Shame: recognising and dealing with it

Do you find it difficult to know the difference between shame and guilt? Shame researcher Brené Brown offers a helpful way of distinguishing between the two. She describes guilt as I did something bad and shame as I am bad. Knowing the difference is helpful when working out which you are feeling. Guilt can be useful because it may prompt you to take action if you have comprised your values by doing or not doing something. Shame on the other hand offers no valuable insight other than to leave you feeling unworthy.

So what can you do when you recognise you are caught up in shame? Brown writes that the antidote to shame is empathy. For example, can you recall the feeling of relief when in a moment of feeling bad about yourself, you reach out to someone, share how you’re feeling and receive a ‘me too’ or ‘yes, I know what you mean’ or ‘you’re not alone’? It is comforting isn't it? However, not everyone is empathic and there is nothing worse than feeling judged, not understood or misunderstood. These add another layer of shame, making climbing out harder. Because of this, it is important to choose who you share your shame stories with wisely. Brown writes in Daring Greatly:

“Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: “Who has earned the right to hear my story?” If we have one or two people in our lives who can sit with us and hold space for our shame stories, and love us for our strengths and struggles, we are incredibly lucky. If we have a friend, or small group of friends, or family who embraces our imperfections, vulnerabilities, and power, and fills us with a sense of belonging, we are incredibly lucky.”

Once you recognise shame you also need to be kind to yourself. Being hard on yourself may come more naturally and society might prefer a 'pull yourself together' approach but this is all the more reason to be compassionate towards yourself. It might be a challenge but offering yourself self-compassion will help alleviate that sense of feeling unworthy.

If you would like to understand more about shame, you might like to have a look at Brené Brown’s TED Talk 'Listening to Shame' which is both informative and very funny.

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