Shame, as the other core negative emotions (sadness, anger, fear, shock and disgust), might become toxic if not identified and dealt with mindfully and proactively. Toxic shame is particularly detrimental to emotional wellbeing because it is experienced cognitively and physically in a great variety of ways, which makes it difficult to identify it. While you might underestimate how low you feel when comparing yourself to others, for instance, and fail to connect the attitude to shame, the feeling feeds off your inadequacy. Like a virus that takes over your body without your awareness, shame finds its way into your system and weakens your self-esteem and healthy sense of self.
Since emotions are highly contagious, they move from one body to another swiftly. When we consider that shame is mainly there to create discomfort when we fail to confirm to social norms and makes us aware of a threat to our group status, it can easily lead to a great fear of rejection and abandonment. As social beings who thrive in groups, feelings of wrongness and exclusion triggered by shame have the potential to stop us from behaving in an authentic fashion. A false sense of self is then created to secure membership, regulate the inadequacy and re-establish an inner sense of safety.
Therefore, catching yourself when affected by shame is key to protect self-esteem and nurture the authentic, autonomous self. You can achieve that by asking yourself “Does this shame belong to me?” when feeling inadequate, less than, unappreciated, criticised, judged or not good enough. Like anger, shame is easily projected as a dysfunctional means to emotional regulation. Despite the harm it causes to those who are directly or indirectly affected by that process, it is repeated in a highly unconscious manner, damaging not only our ability to love and accept ourselves unconditionally but the quality of our relationships. If you find your shame not to be congruent with the beliefs of your free and confident self, give it back to whom it belongs. You can do that by moving your hands as if you were throwing a shame ball back to its owner, or tell yourself, silently, that the shame you feel is not yours to keep. Use your creativity and have fun with it. For challenging negative thinking that leads to shame feelings, I also recommend filling out a Daily Record of Dysfunctional Thoughts during periods of vulnerability.
Although perfectionism tends to be conceived in all-or-nothing terms, as an exaggerated focus on high standards, its scope goes far beyond that. Because we are individuals of a complex nature, the very meaning of a “high standard” varies from person to person. Before becoming a vegan, I used to make a vegetarian pizza on a weekly basis. For it to taste good, it had to contain 150 gm of cheddar cheese, the equivalent of a single package from my local supermarket. That was my standard. When I would get excited about making that pizza but find there was less than 150 gm in a package left in the fridge, I would get extremely disappointed, not make it or force myself to drive to the supermarket to get a new package. After trying to cut down on cheese and having realised that I could bend my own rule and reduce that quantity, I was surprised to find out that my pizza tasted as good as before! As a perfectionist, my experience had been limited by a rigid rule which caused stress that could easily have been avoided by a small change in perspective.
You do not have to constantly strive for super high standards in everything you do to be influenced by perfectionism. As any vulnerability, perfectionism fits your personal views and values, whatever they are. You can be a hippie, an academic or a footballer and still act in a perfectionist way. As long as you behave as a slave to a rigid set of rules which you believe to reflect a high standard or goal, perfectionism is at play. It is important to highlight the significance of individual perspective to perfectionism. As much as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, perfectionism is in the brains of those who struggle with low self-esteem. If you value physical appearance and find a sporty look glamorous, you may become a perfectionist and invest time and money in the way you look so to achieve that standard. Your house can still reflect you lack of care and be disorganised and dirty, and not bother you half as much as looking as good as you think you should on the outside, in order to feel good enough on the inside. When you need a new mattress to help with your back pain, but you have your eyes on those trendy sneakers that cost a fortune, you forget all about it as soon as you picture yourself walking around in them, looking good, feeling great and getting praise and attention from others.
Perfectionism is all about holding inflexible conditions of worth which – even though may have never been challenged – have meaning on an individual level and must bekept at all costs. Therefore, if you have standards of quality that remain constant over time and do not adapt to the changes in you and your life, you may find that perfectionism is one of the main reasons why you struggle to feel balanced and reach a state of personal contentment and fulfilment. Due to its flexibility, it fits “perfectly” with any low self-esteem attitude of conditional worth and wellbeing. Perfectionism in action can be observed in every parent’s obsession in making their children’s experience as pain free as possible, for instance, as if feeling negative emotions would permanently damage their development ((unaware) emotion phobia being one of perfectionism’s most common features) and compromise his or her ability to act as a good mom or dad. While that may be true in abuse, neglect and childhood trauma cases, most children – those who are exposed to good enough parenting – do quite well with some share of unconditional love and attention which do not require their parents’ struggle and suffering.
