“As a shame researcher, I know that the very best thing to do in the midst of a shame attack is totally counterintuitive: Practice courage and reach out!” – Brené Brown
Hello and welcome, or welcome back, friends. Today I want to talk about this pesky little thing called Shame. Now I guess I should start off by saying that shame and guilt, while closely related, are not the same thing. Guilt is the emotion that comes from “I did something wrong, and now I feel bad about it”. Shame is the emotion that comes from “I am wrong. I am, inherently at my core, wrong or bad”.
Even at this moment I can tell you that I am sitting in a coffee shop that I came to with the intention of studying for a test that I have tomorrow, and yet – five hours later- have been unable to accomplish because of an intense apathy that I cannot shake. Unsurprisingly, these exact self-shaming thoughts have surfaced, telling me that “I am lazy”, “I am dumb”, “I am incapable”, “I am a terrible student”, “I am such a careless human being”. I haven’t done something objectively wrong, yet have the internal dialogue to suggest otherwise. A great therapist I previously saw, who taught me most-if not all-of the DBT skills that I have, would describe this as a situation where the emotion I am feeling does not “fit the facts”. Having a feeling that does not fit the facts essentially means that you are experiencing an emotion that is more intense than the situation reasonably warrants. So in my current case, it would be reasonable for a person to feel disappointed or frustrated when they don’t accomplish a goal they had set. However, not doing a good job of studying for a test does not warrant feeling like an incompetent human being, and certainly not feeling like this one single lapse amounts to being a failure as a person overall.
This type of situation is common for me, and was generally my default setting throughout the winter of my junior year of college. It is actually common for a lot of people. I personally believe that shame and depression like to skip hand-in-hand into a persons life. In my experience, and the experiences of those I have discussed this issue with, depression will present itself in various ways, which then will lead to the sufferer feeling shame, at times in layers, for the way that the depression is interfering with their life.
Some of the common signs and symptoms of depression are lack of energy, poor concentration, difficulty completing tasks, low motivation, hopelessness, and lack of interest. In addition, poor school performance, neglecting basic personal care, daily tasks, and responsibilities are also more external expressions of depression. These signs and symptoms are the “facts” or “pieces of evidence” that Shame takes and turns into inherent character flaws, instead of – completely separate from the self – symptoms of a mental illness. Shame exacerbates these symptoms by telling the sufferer that they are doubly wrong, both for feeling a certain way, and for the behavior that is often a result of those feelings.
DBT, dialectical behavior therapy, is a skills based therapy model that I have found extremely helpful in the past year, and one of my favorite ‘Emotion Regulation’ skills from the DBT workbook is called Opposite Action. Opposite Action is a skill that you would use when you’re having an unpleasant emotion that doesn’t fit the facts, and that you want to change. The name is pretty self explanatory: you feel an emotion that prompts an action urge and instead do the opposite of that action urge.
For shame (and guilt) the common action urge is to hide or avoid, aka wallow and avoid all things that could prompt feelings of shame. In my case, this is where I typically neglect all school work and responsibility to avoid the self shaming thoughts that very often come along with trying to get work done when I’m already feeling down on myself. Opposite Action would first have us “check the facts” to decide if the situation warrants us feeling the amount of shame that we feel. In my school scenario, this shame emotion is not effective and is actually detrimental to my progress, so that is when Opposite Action would be useful.
If the action urge that comes along with shame is to hide or avoid, the opposite would be to approach and avoid avoiding. Much easier said than done, as avoiding-avoiding while depressed can be one of the hardest things to do. My blog post, When You’re Stuck in a Rut, is actually me using this skill. I felt the urge to avoid, to wallow, to disappear inside myself, but the tips from that post are actually things that I have found to be opposite actions to those urges.
Overcoming shame and practicing opposite action are definitely muscles that have to be flexed often, stretched repeatedly, and only build over time, but I have found to be one of the most helpful things to slowly but surely learn to deal with the symptoms of depression and the shame that likes to accompany.
I’ll attach below photos of the opposite action worksheets that come from the DBT Skills Workbook (via google images). Disclaimer: especially if experiencing overwhelming emotions, it is always best to seek help from a professional, great resource: https://therapists.psychologytoday.com/rms