‘A man’s past is not simply a dead history… it is a still quivering part of himself, bringing shudders and bitter flavors and the tinglings of a merited shame.’ – Middlemarch, George Eliot
You are in bed, counting sheep to kill insomnia.
And you are wide awake.
Staring at the ceiling, you watch the scenes in your mind project vividly in the air.
‘If only I had done it this way…’ you blame yourself for the loopholes you could have avoided.
You can’t sleep. You think clearly.
All you do is to keep blaming yourself repeatedly until you end up feeling worthless.
Now that is what ‘shame’ does to you.
The encounter of shame is difficult to define even though it is a feeling we have all experienced some time or other.
Shame drags you to a point in life where if not stopped, would convince you that something is radically wrong with you. It will make you feel flawed and create voices in your head that will continue to persuade you that: you are not good enough, it is wrong to be feeling what you feel, your past mistakes show you are a disgrace, or that you shouldn’t be struggling in the way that you are.
For those who have grown up around dysfunction have a predisposition towards feeling shame.
For example, as a child, one may have been convinced that the chaos going on around them was somehow their fault. Now, as a child, they may grow up in a state where they may find it difficult to differentiate between what is and what is not their fault and that will make them accept blame, even when it is not their place too.
The feeling of shame can have a profound effect on one’s level of psychological adjustment and one’s relationships with others, but these feelings nonetheless often go undetected.
How often do you speak of your shame experiences?
I’d say, 99 out of 100 would say ‘rarely’ .
This is not because we love concealment but, denial and a desire for concealment are part of the phenomenology of shame itself.
We often shrink from our own feelings of shame, just as we recoil from others in the midst of a shame experience. To further complicate matters, shame can masquerade as other emotions, lurking behind anger, fueling despair and depression.
Shame is a clear signal that our positive feelings have been interrupted.
The toxic emotion of shame has, therefore, strong links with depression, addiction, bullying and eating disorders. This is because, we feel bad so we fix on what we have done – reinforcing the already low opinion we hold of ourselves. Most compulsive behaviors, for this reason, perpetuate our feelings of shame. Yet, it’s not the behavior but the feeling of shame itself that is most destructive, because while we are consumed by it, we are unable to progress.
If you believe you are in shame, you also believe that being in shame is another shameful act so you start burying your feelings.
Now, from shame to becoming a dark, mysterious person you transform and your life gradually becomes a sort of dungeon.
To set your soul free from this dungeon, to reduce the weight in your heart, you need to unlock shame’s hold over you.
This is where I got stuck.
I understand how toxic shame could be. How injurious it is to my happiness and how it hinders my optimistic thoughts but, how do I set myself free now?
There’s a solution.
Like a thorn to remove a thorn, you introduce yourself to a similar feeling like shame.
Guilt is an adaptive state that enables us to learn from our mistakes and move on whereas shame acts as an obstacle to our growth. It is much less likely that we will broadcast our shame but will likely have an urge to admit guilt or talk with others about a situation that left us with guilty feelings.
The thin line in between shame and guilt as put forward by Brene Brown is that shame focuses on self and guilt focuses on behavior.
If shame convinces you that the mistake you did defines a bad-self, then guilt on the other positive note convinces that the mistake you did defines bad-behavior. Hence, bad behavior is amendable.
The feeling of guilt also prompts self-observation. This is felt as regret and often provides an opportunity to learn, change, improve, or do something differently the next time around.
It is obvious that we all do mistakes.
Mistakes vary from individuals.
A mistake that you do cannot define you but, how you feel guilty about realizing that mistake and how you positively amend your behaviours is what is important.
We all experience guilt and shame in some way or another. What is important is to recognize and acknowledge the thin line in between these two vital feelings and the different impacts they bring into our lives.