You probably already know that shame is an emotion that makes you feel horrible. What you may not be aware of, however, is that your experience of it is shared by just about everyone you’ve ever met — including those rare folks you’re convinced have it completely together and brim with confidence 24/7.
Psychologists define shame as the internal experience (read: feeling or belief) that you are, in some way, inadequate — and thus unworthy of being accepted by another person or belonging to a particular group.
For clarity: Shame is different from guilt, which is the sense that you’ve done something wrong. Guilt arises in response to actions you’ve taken or decisions you’ve made, whereas shame relates to how you feel about yourself and your worth. (Someone could feel badly about having said something nasty to a loved one but still feel OK about who they are as a person, for instance.)
The belief that you are unlovable, unworthy, or otherwise defective can lead to a host of unhelpful behaviors ranging from social isolation to violence, as well as addiction, self-harm, and even excessive weight gain. Not surprisingly, high levels of shame in early childhood and adolescence are tied to an increased risk of psychopathology and emotional issues in adulthood.
With the decades of research into shame’s many iterations — labeled “ostracism,” “rejection,” “stigma,” and other synonyms in the psychological literature — you’d think modern society would have a much better handle on how to rid yourself of shame’s debilitating consequences. But as most therapists can verify, most people still remain in the dark about how to handle shame.
Thomas Scheff, PhD, professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of a recent study examining the impact of silence surrounding shame, tells Cosmopolitan.com that the reasons for this are vast.
For starters, the prospect of others’ judgment is intimidating: Most people fear opening up about their insecurities because they don’t wish to receive confirmation they’re just as unlovable as they assumed.
But Scheff says that by keeping mum, you deprive yourself of opportunities to gain reassurance from others that what you’re so ashamed about might not be a problem at all — or that you’re at least not the only one grappling with a particular thought, belief, or feeling about yourself.
Avoiding your shame can also prevent you from processing the icky emotions this state of mind is caught up with, Scheff adds. Sadness. Anxiety. Fear. You name it. Only by allowing yourself to actually feel these sensations can you free yourself from them, he says.
To kick-start this cathartic experience, Scheff recommends finding a person you trust and initiating the conversation. (Though if this is too daunting for now, consider a mental health professional as a go-to for help learning how to open up or a support group.)
Flexing your creativity muscle can also be helpful, as the arts offer numerous outlets for self-expression and connection with other people. Primarily, Scheff says, because mediums like painting, drawing, writing, theater, music, and dance help wedge some aesthetic distance between what you’re feeling and how much it rules you. (Not only do you gain mastery over a particular emotion’s grip on you by channeling it into a painting, character role, or piece of fiction; you also gain the validation of feeling it’s heard once you put it out there — on stage, on paper, or through a set of speakers.)
In fact, comedy can be one of the most effective ways to gut shame of its power to debilitate you, provided you’re willing to navigate the tricky balance of pushing boundaries without pissing off too many people. (Again, easier said than done. So maybe start by watching the stuff for a while before jumping into any open mics!) For proof, consider the research showing humor’s ability to improve the odds of recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Of course, there are appropriate and inappropriate places to let yourself be vulnerable. Airing your deep-seeded childhood wounds in a morning meeting at work, for instance? Not advisable. No matter how bummed you are about your job.
But since so many people err on the side of a reluctance to share, you’re probably not at risk for blurting out too much at the wrong time.
Do yourself a favor by trying your hand at expressing an insecurity to a close friend or S.O. next time it crops up, advises Scheff. And if they can’t handle it? Rather than taking their inability to let you be open as a sign you should remain in emotional hiding, look for another person who might be a bit more willing to listen. The more you reach out, the more evidence you’ll acquire that you’re far less alone than you imagine.