How often do I hear this sentence from my coaching clients: “I am not good enough!” This recurring statement echoes in the minds of individuals across generations and life stages. Whether they are students, professionals, artists, or even CEOs, this nagging feeling resides not only in their heads but also deep within their hearts.
Though often avoided and repressed, this emotion carries a weighty burden called shame. In this blog post, we will delve into the realm of shame, distinguishing it from guilt and exploring its impact on our lives.
Guilt vs. Shame: Two Different Beasts
Previously, we discussed guilt, but it is crucial to differentiate it from shame. Guilt arises from our actions, our “doing.” It stems from acknowledging a mistake or transgression, crossing a line we believe is wrong. Guilt prompts us to address and resolve our wrongdoing. In contrast, shame revolves around our sense of self, our “being.” It’s not merely that we made a mistake; it’s the feeling that we are the mistake.
Who judges us? Society, or rather, our perception of society, with its critical gaze, is fixated upon us. Society becomes an imposing mirror that reflects how things should be. When our reflection falls short of perfection, we feel inadequate. We desperately try to adjust our image in the mirror, but reconciling the expected societal norms with our deeply ingrained beliefs proves challenging.
The Escape from Shame
Faced with the incoherence between societal expectations and our inner truths, we often choose to flee. We avoid experiences that trigger shame and attempt vainly to evade the emotion itself. We pretend that this complex web of self-perception does not exist. But what is the self-perception we fear being judged for? Our being comprises layers upon layers of experiences to which we attribute meaning retrospectively. Shame intrudes when we suspect that others might deem us insufficient.
Shame emerges as an emotional response to our perception of inadequacy—our failure to conform to social standards and live up to prescribed norms. “I am not where I am supposed to be” is a common sentiment my clients express. Comparisons with peers, such as classmates who are already married or friends who maintain slim physiques, often lead to discomfort and trigger the urge to flee from this emotion.
Unfortunately, using “flight” as a coping mechanism for any adverse emotion also diminishes our capacity to experience positive emotions such as joy, appreciation, and wonder. Stoicism may sound appealing on paper, but it leaves us with a dull and colorless life.
The Etymology of Shame: Dismay and Separation
The term “shame” in English traces its roots back to the Old High German word “scama,” which means “dismay” or “consternation.” The Germanic language association of the affix “sc” or “sh” with separation (think of the common term for excrement) highlights shame’s tendency to isolate and separate us from others.
The Fight-or-Flight Response of Shame
While shame may arise from real or imagined negative evaluations by others, guilt can be considered a “fight” form of self-blame, while shame leans toward a “flight” response. It often compels us to withdraw and hide, driven by the perceived unacceptability of our actions, character, or appearance. The fear of social rejection leads to a defense mechanism of mental fleeing.
Physical Manifestations of Shame
Physical reactions frequently accompany the experience of shame. Coaches often notice physical cues in their clients, such as blushing, nervous fidgeting, hiding their faces, and avoiding eye contact. These bodily responses mirror the internal struggle of shame and provide external indicators of our emotional turmoil.
The Role of Ego-Focus in Intensifying Shame
The intensity of shame is closely tied to one’s ego focus. Individuals who believe they are constantly observed and judged by others tend to experience shame more intensely. Egocentrics, in particular, have a persistent self-awareness that magnifies their fear of stigma. Their minds construct scenarios in which everyone is watching and passing judgment on them.
“Why am I this way?”
“Why do I always screw up?”
“I’m sure they all noticed it.”
The Devastating Consequences of Pervasive Shame
In its most extreme forms, pervasive shame among egocentrics correlates strongly with detrimental outcomes such as depression, addiction, eating disorders, violence, and even suicide. But why violence? Shame can sometimes be displaced through intricate cognitive processes that shift the blame to others. Instead of facing their shame, individuals direct their anger and hostility towards someone else, turning them into a scapegoat for their mounting self-blame. This displacement of shame can lead to a state of “humiliated fury” directed at both the self and a disapproving other, whether real or imagined. Unfortunately, this emotional diversion prevents the actual emotion of shame from being addressed, potentially leading to deeper problems later in life.
Shame is never a “weak” emotion. Its intensity arises from the focus on one’s sense of self, or the belief that one’s actions are inherently flawed (“I always screw up”). This focus on Being differentiates shame from mere embarrassment, typically experienced at the level of specific actions or events.
