Is Shame Ever Healthy?

The Nystrom & Associates providers consulted for this article on shame were Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFTs) Brett Cushing and Christa Overson, Outpatient Therapists and Co-Hosts of Psyched for Psychology. Shame is something we all experience at different points in our lives. For some, it can even be a daily, debilitating feeling. But what is shame? Where does it come from? Is it ever healthy? Keep reading to find out!

Guilt vs Shame

While the terms "guilt" and "shame" are often used interchangeably, the two have big differences. One is objective, the other is subjective. Guilt is objective - someone is either guilty or not guilty. Either a person committed an action or they didn't. It's not something that changes based on your feelings. Shame, on the other hand, is entirely subjective. It’s a feeling that comes up as a response to a thought, emotion, or action. It often focuses on a person's dignity and worth as well. For example, guilt says, "I did something wrong." Shame says, "I am something wrong." Shame is also quite isolating. Brett Cushing describes it this way,
I remember one of my professors said, “Shame is this belief that there is something wrong with me that’s not wrong with anybody else.”
Shame is subjective and very personal. At times, you may feel shame because you did something wrong, and other times, you may feel shame for no discernible reason at all. Sometimes, it just feels like something is wrong with you. Where do these feelings come from? Related: Guilt & Shame: What’s the Difference?

Where Does Shame Come From?

For many of us, our sense that something is wrong with us is rooted in painful events from our childhoods. As an adult, it can be easy to think our childhoods didn't affect us. But as a child, those types of things could have had devastating impacts on us. They might even shape our self-image to this day. Even seemingly unremarkable moments to an adult can be a moment when a child receives a message that they're unworthy. Many people can recall a time in their childhood when they were called out or made to feel ashamed for something they did or said. Even if we don't think of these events every day, they have a way of lingering in our bodies. This happens because children are so impressionable. As children, we take everything that happens to us personally.  Christa Overson knows that children take on so much as they're growing up:
As a child, developmentally, for survival purposes, we are so focused on ourselves as little ones. We’re not conscious of other people because we’re all about survival. We’re hard-wired that way. So anything that happens in our environment, most of it has nothing to do with us and is not personal, but we take it on as personal. 
Even as an adult, shame can creep in by how we talk to ourselves. We think thousands of thoughts a day and many of them are self-critical and even cruel to ourselves. One of the ways we do this is by constantly telling ourselves what we “should” be doing. Brett sees this as a common human pattern that creates shame: 
There’s this very common human experience that I see repeatedly - I see it with myself - that I have thoughts of “should,” that I “should” be this or I “shouldn’t” have done that. “Shoulds” lead to shame. And shame leads to shutting down and shutting others out. It’s a very common pattern within human existence that “should” leads to shame, shame leads to shutting down and shutting others out. 
Related: Trauma and PTSD 

Is Shame Ever Appropriate? 

Believe it or not, there is a place for shame in our lives. Often we forget that shame is just another emotion. Emotions are neither good nor bad, they're signals that relay a message. If we have done something truly remorseful, it is only natural to feel remorse. Remorse can motivate us to change.  Brett feels that if we have done something wrong, shame is just doing its job by telling us that.
If I have done something wrong and I am truly guilty of something, shame is appropriate. Because it’s an emotion, an emotion's function is to give me a message and a motivation that I need to change.
Emotions are neither good nor bad, they're just messages. The real damage can happen after the message is received but continues to keep repeating itself.  It can also be harmful when you feel shame but have nothing to feel ashamed of.

A Word From Nystrom & Associates

Toxic shame can be painful to deal with on your own. With the help of a trained mental health professional, you can work through these emotions and learn to be kinder to yourself.   We offer in-person and virtual appointments. Call 1-844-NYSTROM  to speak with our scheduling coordinators today, or request an appointment online.  Related: How to Build Your Self-Esteem

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