If you have identified with the above at some level, be aware that your perfectionist attitude does not affect only you, but also those around you. As the emotional cost of perfectionism is high, it tends to be intrinsically related to relationship problems, as well as a great array of psychopathologies such as eating disorders, depression and anxiety. You do not have to be fully aware of how much of your struggle to keep centred is a result of your perfectionism, or the extent to which affects your co-workers and family, for it to be damaging to all of you. The irony here is that the struggle to keep a fixed standard going so to guarantee wellbeing and happiness is the very cause of emotional health problems and misery! To get out of the perfectionist trap, start challenging rigid beliefs – whatever their meaning and application – consciously and proactively, while playing with not feeling bothered by the idea of being “below average” or even “lousy”. Additionally, increase emotional connection and wholeness by allowing yourself to feel bad every now and then and around others. The more self-acceptance and unconditional love you bring into your life, the more you will tolerate the imperfections of others. The more comfortable they feel around you, the stronger your connections become, as well as the benefit of your influence.
Shame is built in our bodies based on the experience we have had with other people, such as our caregivers, relatives, friends and teachers. Shame is morally, socially and evolutionarily relevant, because it favours the integrity of human groups, helping increase their survival rates. When we stick together, we tend to live longer and healthier lives. While behaviours such as altruism, treating each other well, being empathetic, sharing and helping each other favour the quality of our relationships, acting in an exclusively narcissistic, selfish, aggressive and anti-social manner threaten their unity. Fortunately, shame is an emotion that is there to regulate such behaviours, so that the interests of the group prevail. For that reason, shame may feel like “emotional punishment” for not respecting the integrity and harmony of a group, or the rules that make us identify with each other and work in cooperation.
The role of shame
Shame warns us when we have broken the rules shared by a given group. Because those values or set of social rules vary according to cultural context, what is shameful for a certain group may be acceptable for another. While guilt tells us that we have done something wrong, shame points the finger directly at us, as if saying: “You are wrong”. Therefore, shame has the potential to become extremely toxic to self-esteem, because it causes us to feel rejected and even a failure. Moreover, since it is a “learned” emotion, it can become an internalised self-sabotaging mechanism or a bad emotional habit through which we constantly criticise and judge ourselves. When that occurs, we feel vulnerable and tend to isolate from others.
Feelings related to shame
Embarrassment, inadequacy, worthlessness and regret, as well as feeling mortified or dishonoured, are all shame-based feelings (If you need help identifying feelings of shame, please click here).
How shame is felt in the body
Interestingly, shame, as a “moral feeling” (Michl et al, 2014) is triggered by the frontal, temporal and limbic areas of the brain (linked to rational thinking, learning and fear and survival, respectively). As you can notice below, the bodily sensations associated with shame prepare us to disconnect, avoid and even hide from the other:
Heavy body: head, torso, legs and arms
Shoulders rolled forward
Eyes look downward
Lack of movement
Heated head and face
Adaptive and maladaptive shame
Because we value a sense of belonging, adaptive shame can stop us from acting against our best interests, as damaging the relationships we value. The same applies to our life goals and achievements. When a friend catches you out watching TV in the afternoon, when you had planned to study for a big exam, for instance, and, consequently, you feel inadequate, shame helps you stay focused on what is important to you in the long term (qualifications, better chance of employment, etc.). In such contexts, shame is adaptive because it favours goal attainment and psychological wellbeing. In that context, shame does not “run the show” as the sole motivator, but it arises in specific contexts to remind a confident and responsible individual to choose the behaviours that match his or her objectives. Maladaptive shame, however, does not contribute to personal and professional growth gracefully, but it has a hindering and lasting, self-destructive effect. When behaviour is dictated by shame, incredible harm is done to identity and self-esteem, which creates a great distance between our ourselves and our essence. Maladaptive shame is considered the most toxic of emotions, since its effect is extremely debilitating to one’s ability to connect not only with his or her own self, but also with others, making it impossible for one to feel contentment, as well as a real sense of love and joy in life.