Embarrassment: The Freeze Response to Social Awkwardness
Embarrassment, derived from the French word “embarrasser,” meaning “ to block, “ triggers a temporary sense of inferiority and awkwardness. It elicits a “freeze” response, characterized by inaction and silence, in an attempt to avoid negative evaluation.
Unlike shame, embarrassment necessarily involves public humiliation and cannot be purely imagined. The situations that trigger embarrassment may be morally neutral but still socially unacceptable. For example, tripping or belching in public are prototypical embarrassing situations. It’s important to note that standards of embarrassment vary across cultures. What is considered unacceptable behavior in one culture may differ in another—for instance, belching in public is frowned upon in America, while sneezing in public is discouraged in Iran.
Fatalists, whose minds often gravitate towards worst-case scenarios, are more prone to embarrassment. They obsess over their self-esteem, which saps their self-confidence. As a coach, I frequently hear clients express their desire to “sink through the floor” during moments of embarrassment. Embarrassment can also arise in more complex social situations, such as receiving praise, experiencing wardrobe malfunctions, or being reminded of something forgotten. Uncertainty about how to react contributes to the experience of embarrassment.
The Inescapable Grip of Shame
Owning Embarrassing Episodes: Detaching from Personal Identity
In general, owning up to embarrassing episodes is easier because they do not define us as individuals. We can say, “Wow, what happened to me was so embarrassing,” without reflecting on our entire being. The subject is not “me” but the specific event or situation. Embarrassment can be acknowledged, processed, and moved on more readily.
Shame, on the other hand, is deeply intertwined with our sense of self. It possesses a durable quality that is not easily resolved, amended, or processed. Shame exposes the inherent vulnerability of our very existence. Women, for example, often feel vulnerable due to societal expectations related to their appearance and the conflicting standards they are expected to meet. Men, on the other hand, may feel vulnerable when their “weaknesses” or imperfect emotional mastery are exposed. Inadequacy is often tied to social, professional, or economic status. When the thought arises, “Who do I think I am even to try that?” the automated response becomes flight—a desperate attempt to escape the overwhelming weight of shame.
The Complex Nature of Shame and Vulnerability
Shame runs deep because it touches the core of our being. It reveals our insecurities, fears of not measuring up, and struggles to meet societal expectations. This internal battle with shame and vulnerability is complex and multifaceted. It affects our self-worth, our relationships, and our overall well-being. Escaping shame becomes an instinctive response driven by the desire to protect ourselves from the perceived judgment and rejection of others.
The Dance between Thoughts and Emotions: The Influence of Shame
Thoughts and emotions constantly dialogue, shaping and influencing each other. Shame, being an emotion, is often triggered by certain thoughts and memories. However, it is essential to note that this process is not one-directional. Emotions can also give rise to thoughts and reinforce certain beliefs. The interplay between the mental and emotional realms is intricate and dynamic.
Moods, which are prolonged and diffuse emotional states, significantly impact how we evaluate and judge ourselves and others. They color the value we attach to judgments and self-judgments. Likewise, strong effects and intense emotional experiences can influence our ability to engage in various mental tasks. When our emotions are heightened, processing information and thinking becomes more challenging.
The Traps of Circular and Obsessive Thoughts
Some individuals are trapped in circular or obsessive thought patterns in strong emotions. These thoughts keep them fixated on the past, preventing them from fully experiencing the present moment. These prolonged narratives give rise to emotionally charged, unproductive, and often obsessive rumination. They may revolve around replaying scenes from failed relationships or constructing scenarios about the future. The recreated past reinforces a self-image infused with self-critical judgments about “the way I am.”
Breaking Free from the Cycle
Breaking free from the cycle of circular and obsessive thoughts is crucial for overcoming shame and embracing the present reality. These thoughts keep us stuck in a loop, preventing us from moving forward and fostering personal growth. The first step is to become aware of these patterns and their influence on our emotions. By cultivating mindfulness and practicing self-compassion, we can learn to interrupt these unproductive thought processes and redirect our focus to the present moment.
Identifying Common Threads in Shame-Induced Statements
In the realm of shame, certain statements repeatedly surface, reflecting common threads that weave through people’s inner monologues. These statements are characterized by gnawing uncertainty, interpersonal comparisons, comparisons with a nostalgic view of the past, a sense of alleged permanence, feelings of lack, deficiency, imperfection, self-criticism, resentment, disappointment, disillusionment, and a general perception of injustice.
