Shame literally hurts. It can be as pervasive and paralyzing as physical pain and have devastating effects on our mental health and well-being. It can lead to depression, addiction, and aggressiveness.
Shame is the emotion of disconnection. At the root of shame is the belief that we aren’t enough, that we didn’t live up to our own or others’ expectations of us.
Though we can’t become immune to feelings of shame, we can learn to deal with it in ways that are more empowering and less paralyzing.
Here are three strategies backed by research:
Talk about it openly.
Communicating you are ashamed doesn’t just make you feel better, it also makes you appear more trustworthy and attached to your social groups.
A team of British researchers asked participants to read hypothetical scenarios in which a CEO was apologizing for a chemical spill caused by his company. When the CEO verbally expressed feelings of shame when issuing the apology, participants reported feeling more satisfied with the apology that those who learned that the CEO communicated guilt or no emotion at all.
What is even more powerful is that verbally expressing shame is not necessary — others can read emotions in your body language. We all communicate shame in exactly the same way, by casting our eyes downwards, averting gaze, lowering our head, and a slack posture. These physical changes appear in people of all cultures, gender, or ages, experiencing shame. They are also reliably recognized by others and distinguished from expressions of similar emotions, such as embarrassment and sadness.
By appearing vulnerable, we appear more attached to social values and the groups we belong to. So, instead of hiding from the people you feel you have failed, communicate your feelings to them.
Focus on behaviors.
After bumping into someone, a person who feels guilty is more likely to say, “Sorry, doing that was stupid”, while a person who feels shame would say, “I did that because I’m stupid”. The difference between feelings of shame and guilt is that guilt focuses on specific behaviors, whereas shame focuses on the whole self.
Making mistakes is what makes us human, but allowing these mistakes to define who we are has no benefit whatsoever. Indeed, research shows that guilt, when compared to shame, is more likely to lead us to make better decisions, such as driving more responsibly or actively contributing to our communities.
When feeling ashamed, it is important to identify the exact behavior that led to the emotion, so you can take action to remediate it.
Resist the urge to hide.
Shame is such a powerful emotion because it is associated with our fundamental need to be accepted by others.
A fascinating study of Filipino and Dutch salespeople revealed that both cultures experienced shame as a painful emotion, but the way they interpreted and responded to it was very different. For the Dutch, shame signaled a threat to their self-worth, whereas for the Filipinos, it signaled a threat to their sense of connectedness.
The salespeople also responded in different ways to this threat: whilst the self-focused Dutch felt an urge to hide from others to avoid pain, the relationship-focused Filipinos felt the need to approach people in order to repair the relationship.
The most extraordinary finding of this study is that the outcomes related to the two strategies were completely different: a focus on the self resulted in poor communication, low relationship-building behaviors, and decreased job performance; a focus on relationships led to improved customer relationships, more prosocial behaviors towards colleagues, and increased job performance.
Avoiding others might provide momentary relief from pain, but in the long-term, confronting shame and accepting its social nature is the winning strategy.
Shame can be hard to deal with, but when we face it, being open about our feelings, being careful to dissociate who we are from the things we’ve done, and approaching others rather than hiding, can help us make better decisions and improve our sense of connectedness.