Shame is similar to guilt, but more personal. You might feel guilty for stealing a TV last month, but you might feel shame for being a thief. When you feel guilty, you feel bad about a particular event. Shame is more pervasive and personal. You might feel shame for being a poor parent or even being the victim of abuse.
Think of guilt as “I did something bad” and shame as, “I am bad.”
Use these ideas to deal directly with any feelings of shame:
1. Explore why you feel shame. What happened? What does that event or series of events say about you? Is that a reasonable interpretation on your part? Are you being too hard on yourself? Is it possible that you didn’t do anything wrong at all?
Be honest with yourself and someone else you trust. The truth might be that you don’t love your spouse anymore, or you prefer when your kids are out of the house, or you’re gay.
A simple confession can give air to your shame. The more you hide it, the more intensity it has. Bring it into the light and much of its energy will dissipate.
2. Understand that you are not permanently defined by your behavior. No one is perfect 100% of the time. Everyone does things that are considered “wrong” or “bad” at times. Everyone has thoughts that make them feel ashamed. Even the most moral people make mistakes or think thoughts that violate their value system. It’s part of life.
The things that you’ve done, or have happened to you, or that you’re feeling don’t have to affect you forever.
3. Forgive yourself. Even if you understand the cause of your shame doesn’t taint your character forever, you might resist the idea of forgiving yourself. Why? Does your suffering accomplish anything? Does it help the people around you?
People fall out of love. Parents have second thoughts about being a parent. Affairs happen. Life is still going on, with or without you.
4. Consider what led to feeling shame. Can you prevent this from happening again in the future? What can you do about it? How can you avoid the situation or behavior that led to this feeling? Can you make changes in your life that will alleviate the feelings of shame?
5. Avoid those who are intent on making you feel shame. There’s always someone who feels obligated to make you feel as bad as possible about yourself. This is precisely the type of person no one needs in their life. Surround yourself with people who want the best for you.
6. Avoid situations that trigger your shame. Maybe you feel shame about not being able to financially provide your family with the lifestyle you wanted for them. You might avoid driving through the wealthy part of your city where the sight of the million-dollar homes triggers your shame.
7. Connect more with others. Studies show that the more isolated you are, the more likely you are to feel shame. When you’re regularly interacting with others in a meaningful way, you’re less likely to feel shame. Even if you do feel shame, you’ll be more compassionate with yourself if you have a sense of connection.
Shame is another of those unenjoyable parts of being human. Remember that you were born without shame. You’re still the same person you were before you felt shame. If you’re unable to deal with your feelings of shame successfully, seek out professional help. Letting go of your shame will set you free again.