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Shame is the darkest emotion as it makes us feel like everything about us is wrong.  The difference between shame and guilt is that guilt tells us that our behaviour was wrong, where shame tells us that as a person we are horrible.  Guilt helps us to treat people better and stay out of trouble with society and the law.  Guilt is the feeling we get when we regret an action.  Shame is the feeling we get when we think we do not deserve to be loved.  Shame can be fleeting and teach us that we deeply regret something that we have done, or it can be long lasting.  Long lasting shame might stem from abuse from someone else or from ourselves.  Shame can start when we are children if we have been neglected, rejected or abused by our parents.  Shame can also happen if we abuse ourselves.  Shame can happen if we self-harm or criticise ourselves constantly.  And if we self-harm and criticise ourselves the shame deepens.

Shame can be dangerous if we feel it so deeply that we can not connect to ourselves and to others.  If the shame is painful enough we might try to avoid our emotions and shut down.  When we shut down we lack empathy.  If the shame is intense, we might become depressed or anxious.  Crawling out of the hole of shame can be tricky, but it can be done.  Here are some pointers:

1. Speak kindly to yourself.  Notice when you are abusing yourself and rephrase.  For example, “I’m an idiot,” becomes, “I am capable of fixing that mistake.  I can handle this.”  Speak to yourself like you would speak to someone that you respect and admire.

2. Understand that if you were abused, it has nothing to do with you. When you are abused, you might begin to believe that you deserved it, or that you are worthless.  Understand that people who are happy and comfortable with themselves do not abuse others.  Abusers tend to be people who are hurting deeply and want to control by devaluing others.  Break the cycle of abuse by healing your emotional wounds and treating yourself and others with respect and compassion.

3. Differentiate between guilt and shame: Guilt is my behavior was wrong. I feel bad and I learned that I will not do that again. Shame is I’m a horrible person, I don’t deserve to be loved. Guilt is easier to forgive because it is about the behavior and not who you are as a person. Shame is not helpful.

4. Ask for forgiveness: Ask the person you believe you hurt for forgiveness. If they can’t forgive you, give them some space.

5. Write yourself a letter asking for forgiveness: sometimes it’s more difficult for us to forgive ourselves than it is to forgive others. If you are having a difficult time, write yourself a letter. In the letter write down your emotions, why you are sorry and how you will make up for it. You do not need to punish yourself as you already feel bad about the situation.

6. Stop blaming: Be careful of blaming yourself. Especially for things that are in the past and you can not control.

7. Accept yourself: Accept that you are not perfect. Create some space for yourself to make mistakes. Learn from your mistakes and become a better person.

8. Write or talk about your pain: Sometimes the shame is so deep that we don’t dare to tell anyone about it.  If this is the case, write it out.  Notice what you feel in your body, and then let the pain go.

9. Reach out for support: Speak to those who support you or reach out for professional help.  The effects of abuse can be unconscious and hard to detect.

Dr Monica Borschel is a US-trained Clinical Psychologist

Reach out to Dr Borschel: m.borschel@mindnlife.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/drmonicaborschel

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