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Shame on you: Shame, guilt, and how to reduce the stigma

Most psychologists will say that shame is the most difficult emotion to treat. This is because it is subjective. No objective reasoning can change your opinion of what you see as right or wrong. So the next best step is to be equipped with tools when we do feel ashamed of ourselves. When trying to detect these emotions in others, people often struggle to make eye contact and they are quiet. They may do several things to alleviate the negative emotion as opposed to what simply needs to be done, which we will discuss in the latter part of the post.

We’l start by explaining what exactly shame is and how it is similar but different to guilt. As we grow up, we all have an idea of what is right or wrong. For example, it is right to be nice to elders and it is wrong to take the last chocolate finger. When we do something that we personally see as wrong, then we have a negative emotion where we judge ourselves and this is shame. This doesn’t have to be a behaviour we have carried out. It could be a feeling or thought we have. For example, “I should have helped that old woman lift in her shopping and I shouldn’t have had the thought that I was in a rush. I am ashamed of myself”. If you look at the emoji above, you can see his eyes reflecting on himself and that is how we can detect shame in others. Alternatively, when we actively carry out a behaviour that everyone else sees as wrong, then we feel guilty. We are judged by other people rather than judging ourselves and this is guilt. For example, people are found guilty if they break the law. If you look at the emoji below, you can see that his eyes are focused on the others judging him. Both shame and guilt normally come together but we witnessed a perfect example in one of our workshops. One child explained that someone hurt him so he wanted to get revenge so he tripped him up on the playground. He didn’t personally see it as wrong but he still had a negative feeling. Therefore, he felt guilt but not shame. By differentiating between these emotions, we help each other understand that there are acts we understand as wrong based on our values and there are acts that are wrong based on societal expectations. While they are generally in line with each other, they don't have to be.


However, because everyone grows up in differently, people will have different ideas of what is right and what is wrong. I experienced this first hand when I came across a young boy who believed it was only right to bury your dog yourself when the dog died, regardless of your age. Chinese cultures believe it is right to slurp your noodles but this is seen as wrong and rude in American cultures. So we all develop different ideas of what to be ashamed about. The problem is that shame is internal so some people develop shame unconsciously. On a more serious note, young children can begin creating ideas of perfectionism and experience shame whenever they do not achieve something. Some parents might argue that this is important. Aim for an A+ every time and if you fail, you’ll still get an A-. However, this can be detrimental to mental health because it develops the emotion of shame every time the child doesn’t get an A+. Due to fierce competition and constant fixation to the future, the child doesn’t celebrate when he or she gets an A+. They just look to the next exam. As time passes, the reward experienced when they achieve becomes irrelevant but the mental pain of failure, or what we understand as shame, grows. This is something that the Ancient Greeks showed an awareness of in their story of Sisyphus. He was cursed by Hades to constantly push a bolder up a hill (the A+) and once he pushed it up, the bolder fell straight back down and he started over. But surely if my child keeps achieving, they will be in a position where they won’t have to keep achieving. I assure you the monster of shame will destroy your child well before that point.


Shame is absolutely detrimental and no better example is its effect in eating disorders. Nutritionist Laura Thomas speaks about intuitive eating and how restrictive eating can lead to mental health problems. Let’s delve into this a bit more. A young teenage girl, let’s call her Samantha, reads in a magazine that gluten is the devil. It makes you fatter, it makes you less intelligent and it makes you uglier. Samantha is moved by this article so she creates a meal plan as she tries to cut out all forms of gluten. She shops for gluten substitutes, she begins reading celiac magazines and she sticks to a rigorous exercise regime. Everything is going great. She goes 7 weeks without eating any gluten and she is feeling fantastic. She is losing weight, she begins posting more pictures on social media and she starts getting more inspired followers. But then one day, she accidentally mistakes a piece of cauliflower bread for regular bread and she eats it off whole. It tastes fantastic but she feels terrible (a sense of shame) when she realises. To make up for it, she begins exercising more. As she exercises more, she becomes more tired and it becomes more difficult to follow her diet. As a result, she begins eating gluten a bit more often. She feels awful every time (shame growing) but she just can’t keep up with the lifestyle. However, she has to maintain her image on social media for all of her followers (more shame). She could admit that she is eating gluten again? But then her followers will hate and unfollow her (even more shame). So she begins making herself get sick any time she eats gluten (shame taking over). I’m going to stop here. You know the rest of this story. Samantha begins developing the coping strategy that will lead to bulimia. This will take months if not years of poor mental health, which will prevent her from education, work and happiness. So what is the message here? Well on the basis of nutrition, Laura Thomas argues that you should not restrict any food. Everything in moderation. I would also like to clarify that this is completely different for someone who is celiac or has a physical intolerance to gluten or any other food. But from the psychological perspective, someone needs to tell Samantha that giving up gluten is great but if she does eat it every so often, it’s not the end of the world. It is not wrong. It is not wrong to fail at something and when we set extremely high standards such as never eating gluten again, it is quite likely we're going to fail.


And the proof of shame can be seen is mental health itself. People feel shame when they are struggling with their mental health. They judge themselves for having the issues. “Why am I this sad? I shouldn’t be sad”. They then choose not to tell anyone because they feel they are a burden. This isolation then results in the problem getting worse and this is why shame is so detrimental. And this explains the importance of public campaigns, pushing people with mental health problems to talk. A problem shared is a problem halved, not because the more people that know, the better. If that was the case, all people would be healed of mental distress by telling as much people as they could. Instead, a problem shared is a problem halved because you are reducing the intensity of shame by telling others. By getting approval that you are not a bad person because of something you are doing, you slowly start to accept that thing's aren't that bad.

Alternatively, guilt is a bit more straightforward. Generally, the best thing we can do when we feel guilt about something is to admit to it. If we hold it in, it will run through our minds for longer than it needs to. Despite knowing many that would disagree, people and the law aren’t that bad. Tell them what you’ve done and you’ll get what you deserve. This is something that parents and teachers do a good job of alleviating. But shame is the new epidemic that needs to be dealt with.

The emotion of shame has unfortunately exploded for numerous reasons. Firstly, Western societies emphasise the individual self a bit too much. You are special. You are great. You will change the world. The result of this is that children growing up thinking they are the protagonist in their real life film and everyone else is going to learn from their journey. This puts far too much pressure on children to need to impress, lead and stand out from the crowd. While this is my opinion, I find it veers too closely to the statistics showing that eating disorders are far more common in Western societies that promote the individual rather than the collective. As soon as we are born, we are in competition with others to be the best at school, sport, music, social media, something, anything. We develop a competitive voice. I came first so I am valued. I came second so I am not important. Society showed some awareness to this and tried to combat it by everyone getting a prize. But they’re missing the point. Competition is important. It generally filters out those who work the hardest, and this results in better outcomes. If Usain Bolt was told that everyone was going to get a gold medal, would the world record have ever been smashed? Probably not. The point they’re missing is that it is not the external rewards that matter. It is how the child processes not winning and that sometimes, it is ok not to win. That is not wrong and you should not judge yourself. Instead, you should learn from it and come back stronger next time, but not immediately. They do not have to get back on the saddle straight away. Give them time to process. So it’s ok not be ok. It’s ok to fail. And you are not always in a competition. Reminding people of this can tame the monster of shame. And also talk to others not because some ad on the television is telling you to. Talk to someone to help you realise that what you did isn't that bad. Give yourself a break and don't be ashamed that you feel shame.


Yours Sincerely, The Motus Movement.

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