Shame Is Essential, But You Can Get Out Of It

TORONTO – Shame is a debilitating emotion, but there is hope for those trapped in it, says a Canadian researcher.

In her study reported this week, researcher Jessica Van Vliet of the University of Alberta in Edmonton says it is difficult to find someone who has never felt shame in their life.

But “the problem is when people get paralyzed with shame and withdraw from others. Not only can this create mental-health problems for people, but also they no longer contribute as fully to society”, the researcher said.

She said people who feel debilitated by shame tend to internalize and over-personalize the situation. They also seem resigned to being unable to change their feelings or their fate.

“When people experience shame, they may say to themselves ‘I am to blame, it is all my fault, all of me is bad, and there’s nothing I can do to change the situation,” said Van Vliet.

“They identify so much with shame that it takes over their entire view of themselves. That leads to an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness.” The first step to overcoming these feelings, she said, is to step back from the problem and view the picture in a different light.

When sufferers can identify external factors that contributed to their actions or situation (for example, discrimination or peer pressure) and differentiate between being a bad person versus doing something bad, they can begin to break the grip of hopelessness that plagues them, Van Vliet said.

“When people move from a sense of uncontrollability to the belief that maybe there’s something they can do about their situation, such as apologizing or making amends for their actions, it starts increasing a sense of hope for the future,” she said.

The second step to overcoming shame, she said, is to make connections – with family or friends or a higher power or humanity at large. “Connecting to others helps to increase self-acceptance, and with self-acceptance can come a greater acceptance of other people as well.

“People start to realize that it is not just them. Other people do things that are as bad or even worse sometimes so they’re not the worst person on the planet. They start to say to themselves: ‘This is human, I am human, others are human’.”

The researcher said: “Shame can prompt us to make changes that will help protect our relationships and also preserve the fabric of society. It is important to emphasize that shame is essential and has value.” The study has been published in the British Psychological Society journal Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice.

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