is causing shame it is helpful to look at it from an objective point of view. When done this way it may not appear to be such a dreadful thing.
* One antidote to shame is to build self-esteem. If the individual values themselves highly they will be less likely to beat themselves up over small things.
* The individual needs to recognize that they are not their failures. People make mistakes but this does not mean that they are inherently bad people.
* Some people feel shame because they believe that other people think badly of them. The reality is that they are not mind-readers and it is not helpful to be always assuming the worst.
* Even if other people have some nasty things to say about the individual it does not mean that they have to accept such assessments.
* Some people feel a sense of shame because of their physical appearance. It can help to understand that there is a great deal more to people than their bodies, and it is impossible to real know what these other people are thinking.
* Techniques such as mindfulness meditation are highly effective at helping people have more control over what is occurring in their heads.
* Keeping a journal can also be a great help when it comes to dealing with these negative emotions. Things can appear much clearer when they are written down on paper.