Lifting the Burden of Shame


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“I made a mistake” vs. “I am a mistake”.  There’s a powerful distinction between those two statements.  The first is fueled by healthy guilt which can help us keep tabs on our own behavior and motivate us to being our best self.   The latter is a dangerous self-directed message that, if left unaddressed, can lead to disabling patterns of function, not to mention having the potential to lead us down a path of self-destruction.  Guilt is typically created by a person’s behaviors.  It is the internal gauge by which we monitor our own intentions.  Unfortunately, shame isn’t necessarily connected to a person making mistakes, or connected to any of their behaviors for that matter.  Shame can be imposed on us by others as they project a litany of their own internal struggles onto us.  At times, it shows up as a symptom of the mental illnesses we call clinical depression or anxiety.  It can seep into one’s thought-life and attach itself to a person’s belief about their worth, leaving them in a state of self-loathing.

Shame is heavy and traps a person in despair. 

So what’s the difference in how guilt and shame feel?  Healthy guilt usually leads to sincere apologies, authentic changes, and improved behaviors.  While guilt can weigh on us until we make said changes, it is typically relieved once we take positive steps forward.  Shame is more burdensome.  Shame is heavy and traps a person in despair.  Even if suicidal thoughts never come, the person feels hopeless that life can get better.  The heaviness of it might have us believing that healing isn’t that simple.  However, it is simple.  It’s just that simple doesn’t always mean easy and the path to healing from shame is rarely travelled well alone.

Fortunately, there is hope and people can heal from shame.  In recent years, studies on shame have proven it to be an unfortunate prevalence for many.  This has led to a movement among mental healthcare professionals to find best practices in helping a person recover from it.  So, what does that healing look like?  In a nutshell, the remedy is self-compassion.  Whether our shame is self-inflicted or dealt on us by someone else’s brokenness, time spent with a skilled therapist can help us flush the damaging self-talk that has permeated our thought-life.  If the shame was created by guilt that was allowed to settle in rather than be used for positive change, we may have to learn the practice of self-forgiveness.

Self-forgiveness requires that we be vulnerable, accepting our imperfect nature, allowing for improvement.  If we can accept that we’re doing the best we can until we know better, it allows for our mistakes while encouraging our growth.  It’s normal to feel regret for our mistakes, yet regret from past choices can either be repurposed into life-changing lessons or allowed to remain as lingering mental anguish.  If we grab hold of the lessons, the changes we make become a natural part of our response to life.  This new way of responding brings mental and emotional relief as we are freed from the ruins of shame.  Otherwise, we join the vicious cycle of those who desperately turn a blind eye to the introspection needed to heal and choose instead to pour their shame-turned-rage onto others.

Another major step in growth that leads to healing from shame is self-compassion.  While this has become a buzzword in the world of self-help, it is not meant as a politically correct way of endorsing self-indulgence.  Believing such can cause people to shy away from the idea of having compassion towards oneself.  Yet, without this emotionally intelligent practice, we are incomplete.  Compassion for oneself happens when we shift our focus from the past to our present and future.  It is propelled by our courage to look inward with an honest and self-caring lens.  Whether we learn how to avoid absorbing the shaming messages administered by others or recover from the self-inflicted kind, healing is possible and life-altering.

Shame has its own kryptonite – disclosure and connection.  Finding a trusted person with whom we can talk openly about how our shame feels and how it sounds in our mind is the most powerful tool in fighting against it.  Whether that’s a friend, a chaplain, or a psychotherapist, disclosing our shame can shrink it.  The connection we find in allowing someone to sit with us while we work through shame’s devastating effects can reduce the isolation it causes and lets us see we’re not alone in our struggle.  Regardless the origin, shame has a crippling effect on one’s life.  If you suspect you are weighed down under a burden of shame, be encouraged to seek relief.

Note: This information is not intended to replace the medical advice or treatment of a trained professional.  If you feel your needs are creating an unsafe situation for you or someone else, seek emergent care through your primary care physician or local emergency room.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of self-harm, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255

To learn more on how we can stamp out the stigma surrounding mental health, join me as I partner with #ImPsychEd at:

About L. Chris Cannida

I am a licensed professional counselor practicing in Oklahoma.
This entry was posted in Counseling, Counseling and Mental Health, Psychotherapy, Self-Acceptance. Bookmark the permalink.

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