SHAME AND BEHAVIORAL HEALTH
Dr. Robert L. Smith, Phd 429 E Vermont St. , Ste 11
Indianapolis, IN 46202
The discussion of shame is a frequent topic in the consulting rooms of most behavioral health clinicians. It is important to recognize the role of shame in our daily lives. The feeling of shame can negatively affect the functioning of an individual. This impairment can limit our daily lives by creating distortions of thinking such as the idea that one is not good enough. You have experienced shame if you have ever felt “not good enough”. (Potter-Ephron et al. 1989).
The common meaning of shame is the sense of being bad, unworthy and/or deserving of contempt. It is often helpful to examine the meanings of shame and guilt in your life. It has been said that shame is a failure of being and that guilt is a “failure of doing” (Potter-Ephron et al. 1989). Guilt is often a reaction to specific behaviors and attitudes. For example, “I feel guilty because I didn’t do enough for someone. It is possible to feel guilt without excessive or chronic shame.
Chronic or excessive shame involves a pattern of negative thoughts about one’s self
(Epstein,O.B. ED. 2022). The frequent need for validation and acceptance often accompanies chronic shame. This sense of shame is amplified over time and people may exhibit certain behaviors to try and get rid of the chronic feelings of shame. These behaviors can include; paralysis, withdrawal, perfectionism and criticism of others. It should be noted that exhibiting these behaviors does not necessarily indicate shame but can be a good place to start in talking about daily interactions with others.
It might be helpful to ask yourself some of these questions. Do I feel “not good enough” in some situations? Are there other areas where I don’t feel that I measure up? Finally, can I recognize a chronic pattern of feeling this way? It may also be helpful to ask your spouse, significant other or close friend about this to get their feedback.
Shame and resilience have a connection that we should understand as well. A chronic feeling of not being good enough (shame) can interfere with resilience (Graham, L. 2013). Resilience is the ability of the brain and nervous system to return to calm or baseline. Feeling shame is essentially our brain warning us of danger or a lack of safety. We are social beings and our brains often cannot accurately perceive lack of safety or danger in social situations.
The lower, emotional part of our brain (limbic system) doesn’t distinguish between social embarrassment or real danger. The limbic system works in milliseconds but our logical/ thinking (cortex) brain is much slower (seconds). As a result, the chronic feeling of not being good enough can be seen in brain scans such as a functional MRI to help us understand that the automatic action of the “emotional brain” has become automatic and is too quick to change without specific work (in psychotherapy). Research in the last ten years tells us that the brain can be rewired to stop this automatic negative response.
We now know that the brain has the ability to produce new brain cells (neurons). This is called neurogenesis. With the right training, the brain can be “rewired” out of old patterns that leave us feeling not good enough (shame). This process is referred to as neuroplasticity, the creation of new pathways to create a new response. This rewired response enables us to have the ability to feel better about ourselves. Certain learned and new practiced interventions can help us to rewire our brains. Mindfulness, yoga and focused deep breathing are examples of these types of interventions as well as EMDR. You can also seek out a behavioral health professional for guidance. A self-inventory of these issues may indicate that you should consult your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or a professional therapist. The good news is these negative responses to shame and guilt feelings can be changed with good support and care.
1. Graham, L. Bouncing Back, New World Library. 2013
2. Epstein, O.B. Shame Matters, Routledge, 2022
3. Potter-Ephron, R. et.al. Letting Go of Shame, Hazeldon, 1989
4. Smith, R.L. The Science of Building Resilience, 2021