4 Powerful Ways To Overcome Shame And Rebuild Self-Esteem

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Keep shame in check

Sixteen year old Amer was at a party, drunk and unconscious, when a group of boys took pictures of her. When she found the photos posted online, she tried to hide it from her parents. She stayed alone in her room for weeks, crying, her self-esteem shattered. Then she hanged herself in the bathroom. She was the victim of cruel bullies, yes. But, she was also a victim of the most powerful primary human emotion — shame.

Hardwired Emotions

Shame is one of the basic emotions, and it is normal and necessary for all of us to survive in the world. Other emotions —  joy, distress, fear and anger all have survival value, but fear, anger and shame are the most common emotional actors in life and death situations, and therefore, the most powerful. Fear and anger energize us, and although they can also cause problems in our lives, they are familiar and easy to understand. Shame not so much. We don’t like to talk about it, so we don’t understand it or how to handle it.

Shame feels rotten.

Shame can best be understood as the posture of surrender. When an animal has to choose between fighting to the death or throwing in the towel, shame is the emotion that kicks in to save it by signaling surrender. The winner gets the message and unless he is really hungry or angry, he saves time and energy by accepting the surrender. Shame also lowers our aggression hormones so that, temporarily, we cannot try to fight back. Like the loser in a dog fight, we humans hang our heads, avert our eyes, and slink away to lick our wounds when we are deeply or publicly humiliated either by our own actions or the actions of others. We slink away in shame feeling rotten, but we're still alive.

Shame and Anger

Because nobody can survive as a constant loser, we're naturally hardwired to bounce back from defeat and shame with a healthy surge of anger or aggression. We may exercise our anger by lashing out and defeating someone else, thus raising our position in the social pecking order. But unfortunately, we humans are also capable of directing our anger inwards, brutally criticizing or even physically punishing ourselves. It actually feels better to exercise rage against the self, rather than remaining in a state of hopeless shame — making this paradoxical solution all the more (dangerously) tempting, as it was for Amer. It's easy to fall into patterns of ruminating about shame and anger, hopelessness and revenge because paying attention to, both, pain and danger is one of the many purposes of the brain.

Making Sense of Emotions

When we try to make sense out of powerful feelings, we sometimes think too much. We try to explain to ourselves the reason for these feelings and in the process, create distorted and damaging theories. In the case of shame, whether triggered by ruthless bullying or an embarrassing mistake at the worst possible time, we can conclude that "I feel shame because I am a hopeless loser." This conclusion is not accurate, but it's consistent with the emotion behind shame, therefore it feels true. It gets our attention because it’s painful and we repeat it over and over until we believe it. This shame-based view of reality is so painful, that it is easy to think, “I’d rather be dead than go on feeling this way." This is how some of us get to suicide as a solution to an emotion designed to help us survive.

What can we do to moderate shame?

1. Put shame in it's place. If you find yourself bombarded by shame, whatever the reason, remember this: Shame is a feeling, not a fact. It will pass. Do not make decisions or take action while in the grip of shame or the anger that follows it. Stop, take a breath, and step back from the powerful feelings of shame and anger. Prepare yourself to make the best decisions you can about the situation.

2. Reach out to a friend you can trust. This is tricky. Shame is contagious and you may find that some friends won't be there for you. Others who may seem supportive may take advantage of your temporary weakness. So choose your friend well, but don’t try to go it alone.

3. Change your posture to change your emotion. Put on high energy music and strut. Make some noise.  This is the opposite of shame-based behavior and your emotions sync to your physical behavior.  When you feel down and out, lift up your head and shout:  “I'm down and out, dammit.” (See Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about Power Poses.)

4. Speak up. If you're friends with someone who has experienced bullying or humiliation, reach out to her and let her know she is not alone — let her know that you will stand with her. This is important. Brene Brown says empathy is the antidote to shame. Be the hero and maybe even save a life.