Here are some typical examples:
- “I am always like this.”
- “Others are not like me.”
- “It will never change; I can’t change it.”
- “My life would be better without it.”
- “I should not feel this way about this issue.”
- “These circumstances mean something about me.”
- “I will not go there because it will generate anxiety.”
These inner monologues reflect a struggle to understand and acknowledge one’s authentic emotions truly. Unfortunately, failing to redirect these thought processes can lead to additional layers of self-pity and a general sense of weariness.
Contrary to what some popular self-help tips may claim, it is not easy to “change one’s thoughts.” We do not endorse such reductionism when it comes to addressing shame. However, if changing thoughts is not a straightforward solution, is there a way to step off this defeatist bandwagon? In other words, is there a way to “treat” shame?
The Holistic Approach: Addressing Shame through the Four Aspects of Being
At New York Life Coaching Institute, we recognize the importance of addressing all four aspects of being: Physical, Emotional, Cognitive, and Spiritual. As mentioned earlier, shame often manifests with noticeable physical phenomena. This provides an entry point to access the emotional realm through the Physical Aspect of Being. By reversing the tendency to flee, we can combat shame and its grip on us.
- Physical Techniques for Combating Shame
Simple physical techniques, such as improving posture (strengthening the spine and pulling back the shoulders) and practicing grounding exercises like Rooting, can effectively counter the urge to flee from shame. These techniques help clients visualize a sense of vitality, restoration, calm, and peace. At New York Life Coaching Institute, we teach future coaches these powerful tools that assist clients in reconnecting with their physical presence and finding strength within themselves.
Rather than fleeing from the experience, it is advised to confront shame by writing about it. Structuring shame-related thoughts in written form immobilizes the flight impulse, serving as a crucial step towards self-confrontation. By putting our shame into words, we begin to process and face it, shifting away from avoidance.
- Constructing a New Narrative
Reframing our self-image is essential for healing from shame. We can construct a new narrative that fosters self-acceptance and resilience by challenging critical self-judgments and cultivating a more compassionate perspective. This process involves recognizing that our thoughts and emotions are not fixed truths but interpretations and reactions influenced by various factors. With time and effort, we can develop a healthier relationship with our thoughts and emotions, allowing us to live more authentically and fully in the present.
- The Importance of Supportive Communities
Finding a community of people who offer love and support without judgment is crucial in healing from shame. Interacting with others and experiencing acceptance counteracts the rumination triggered by shame, providing a therapeutic effect. By sharing our “shameful” emotions with others, we initiate a process of processing. Expressing our emotions eliminates the ability to hide them, reversing the inclination to flee. In this space of vulnerability, healing begins—willingness to confront the triggers of our inadequacy and acknowledge the emotional reaction of self-blame that follows.
- Creating Authentic Connections
In general, building authentic connections with others serves as a powerful antidote to shame. Our self-worth is restored when we apply basic virtues like love, empathy, and compassion to our interactions. Making these interactions meaningful is at the core of our humanity. While shame is a part of the human experience, it does not have to define who we are.
In conclusion, shame is a heavy burden that affects individuals across generations and life stages. It is not merely a matter of guilt for specific actions but a profound sense of inadequacy in our very being. Society’s judgmental gaze and the perceived gap between societal expectations and our self-perception fuel the intensity of shame. However, by understanding the distinctions between shame and guilt, unraveling the complex interplay between thoughts and emotions, and addressing shame through a holistic approach, we can begin to heal and transform our relationship with shame.
At New York Life Coaching Institute, we are committed to helping individuals navigate the terrain of shame and embark on self-discovery and growth. Our comprehensive training programs equip future coaches with the knowledge, skills, and techniques to support clients in overcoming shame, fostering self-acceptance, and embracing their authentic selves. If you are passionate about empowering others and facilitating transformative change, we invite you to join our institute and become a certified life coach.
Alternatively, if you seek guidance and support in navigating the challenges of shame and finding greater fulfillment in your life, our experienced coaches are here to help. With a compassionate and non-judgmental approach, we can work together to untangle the complexities of shame, develop resilience, and create a life of authenticity and self-worth.
Remember, shame does not define who you are. You can reclaim your narrative, rewrite your beliefs, and cultivate meaningful connections with others. Embrace the journey of self-discovery, and let us accompany you on the path to personal transformation.