Shame, the impact on mental health.
In all my years of counselling, one of the biggest barriers for a person to engage in the counselling process is shame.
Shame can be described as a feeling of embarrassment or humiliation that originates from the perception of having done something improper, immoral, or dishonourable. People experiencing shame generally try to hide what they are ashamed of (1). Shame means different things to different people; shame is not the same as embarrassment or guilt. A person experience guilt because of negative feelings they have because of something they have done. Embarrassment on the other hand is focussing on the reaction of society. Shame is negative feelings a person has about themselves, this can be experienced publicly or privately (3). Another explanation of shame is that it is an uncomfortable feeling that a person feels in their stomach, this happens when they feel they do not feel safe from the judgement of other people. Guilt and shame are emotions that can be experienced at the same time (5).
As discussed, earlier shame can be caused by a person’s poor choices or behaviour, but it can also be caused by unfortunate circumstances such as homelessness, poverty, or chronic physical illness. Shame is much more than an uncomfortable feeling; shame is a toxic emotion that is the cause of unhealthy attitudes and actions (4).
There are 5 possible causes of shame.
1. Toxic Parents.
When parents fail to show their child love, nurture the child, and support the child, it can lead to emotional malnourishment that may have a long-lasting effect on the child’s self-esteem.
2. Abandonment or Rejection.
People are created for connection, part of a person’s being is the need for community. Feelings of shame can be caused when rejection or abandonment is experienced. People experience abandonment and rejection due to various reasons, some may include divorce, death of a loved one or even immigration.
In many cases the person experiencing rejection or abandonment blames themselves for it and feels ashamed because of it. Shame might cause the person to pull away from relationships, this can lead to a self-imposed exile.
3. Unhealthy Environments
Every team or workplace organization has a unique culture that is developed over time. An unhealthy work environment can cause employees to experience shame and they may start to ask themselves what they have done to experience that kind of treatment. Over time they start to feel unimportant and begin to believe they are a burden to others and internalise their shame.
4. Traumatic Experiences.
A traumatic experience can be described as an experience that overwhelms the brain’s ability to cope. The initial traumatic event may be harrowing, but the lingering shame can have devastating consequences.
5. Personal or Moral Failures.
In some cases, people who had indiscretions or moral failings believe that they deserve to feel shame and lock themselves up in an emotional prison. They may believe that constant reminders of their shame will prevent them from making the same mistakes again (4).
The negative impact of shame
Shame can have a negative impact on the mental health and behaviour of a person. There are recorded cases where shame was the reason for suicide and attempted suicide. Shame might be a reason why a person does not seek help for their mental health issues (3).
The presence of shame can create a self-defeating cycle of behaviour and physical health problems that may cause psychological disorders such as:
- Low self-esteem.
- Eating disorders.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD.
- Excessive anger.
- Feelings of loneliness and emptiness (6).
Persons struggling with issues of shame might engage in self-harm practices such as:
- Binge eating.
- Substance abuse.
- Compulsive behaviours such as shopping and gambling addictions to name a few.
Persons that feel overwhelmed by shame may feel unable to solve their own problems or unworthy of a better life (2).
How can a counselling help?
There are a few proven therapies to help a person address their struggles with shame.
1. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT).
This therapy creates an awareness in the person to realise there is a connection between their thoughts, emotions, and behaviour.
2. Prolonged Exposure.
This form of therapy steadily exposes the person to larger and larger doses of stimuli that is linked to their trauma. The purpose of this therapy is to remove the power that the traumatic event has on the person. When this power is removed the severity of shame, guilt and anxiety is removed.
3. Cognitive Processing Trauma (CPT).
For this therapy to be effective the person struggling with shame is required to commit to 12 sessions. In this therapy the person would discuss their trauma and how this trauma affects their behaviour and emotions. With the help of the counsellor, they identify strategies to manage the effects of trauma. These effects may include guilt and shame.
4. Stress Inoculation Training (SIT).
This therapy is linked to CBT. By means of SIT the counsellor challenges the client to identify methods to deal with stress before they get overwhelmed with it and turn into shame.
5. Compassionate Mind Training (CMT).
This is a proven method to use when shame is not caused by trauma. By means of this method the counsellor encourages the client who is highly critical of themselves to be more self-compassionate (2).
What to expect from counselling?
- Finding a counsellor who respects your values and morals is the key to an effective counselling relationship (2).
- In general, a counselling session will last about an hour.
- All counselling sessions are confidential. The only reason why a counsellor will break confidentiality is when you reveal that you want to hurt yourself or someone else. The counsellor will always inform you if that is going to happen.
- The counselling room is a safe space where you can discuss everything you struggle with.
- The counsellor is non-judgmental. You can feel free to discuss anything you struggle with in the counselling session.
- The counsellor will not force you to talk about anything you do not want to talk about.
- For counselling to be effective you must attend a few counselling sessions. No issue can truly be addressed in only one therapy session.
Corey Human has nearly 20 years’ experience working with teenagers and young people at risk, or struggling with self esteem, depression, video game addiction and other problems. He provides counselling to adolescents, adults, couples, parents and families in both English and Afrikaans.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3067 9129
- Cuncic, A. 2023, The Psychology of Shame, https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-shame
- GoodTherapy, 2018, Healing from Shame, https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy
- GoodTherapy, 2019, Shame, https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/shame
- Jantz, G.L. Identify the root causes of shame, https://www.psychologytoday.com/
- Kammerer, A, 2019, The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-scientific-underpinnings-and-impacts-of-shame
- Promises Behavioural Health, 2020, The Damaging Effects of Shame, https://www.promises.com/addiction-blog/damaging-effects-of-shame/