Updated: Apr 30
This article outlines the many ways of how shame affects your life. Together we will explore the psychological, emotional, and physical impacts of shame. In addition, we will consider how shame can impact personal relationships and degrade the overall quality of life.
Furthermore, you will discover the subtle signs and symptoms of shame. In many respects shame shares similarities with long-term stress. That is, it can slip beneath the conscious radar and go unnoticed. This characteristic of shame, as with chronic stress, makes it challenging to identify and also pernicious.
The chief aim of this article is to equip you with the tools to identify and uncover personal shame. For it is only when shame is exposed that we can eradicate it.
How shame affects your life
Shame that is not explored and managed can affect your life and result in perpetual self-monitoring and self-condemnation. This can often lead to difficulties with depression, anxiety, resentment, or anger. Shame has recently been recognized as a major component in a range of mental health problems (Tangney & Dearing).
Jung defined shame as ‘the emotion that eats the soul'' due to its deep-rooted and oppressive nature.
If we experience shame in our developing years, situations in our present that resemble these experiences can evoke us to become emotionally conditioned. If these experiences are frequent, we can go on to develop negative self beliefs (such as I am not good enough). Therefore, any future errors activate these shame based self-criticisms, which can develop into low self-worth, internally directed rage and self-hatred.
When we feel shame, we can disconnect from others around us which can lead us to feeling isolated and alone. According to Brene Brown the ideal environment for shame to grow in is a combination of secrecy, silence and judgement. While shame begins to manifest and take over more of your life, connections to others begin to shrink.
Two types of shame
Shame can be broken down into two types – external and internal shame. Below I have included the definitions by Paul Gilbert who created Compassion Focused Therapy to support individuals living with shame.
External shame is marked as thoughts and feelings that others view the self negatively with feelings of anger or contempt and/or that the self is seen as having characteristics that make one unattractive and thus rejectable or vulnerable to attacks from others (Gilbert & Procter).
This creates a feeling of being a rejectable person in the view of others creating an unsafe and disconnected world. This leads the individual to defence behaviours such as hiding and ‘not wanting to be seen’ by the world. This can lead to secondary effects such as the mind becoming blank or a sense of confusion.
In external shame, the focus of attention is on what is in the mind of others about the self.
Internal shame is created with the development of self-awareness and how one exists for others.
The focus of attention is on the self, with self-directed attention, feelings and evaluations of the self as inadequate, flawed or bad (Gilbert & Procter).
A key component of internal shame is thus self-devaluation and self-criticism.
Shame can make you feel alone
During an experience of shame, an individual can feel the external world is persecuting or rejecting. In addition to this, internal shame can also make the internal world or sense of self very hostile and critical.
This combination can be very overwhelming and for the protection of the self, one can just shut down and retreat into a hypoarousal state within the body. The external and internal feel threatening and therefore the ability to regulate and soothe feels a difficult option.
The anatomy of shame
Shame can take on many forms including the physical responses of non-verbal gaze aversion, shielding or contraction of the body, blushing or false smiling. Verbal responses include negative language towards the self (also similar to thought processes) which can be angry, critical, or frustrated e.g. calling oneself stupid, worthless and no good.
The final behavioural response can be split two ways between wanting to hide, avoid and shrink away from the world. Alternatively, this can be displayed as anger, violence and the shaming of others.
How Shame affects your Life #1: Prompting events or feelings of shame
Being rejected or rejected by people you care about
Comparison of the self and not meeting that standard (including physically)
Being reminded of something you did wrong in the past
Being criticised in public
Exposure of a private part of the self or your life
Falling at something you feel you should be competent in
How Shame affects your Life #2: Interpretations of events
Believing others will reject you
Believing you are unlovable, bad, immoral or defective in some way
Comparing yourself to others resulting in negative thoughts about the self
Self-invalidation – believing you are inferior to others
How Shame affects your Life #3: Biological forms of shame responses
Wanting to hide away, shielding and contracting the body
Gaze aversion – limited eye contact
Pain in the stomach – links to digestion issues
Similar symptoms to chronic stress
How Shame affects your Life #4: Expressions and actions of shame
Avoiding individuals that have criticised you
Avoiding yourself – ignoring your needs – lack of self-care
Repeatedly saying sorry
Lowered volume when talking, averted gaze
Hiding behaviour or characteristic from others
How Shame affects your Life #5: The after-effects of shame
Shutting down/blocking emotions/feeling numb
Dissociation or depersonalization
Engaging in distracting behaviours which could be negative
A high amount of ‘self-focus’ – analysing all your behaviours
Attacking or blaming others
Interpersonal issues with others
Isolation, feeling unable to find emotional safety in connection
Struggle to problem solve due to being in a heightened response
From this article, you should have a clear understanding of the definition of shame, both external and internal. In addition, you will be familiar with the many different ways shame affects your life and the signs that you are struggling with shame responses.
The good news is that we can change how our brains respond to our mistakes. By working with a Psychologist or a Therapist we can begin to explore areas of shame and begin to move towards a healthier way to manage.