What your shame says about you
As we have already noted, shame tells you when there is something supposedly wrong with your way of being or behaving. If you relate to your shame in a functional way – listening to its message from a balanced perspective – you take what you need (if anything) from it, and use it to recentre or reach a better state of alignment between your values and true identity. By doing so, you act with self-esteem and grow from the experience. That pragmatic attitude towards shame, and your ability to judge and regulate it, reflect a high level of self-awareness, respect and love for yourself. Shame that cannot be shaken off that effectively, but it seems to resonate with negative core beliefs such as, “I am not good enough” or “I am damaged goods”, however, lingers for longer than required to create a healthy sense of awareness. In that case, its purpose is not to inform and help you regain focus on what enhances wellbeing and development, but humiliate and denigrate you. Recurrent feelings of toxic shame is often a sign that you need to take better care of yourself emotionally and psychologically.
Due to its harmful effect on the psyche and body, toxic shame is connected to an array of mental health problems such as unresolved childhood trauma, as well as personality, anxiety and mood disorders, amongst others. If you are not satisfied with the relationship you keep with your shame or ability to control it, I highly recommend seeking professional health. Facing your shame head-on, with energy and courage, remains the best away to weaken its power over you and improve self-esteem.
Michl P., Meindl T., Meister F., Born C., Engel R.R., Reiser, M., Hennig-Fast K. (2014). Neurobiological underpinnings of shame and guilt: a pilot fMRI study. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 9(2): 150–157. http://dx. doi: 10.1093/scan/nss114
The relevance of shame should not be underestimated, since it is the most toxic of emotions. Shame not only crushes one’s self-esteem, but it is also at the core of mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. Despite being potentially harmful to our psychological and emotional wellbeing, shame is rarely dealt with in a straightforward manner. Because it is so uncomfortable to talk about shame, it usually takes a reasonable amount of talking until most of us feel safe enough to relate our thinking and behaviour to deep feelings of shame, or the core beliefs that fuel them.
As emotional healing is all about feeling whole and connected, it is vital that you learn how to identify feelings of shame. As Brené Brown (2013) points out in her bestseller Daring Greatly, “Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither”. To help you name and shame your shame and deal with it as openly as you can, the following are common feelings and attitudes that are motivated by it:
Feeling left out, ignored, unimportant
Feeling defeated, vulnerable, weak
Feeling rejected, unwanted, not good enough
Feeling hate or disgust towards yourself
Avoiding social contact or being the centre of attention
Always believing in what others have to say about you, especially when negative
Feeling inadequate and embarrassed about what you have said and done
Finding it hard to accept the whole of you, especially what you do not consider a positive trait
Feeling crushed by self-criticism to the point of having thoughts of suicide
Refraining from saying anything in social gatherings or giving voice to your needs or opinions for considering them not important or interesting enough to others
Constantly worrying about what other people think
Not being able to say no or always doing what others want in order to feel valued in a relationship
Believing not to be liked or loved, as if it were a fact and not just a thought
Behaving in a certain way to gain the approval of others, even when it does not reflect the true you
Not having anything positive to say about yourself or your appearance
Putting the wellbeing of others before your own or believing it is your duty to care for others
Hiding or lying about your age, having a need to look younger
Feeling more comfortable with the thought of failure than that of success
Feeling like a bad or broken person, or believing that you are the reason why something bad has happened to you
Procrastinating or taking a lot of time to do something, so to get it “absolutely right”
Thinking that nobody feels the way you do or has experienced the things you have
Feeling different or less than others, as if you were not worthy of good things
Struggling to accept the good or believe in others’ love or interest in you
Minimising the harm done to you by an abusive relationship
Feeling you cannot do anything right or achieve what you would have liked in life
Staying in a broken relationship for not believing you could do any better
Being in denial about how you feel, or doing your utmost to hide your true emotions so not to be “judged by others”
Taking things personally: immediately believing something is your fault/you have done something wrong when others are not as friendly or polite as you would have liked or expected
Not being able to take criticism objectively, feeling not good enough immediately after making a mistake or not being able to fulfil expectations
Using labels of negative connotation to describe yourself and your behaviour, such as stupid, ugly, fat, etc.
