What is it?
Feelings of shame arise when we think other people know something about us that we don’t want them to know because it would reflect badly on us. The thing we don’t want people to know is usually something that is an integral part of us, such as an aspect of our personality, a flaw, a failure, or anything else we think makes us unworthy and unlovable. Shame is also associated with our having acted in a way that is considered morally reprehensible and that is looked down upon by people or society in general. It can be experienced quite intensely and may lead us to think very negatively and harshly about ourselves. This is why people who experience shame often do all they can to hide what they’re ashamed of. They usually feel small, humiliated, exposed, and unworthy of love and belonging.
What is the emotion of shame telling your young person?
Feelings of shame are telling them something very important about their core beliefs about themselves. One of those beliefs is that there is something very wrong with them as a person. Shame, however, should not be confused with guilt. Feelings of guilt are about feeling bad about having done something wrong, while shame is about feeling bad about being wrong and defective in some way at the very core of you. Feelings of shame are alerting your young person that they may be experiencing some difficulties with their sense of self-esteem and their sense of self-worth, which could be a consequence of past experiences.
Suggestions for your young person on how to manage the emotion of shame?
- Be aware! Develop their awareness and face their feelings of shame. Like it is the case with all negative emotions, the more you hide from shame, the more power it has over you. By facing and acknowledging their shame, they will take their power back, thus actively refusing to let it define them.
- Don’t let anyone decide how they should feel, especially if they say, “you should be ashamed of yourself!” Learn the distinction between guilt and shame. Shame says “I am bad to the core,” while guilt says “I did something wrong.” Shame makes them feel like they are incapable of being a better person, whereas guilt motivates them to make amends and change for the better. Help them learn to choose wisely and in full awareness.
- Help them learn to be kind to themselves and practice self-compassion.