What is the True Meaning of Shame?

Shame can be a complex emotion to manage, as it is an intense and pervasive emotion that can make people feel fundamentally flawed. When people feel shame, they may believe they are inadequate, unworthy, or not good enough.

Shame is founded on self-judgment; if a person has insecurities, they may feel embarrassed or humiliated if these insecurities are highlighted or exposed. It can occur when a person feels they fall short of their own or others’ expectations or have a lingering sense of “Is someone judging me?”.

What is the Difference between Guilt and Shame?

Many people use guilt and shame interchangeably as they are similar but different emotions despite some overlaps. For instance, both are conscious emotions ignited by negative self-evaluation.

Shame is about having a negative sense of self, having low self-esteem, and believing you are, at the core, a terrible person. In contrast, guilt is feeling like you have done something wrong, made a bad decision, or made a mistake. Berne Brown describes shame as being based on self, “I am bad”, whereas guilt is based on behaviour “I did something bad”.

Many studies have examined the physical and emotional effects of guilt and shame. Research has demonstrated a link between shame-proneness and psychiatric problems such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance misuse. The results have not revealed a common link between guilt-proneness and psychiatric problems.

Why did we Evolve to Feel Shame?

(Sznycer et al., 2016) tested the theory that shame evolved as a defence against being devalued by others. The finding concluded that across cultures, there is a link between shame and devaluation.

If we rewind the years, our early ancestors depended on being valued by others for survival. The community’s most valued members would get food, help to look after their children, and were more likely to be cared for and protected than their lesser-valued peers.

To be valued within the community, it was necessary to have attributes that would appeal to others, such as being strong, a dangerous enemy, a potential partner, and trustworthy. If it was discovered that you were, for example, diseased, physically weak, or untrustworthy, you would be devalued and more likely to come to harm.

Our ancestors worked hard to be valued within the community. This may have involved hiding disease or blaming others for their acts, but it was necessary for survival. Today, shame motivates us to conform to societal norms, to fit in, and to be liked and respected by others.

When is Shame Not Helpful?

Shame is not helpful when it becomes toxic. Toxic shame is when a person becomes overly self-critical, experiences self-disgust or demeans themselves in other ways. This can often be the result of childhood abuse, trauma or having parents or caregivers who were emotionally unavailable.

Toxic shame can be extremely difficult for a person to manage; if self-help techniques or confiding in a friend doesn’t ease the shame, it would be recommended to seek professional help.

What does Shame do to the Body?

When a person feels shame, it starts a complex chain of events that affects many bodily systems, physically and psychologically. Science supports the impact shame has on the body.

Here’s a breakdown of how shame impacts the body:

Emotional Response: It often leads to feelings of unworthiness and disappointment and can trigger a desire to escape or hide from others.

Stress Response: The body’s stress reaction, also known as the “fight or flight” response, is triggered by shame.

This includes the adrenal glands releasing stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline.

These hormones raise heart rate, blood pressure, and attentiveness to prepare the body to react to a threat.

Increased heart rate: The heart beats to pump blood to muscles and essential organs faster.
Elevated blood pressure: Blood vessels constrict, which increases blood pressure and improves oxygen delivery.
Rapid breathing: Breathing more quickly helps the body prepare for physical activity by oxygenating the blood.
Muscle tension: Muscles tighten in preparation for potential movement or defence.
Dilated pupils: The pupils enlarge to allow more light and improve visual focus.
Sweating: The body sweats to help regulate temperature during heightened activity.
Digestive changes: Blood flow may decrease to the digestive system, leading to digestive discomfort or a “butterflies in the stomach” feeling.

Impact on the Immune System: Over time, prolonged or severe shame may weaken the immune system, increasing the body’s vulnerability to disease.

Cognitive Changes: The impacts of shame on cognitive processes include ruminating thoughts and making bad decisions. The ability to concentrate and focus may also be troublesome.

Neurological Impact: According to neuroimaging research shame causes the brain’s negative emotions, self-perception, and social evaluation regions to become active. Some of these regions are the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, and insula.

The effects of shame can differ from person to person and may depend on elements like personal coping methods, resilience, and social support.

How Can I Manage Shame?

Here are some practical ways to make you feel better about yourself and effectively manage shame.

Talk About It
A conversation with a relative or close friend you trust can make all the difference. Sharing your thoughts can make you feel better and open your eyes to new lights.

You never know when the person you trust will come up with a brilliant idea, offer an ear of understanding, or be there for you. You feel less alone and more understood since it’s like having a friend by your side.

Challenge any Negative Thoughts
Shame often brings along negative and critical thoughts about yourself. It’s important to challenge these thoughts.

Ask yourself if they are based on facts or if you’re being too hard on yourself. Try to reframe these thoughts in a more balanced and realistic way.

For example, if you’re thinking, “I’m a complete failure,” try changing it to “I am brave enough to make changes; my setback makes me stronger.”

Be Kind to Yourself
Here’s a little tip: You can be your own best friend. Imagine how you would talk to your best friend when they are going through a tough time – that’s how you should treat yourself, too. Show yourself the same kindness and compassion that you would show your friend. We all mess up and have tough days, and it’s part of being human.

So, try not to be too harsh on yourself while feeling low.

Say, “Hey, it’s okay; I’m only human,” and go on. Allow these feelings to come up without judging them as good or bad.

You deserve kindness and a helping hand, especially when things are tough. Give yourself a warm hug from within, or you can go all out and give yourself a big bear hug!

Learn and Grow
Yes, even mistakes can serve as your hidden weapon for getting better. Shame can help us define our boundaries and act within social norms. This is when shame can be healthy!

Think for a bit about what you can do differently the next time. How can you make the most of this scenario for yourself?

Switching your focus like this opens the door to growth and feeling strong. So, let’s kick that shame aside and stride forward!

Mindfulness and Breathing
So, pause and take some slow, deep breaths when shame starts showing up. Practice square breathing to help calm your central nervous system and distract you from your thoughts. Just a 10-minute practice can help tame your feelings of shame.

Positive Self-Talk
Pay attention to how you talk to yourself. If you are critical, switch those negative thoughts to positive and encouraging ones.

It’s essential to remind yourself often of your successes, the good things about you, and times when you overcame challenging situations.

You can better control those “shame” feelings by creating a positive inner conversation.

When using positive self-talk, tell yourself:

“My mistakes don’t define my worth; what matters is how I grow and learn from them.”

“I, especially myself, deserve kindness and understanding.”

“I have faith in my ability to thrive in the face of hardship.”

“I deserve respect and love, most importantly from myself.”

If you use this practice, you’ll be better able to manage such stressful situations. Your resilience and sense of self-worth grow as an outcome.

Wrapping it all up

Accept positive thinking, develop self-confidence, and practise mindfulness.

Turn around negative situations and take lessons from mistakes. You deserve compassion, respect, love, and progress.

Let go of the grip of shame and walk proudly in your worth. Your journey towards strength and self-love begins today. If you feel you need professional help book a free discovery call today.