Shame is a powerful emotion, one where you feel bad about yourself and how you behave. For people with low self-esteem, it’s easy to enter into a cycle of shame, feeling as though nothing you do is right.
People often confuse shame with guilt. While these two are similar, they aren’t identical. When you feel guilty, you feel bad about something you said or did. When you feel shame, you feel like everything you say and do is wrong. Guilt is attached to knowing you did something wrong and can be a healthy emotion to help you make amends. Shame, however, isn’t associated with any one particular action but rather an overall feeling that you’re wrong.
When your general perception of yourself is that you’re dumb, awkward, or unlikable, it’s important to learn how to deal with shame. Self-shaming is a general feeling of inadequacy and that you’re undeserving of love.
Self-shaming reinforces messages that you get when you make a mistake or fail. For people with healthy levels of self-confidence, they can acknowledge that they made a mistake and want to make amends and/or try again. For those who regularly self-shame, however, that same mistake can send them into a spiral of self-criticism.
Self-shaming can make it hard to love yourself, and when you don’t love yourself, it’s hard to love others or accept that others love you. Feelings of shame can begin as a child for those who grew up in abusive households or had parental neglect. Abused children begin believing they did something to deserve the abuse or neglect and that they are a “bad kid.” This self-perception can carry through into teenage years and eventually adulthood.
An underlying sense of shame is often part of the reason people choose to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. The substance helps the person numb the pain and sense of shame, artificially improving their mood or making them care less about how badly they see themselves. Working through the reasons for shame can help people who are struggling with addiction, allowing them to have a healthier perception of themselves.
Other times, people with low self-esteem and self-shame can find themselves in abusive romantic relationships. They may be naturally drawn to a dynamic they experienced as a child, or they may not believe they deserve anything better, a belief many abusers reinforce.
Certain traumatic events, like a sexual assault or the death of a loved one, can also lead to shame, especially if you blame yourself for the event.
Shame can take different forms in different people. Men and women, for example, respond differently to self-shaming. Men tend to “act out” when filled with shame, taking their feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy out on others. Women tend to internalize feelings of inadequacy and “act in” with substance abuse, self-harm, suicidal ideation, or suicide attempts.
There are a few symptoms of shame including:
- Wanting to disappear — You may feel you’re unworthy of attention and affection. You may turn in on yourself, becoming reclusive and telling yourself that nobody likes you.
- Lashing out — Sometimes, it’s easier to blame everyone around you for your feelings of inadequacy. You may lash out at others and when they withdraw from you, it reinforces the negative self-talk that you aren’t worthy of friendship.
- Blaming yourself — Anytime something goes wrong, you automatically attribute it to some way that you’ve failed, even if the circumstances were out of your control. This can be reinforced by blaming yourself for trying new things or making mistakes.
- Addiction — Many addictions are rooted in shame, from substance abuse to self-harm and eating disorders (e.g., overeating, binging and purging, and anorexic restriction). The nature of addiction involves behaviors or consumption that mask the feelings of shame.
- Self-harm — Many people with deeply rooted self-shame harm themselves, either through cutting, pulling out their hair, or suicidal ideation. Other forms of self-harm include not taking care of yourself, not showering or brushing your teeth, and giving up on physical exercise.
The expression of self-shame can be harmful for the person experiencing it and for their friends and family, who see their loved one in pain, acting out, or struggling with addictive behavior. Shame can destroy relationships due to the poor coping mechanisms some people use. For many people who experience shame symptoms, it’s a reaction to the pain inside.
Many people find relief from the self-shaming cycle by seeking therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the more successful treatments. This type of counseling seeks to “untwist” the thoughts of self-blame and self-shame and redirect the person’s reactions to stressors, their environment, and everyday life. CBT helps redirect a person’s thought patterns, but it takes work from the patient and the counselor.
Developing a relationship with and trusting your therapist is essential to working through your worst thoughts about yourself and your deepest feelings of shame. The first therapist you meet may not be a good fit, and that’s normal. It’s normal for it to take a while to find the right counselor, but finding the right dynamic will help you unburden yourself in a trusted, safe environment.
In addition to treating the underlying causes of shame — often past hurt, abuse, or trauma — some of the outer expressions of shame will need professional treatment, too. For people who express their shame with excessive anger or rage, anger management classes may also be helpful. For people who have been reclusive, group therapy may help them realize that they aren’t alone and that others feel the same.
For those who struggle with self-harm and/or addiction, medical treatment for the addiction or the urge to harm themselves is essential.
Shame is a normal emotion, and many people feel ashamed of themselves at different points in their lives. However, self-shaming that’s overwhelming, interfering with daily life, or harming yourself or others may require therapy and tough introspection to recover from. Ending the cycle of shame and learning to love and value yourself is possible with hard work and help from a trusted professional.