Shame always hits us at our lowest point: We’ve already done something which we perceive to be completely socially unacceptable, and then comes along shame and pours salt into this already gaping wound and takes pleasure in kicking us when we are already down.
Deep are the feelings of inadequacy. We feel like a spotlight of attention is all over us in response to our error. Publicly a disappointment and perhaps we are so flawed we no longer see ourselves as being worthy of love, belonging, or even human connection.
Shame is born from our mammalian brain. In which, through years of evolution and fine tuning, we understood the advantages of being included in the heard. Our safety increased, and therefore our life expectancy, and our ability to procreate. But this all hinged on our proper behaviour within the context of a group. Shame is the feeling we feel when we believe we have violated the social standards and rules which secures our place within that pack.
So, what is the function of shame?
If we have insulted, offended, defiled or harmed another; it is natural that we feel ashamed. Our mind becomes busy with images and thoughts of being rejected from the safety of the heard. Shame is therefore a powerful emotion which tells you when you have crossed a line and gone too far. We are so averse to this negative experience that it is highly unlikely we will do such a thing again. The system works – at least on the surface.
However, the times have changed far quicker than evolution can keep up. We don’t simply belong to ‘the‘ heard anymore; In fact we belong to many: friends, households, families (and sub-divisions of families), work colleagues, wider society, cultures, etc. And the truth is that the social standards necessary to remain within the pack differ from group to group. This can make life a little confusing with the ever changing goal posts. But it is human nature to strive to remain relevant in each group (else our self-esteem will be greatly affected) and all we can do is our best to remain respected in each of them without letting our integrity slip too much.
However this task is often unachievable and problems can arise when you did something in group A which was considered socially acceptable, but word gets out to group B, and suddenly B’s perception of you changes. People often lie or obscure the truth at this point, however, this quickly becomes a tangled web and can cause the individual to suffer.
What if you’ve done something which shames you in the eyes of society? The whole of your people would be disgusted by this act? How do you ever show your face again? Maybe we could handle rejection of losing status in one group, but every group? Due to the same act? Then we really are in hot water.
How should we cope if we ever find ourselves here?
Like I said, shame is a powerful emotion. And it is based on our perception of how other are viewing us in response to a certain action carried out. But here’s the rub – we aren’t mind readers. We are actually not very good at understanding what others are thinking and feeling towards us.
Mother nature has of course another sword for us to fall onto though – in the absence of certainty, we tend towards the negative as a safety measure.
Step 1: Understand that people are terrible at processing information in an unbiased way
So step 1 to overcoming shame is really to recognise this fact. Just because we are thinking others are seeing us negatively, this doesn’t necessarily make it true – no matter how bad the ‘crime’.
Step 2: Speak to yourself as if you were speaking to a friend
Secondly is to respond to yourself with kindness and compassion – Okay, so perhaps you are not completely satisfied with the outcome of your behaviour. Maybe someone (who did not deserve it) was harmed and it was all your fault. Perhaps you have the image of them crying etched into your brain and you feel like a terrible person for putting them through this. BUT – what were your intentions? What were you trying to achieve? I doubt their suffering was your goal. Perhaps your goal was actually about protecting myself, or hiding from your pain, or maybe it was it a cry for help? Really try and get to the heart of your intentions. I doubt their would ever of been as malicious as your mind is telling you they were.
Step 3: Extend your new found clarity to the wider social context
Thirdly to extend this view to the wider social context: These people were my trusted and loyal friends for a long time. Might they also be able to rationalise my behaviour in the same way I did in step 2? Perhaps they aren’t seeing as the worst person in the world right now, maybe they understood my intentions at the time were more noble than what the outcome might lead us to believe?
“My mistake was assuming I knew what others thought about me”
Step 4: Stop acting and behaving as if your shameful thoughts are the truth.
I’ll let you in on a short story about me. Some years ago I actually hurt someone who did not deserve it. And it took me a long time to not feel ashamed of this fact. I even moved away for a while and avoided certain parts of town when I was back. I couldn’t risk looking any of my previous friends in the eye, for fear of rejection.
Years on and I went to visit one of my old haunts; a café near where I used to live. Everything was going fine until I noticed one of the old gang stood 2 people in front of me in the queue. I was horrified. I shrunk into myself and my heart rate increased. She glanced at me; I felt she had recognised me. I grasped for my phone, pretended to take the call and scarpered as quickly as I could from that café, years after the event had ever occurred.
My mistake? Assuming I knew what the other person was thinking about me. I assumed a great deal of information about them and actually, when I look back with a critical eye, that person was always highly compassionate. Did they like me? I’m not sure. Did they think I was so flawed I was no longer worthy of love or connection? Absolutely not. I imagined they would of been curious to have a conversation with me. Maybe they understood the transient nature of human beings and that feelings change and shit happens. Maybe they wouldn’t of begrudged me in the way I was so sure they would.
Step 4 is really to not let your imagination control you anymore. Dare to go to the places you used to avoid, and to speak to the people you used to laugh with. You may learn your shame wasn’t anywhere near as necessary as you once felt.