How the Shame Game Affects Change
In an effort to change, many find there are obstacles that make changing difficult, sometimes overwhelmingly difficult. There are many factors that interfere with changing behaviors. One of the most common is what I refer to as the “shame game”.
Here is the best way to understand shame and guilt. When you do something wrong and feel guilty, you say, “I made a mistake”. However, when a person does something wrong, they may experience shameful thinking that leads to thinking “I am a mistake”. Shame is generally rooted in childhood when shameful messages were heard and internalized. Examples might be a caregiver saying things like “you are a bad kid” or a person judging themselves harshly in comparison to others. Once said or experienced, those thoughts are repeated internally on a regular basis reinforcing the shame. Often shame is triggered by certain emotions or events, like feeling unworthy, making mistakes, or being criticized (even with constructive criticism). A person experiencing a “shame attack” responds sometimes inappropriate to the situation and others are left wondering what brought on such a response. Often, it was shame, that overwhelming feeling that “I’m just not good enough”, that fuels the fiery response in an effort towards self-preservation.
How does shame affect changing behaviors? Changing behaviors requires a person to reach outside their comfort zone and that often leads to making mistakes. Understanding why a mistake was made can be very helpful in finding out what works and what doesn’t and can eventually lead to more successful behaviors. However, an individual that is shame based may fear changing any behavior due to the possibility it might not work out, even when they desperately want to change. If they take small steps to change that ultimately don’t work out, their negative self-talk reinforces the shame, thus paralyzing them in the same behavioral patterns, a very vicious cycle.
So how does one deal with shame? The first step is to recognize when feelings of shame arise and begin to understand the triggers. You may be able to avoid some triggers (like certain friends who make disparaging comments) but some triggers (like constructive criticism) you may need to learn to manage. Remind yourself that regardless of the trigger, you always have a choice how to respond. I often suggest that people imagine that someone else is explaining the exact situation you are experiencing and think about how would you respond to that person. In all fairness, resolve to talk to and treat yourself as well as you would a friend seeking your support and guidance.
Dealing with shame is a process so be gentle with yourself, focusing on what you can control, your beliefs, thoughts and actions. Take a few deep breaths and use positive self-talk to get through the attack. When those feelings have passed, work on your self-talk, reminding yourself of the positive aspects of changing behaviors. You’ll be well on your way to healing. And if you are struggling alone, remind yourself it is perfectly appropriate to seek out a therapist to help you through the process. You are worth the investment.
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Peggi White, MSN, FPA-APRN, CADC, MAC. Nurse Practitioner with 33 years mental health/addictions experience, helping people to be their best...