Having the habit of analysing your own performance, what you have said and done, in order to identify mistakes or errors in your judgement
Brown, B. (2013). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books.
Your emotions can get the best of you if you do not know how to handle criticism. If you have a history of trauma, had a tough upbringing and was raised by overtly critical and perfectionist parents, or in an environment of emotional neglect, you could be especially prone to taking criticism badly. Even if that does not correspond to your background, criticism has the potential to hurt when it is not delivered properly. What is more, it is often difficult to identify the real motivation behind criticism, if its aim is to foster learning or belittle, or a mixture of both. Notwithstanding all the confusion, it is possible to help yourself deal with either constructive or destructive criticism in a balanced manner and without affecting your self-esteem negatively. The secret is to monitor your reaction to criticism closely and correct any cognitive errors that give your thoughts an antagonistic tone, as the ones mentioned below. To raise your awareness, help improve your mood and the quality of relationships, here are 4 cognitive errors that make it hard to take criticism well:
The language of high self-esteem and self-confidence loves a rich and detailed evaluation. Global statements such as “Because I have been criticised, it means I am incompetent”, on the other hand, make one feel worthless instantly. It is inaccurate and irrational to assume that only because you have been criticised about one particular act or characteristic your whole being is as bad as one single – and often quite insignificant – part. You can be a wonderful person and still do something not great. Learn how to embrace your own humanity by accepting that ambivalence. The meaning of our complexity exceeds the dichotomy between good and bad.
For those whose negative core beliefs are the most active, taking everything personally can become an unhealthy habit. When your self-esteem is low, you can be easily hurt by others even when it is not their intention to upset you. Caring a lot of guilt and shame, or other unresolved feelings of inadequateness, can make you more susceptible to feeling hurt by criticism. Automatic thoughts such as “He criticised me because I am not good enough” are most likely incorrect because we all have our own motivations for behaving the way we do. Not everything is related to you. Next time you are criticised, take some distance from the process. Look at it objectively and ask yourself, “What reasons – other than myself – could have motivated the critic?”, or even “What can I learn from this person and his/her criticism (if anything)?”.
3- All-or-nothing thinking
Thinking in black and white terms tends to be one of the root causes of a great array of mental health problems, such as perfectionism, depression and anxiety. Cognitive errors such as “Because I have been criticised, everything is a complete disaster” is a self-confidence killer. Learning also takes place through trial and error. If you do not allow yourself to make mistakes, you will not learn. Simple. There is no shame in learning, since life is a long journey of growth. Open yourself to feeling vulnerable and to the experience of learning. Your relationships are bound to be greatly improved by a more compassionate and forgiving attitude to criticism, be it towards yourself or others.
4- “Should” and “must” statements
You have probably made a mistake, were criticised for it and – if that was not enough – decided to punish yourself with “should” and “must” statements! “I should have known better” only makes you feel more miserable. You could not have known better, because you did not or “the right thought” did not occur to you at the time. As obvious as that sounds, it is worth reminding yourself of such technicalities if you would like to handle criticism better. It is humanly impossible to be at your best 100% of the time. While perfectionism is not a skill, self-criticism undermines learning and development. Have a zero tolerance to “should” and “must” statements that are only there to discredit your efforts. Why kick yourself when you are already down, when you could be helping yourself get up and dust yourself off? A good start could be to use “could” instead of “should” whenever you are tempted to chastise yourself, as in “Next time I could try something different” instead of “I should have done (it) better”.
Before feeling like a target, take some time to reflect. Challenge dysfunctional thoughts that are filled with cognitive errors, which are notorious for making us nervous and vulnerable. Objective thinking that allow us to evaluate a situation from a more sensible perspective can us help calm down at such moments. When our emotions are in control concerning criticism, we tend to see it more clearly. If you still find it wrong, unfair or misplaced after considerable deliberation, however, it is OK to ask for clarification when it reflects genuine curiosity.