How Shame Can Debilitate Your Life

4 min
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Whether or not it’s extreme enough to make us feel like the crestfallen dignitary from Game of Thrones being derided with a cutting chorus of “Shame!”, the painful feeling of experiencing humiliation or distress can wreak havoc on our well-being. Research suggests that women are often quicker to feel humiliated, and that men, on average, have greater difficulty with feelings in general – including shame. It has also found that adolescents feel shame more intensely than their elders. 

A sense of shame, then, really is something that can affect any one of us. It truly is an equal-opportunity potentially debilitating affliction, and with the advent of social media’s ever-increasing popularity, the moments and mediums in which we can feel mortification are seemingly endless.

Four Fields of Ignominy

Shame, even in small doses, is an exceptionally powerful emotion with the ability to cause distress, impaired empathy, social isolation, and unprofessional behavior by making us direct our focus inward, where we may view our entire self in a negative light. And it can come at us from a number of different directions. Four directions, to be more accurate, according to psychotherapist Joseph Burgo: Unrequited love; unwanted exposure; disappointed expectation; and exclusion.

Unrequited Love

As teenagers, it probably signaled the end of the world; your crush cared for another, or just didn’t care for you. As we grow older, and relationships are likely to mean much more, that rejection or lack of reciprocation can be humiliating, and take a large slice from our stash of self-esteem, leading to increased anxiety. The shunned will typically then retreat within, more likely to withhold feelings in the future, often to the detriment of potential connections in the search for a soulmate. Not only does the shame of unrequited love have the ability to affect your current state of well-being, but it can also hinder your chances of future happiness.

Unwanted Exposure

More than forgetting to lock that public toilet door and getting caught with your pants down (which, too, can be a shame-inducing unwanted exposure), getting called out for a mistake or shortcoming in a public setting like work can be crushing to one’s self-image. However insignificant in the grand scheme of things, the likelihood that someone drawing attention to your failings will yield a complex of insecurities is very real. This new vulnerability may lead to a lack of self-confidence. In these examples, perhaps you’ll no longer be able to use a bathroom other than your own or, more damagingly, you’ll stop putting yourself forward for opportunities to advance your work or personal life, for fear of making mistakes and being outed for them, or exposed as a fraud. 

Disappointed Expectation

The shame associated with failure in work, love, or friendship – which also comes with a potential knock-on effect of unwanted exposure – stems from the idea that you did your best, but it just wasn’t quite good enough. This shame is more than making a mistake. It’s an incompleteness. The indignity of coming up short has the ability to feed guilt, too, which differs slightly to shame. Guilt grows if our actions adversely affect someone else. But both guilt and shame can eat away at us inside, causing a withdrawal from situations that seem simple by subconsciously suggesting we become less social with our friends, less involved in our relationships, or less ambitious in our work life.

Exclusion

There are few worse passive-aggressive attacks than being intentionally left out of events or occasions. Different to FOMO – the deep-rooted fear of missing out – this is not a decision taken by the omitted. In the mind of the excluded, the shame of their enforced absence affirms a negative belief, by proving they don’t fit in; that they don’t belong, at least according to that self-perception. This is undoubtedly a crushing blow to well-being. Public recognition, and being liked, is so often a motivation for desirable behavior, so the absence of the same may arguably produce contrary results, regardless of the situation – romantic, professional, or personal. Those inflicted by exclusionary shame, instigated by no fault of their own, could conceivably develop a shrinking, socially-inhibited, introverted personality with ruinous effects on their life goals.

At its worst, shame is toxic: an insidious irritant which has particularly strong links to low self-esteem and depression. Perhaps less obvious, shame could be an integral factor in why some people grow up with destructive personality traits, with over-criticized children sometimes developing insecurities from ignominy that could lead to what’s called vulnerable narcissism.

Fortunately, there are ways to overcome shame, and as with addictions or crutches, the best first step is usually to identify and accept that there’s a problem. From there, share. A problem shared is a problem halved. Open up to a friend, a therapist, or the instigator of your shame – even if that is yourself. Look for the origins of this emotion, and recognize the signs – and, maybe most importantly, forgive yourself. We all make mistakes, and feeling shame won’t fix them. 

Embarrassment is an unavoidable part of human existence, but shame need not be. If you feel like shame is unfavorably impacting your well-being and that it’s growing ever stronger, consider seeking professional help, which can teach you greater self-acceptance, and minimize the exhausting emotions of mortification.

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All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article:

Measuring the Welfare Effects of Shame and Pride; The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame; Shame, Guilt, And Pride After Loss: Exploring The Relationship Between Moral Emotions And Psychopathology In Bereaved Adults; Men, Shame, and Group Psychotherapy; Anxiety and Shame as Risk Factors for Depression, Suicidality, and Functional Impairment in Body Dysmorphic Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; The Psychology of Shame: A Resilience Seminar for Medical Students; Six Steps to Overcome Shame.

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