Shame can prevent us from seeking the help we truly need. “If you are partnered with someone who often feels the stinging effects of shame, you can do your best to offer compassion and acceptance.”
About 20 percent of American citizens will experience serious mental health distress at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, many stop short of getting the help they need. This is especially true for men. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (2019), only 60 percent of depressed men get treatment.
What prevents individuals from getting the assistance they sorely need?
- Embarrassment about having mental health symptoms contributes to resistance.
- Perfectionism can also be a roadblock for seeking help. Perfectionistic individuals have difficulty admitting they need support. To do so implies they are at fault, which is not acceptable in their world.
- Deep within our core is another condition that obscures the path toward help: shame.
According to John Bradshaw, author of Healing the Shame That Binds You, shame at levels that are toxic contributes to a belief that one is flawed and defective as a human being. It arises from the feeling of wanting to be loved but having a certainty that something inside renders us unlovable.
Shame is different than guilt. Guilt is an emotion arising from making a mistake or doing something bad. Shame is the belief that one’s entire being is bad, unworthy, and inadequate.
People who have experienced trauma, criticism, or abuse often experience shame. At first, they may feel guilty about what happened to them and incorrectly conclude it was their fault. Also, if no family member came to their aid, they conclude that whatever treatment they received was justified because they were a “bad” child and not worthy of protection.
(This is especially true for victims of childhood sexual abuse who were harmed by adults who they could not stop because of physical size or power inequity. Because these children were not able to fight off their attacker, they created an inaccurate assessment of themselves. They equate submission to acquiescence and judge themselves harshly.)
If you are partnered with someone who often feels the stinging effects of shame, you can do your best to offer compassion and acceptance. Try to be curious and understand what their shame is about and where it comes from. Then listen and be empathic. If you have done something that contributed to your companion feeling humiliated, quickly apologize and make amends. You can bookmark whatever you did that evoked shame, and note this as a trigger for your partner, best avoided in the future if you want to maintain safety in your relationship.
Self-confidence takes a hit when one has been shamed. And depression often accompanies feelings of worthlessness and guilt. If you are concerned about your partner’s mental health, you can suggest they see a counselor and offer to go with them to the first appointment. If they are hesitant, it is likely because they anticipate that counseling would only spotlight their shame and incur judgment.
Your partner is more likely to follow through with counseling if you:
- Say what it means to you that they make this investment. A partner who feels good about themselves is more present, loving, and has more to give to the relationship, which benefits both of you.
- Convey confidence that a counselor’s role is to support, not judge.
- Point out the benefits of counseling, including easing one’s pain and helping find a path forward. A counselor can provide new ways of looking at problems and present tools that enhance self-esteem.
Our essence is love. Individuals who affirm themselves recognize that people come into the world deserving of love. Unfortunately, this knowledge of a cherished self can be shattered by painful experiences that seem too difficult to shed. Healing involves taking back power and restoring a crushed spirit. Making that first appointment with a counselor and/or learning tools that build self-worth are important steps that underscore the possibility that people suffering from shame can be valued.
(Discover how gratitude journaling can boost your self-worth.)
Try This Exercise
If you are a person who carries shame, recognize that you don’t have to be paralyzed by past experiences. You can be mindful of who you are now and take a tally of all the traits that make you likable and unique. Recognize your humanity by realizing that you are not alone, and that many people have experienced anguish and despair from being treated poorly by family, peers, teachers, and other significant adults. When you are tempted to judge yourself harshly, think instead about what you would say to a friend in a similar situation and offer the same understanding words to yourself.
You can also learn to be kind to yourself. Try this exercise: Imagine a time when you felt loved and/or cared for. Perhaps you have an image of being a small child, and a loving person is holding or rocking you. Or perhaps you think of a special pet offering you unconditional love. Another option is to imagine a place in nature that brings you a sense of peace and happiness. Once you have a visual, place your hand to your heart and breathe in care and nurturing, letting these feelings soak into your body. Then add an affirmation, such as “this person or pet was kind to me, and I am truly loveable,” or “this place is beautiful and I belong here.” Stay in this centered space for three to five minutes, allowing time for the hormone oxytocin to be released throughout your body. Then open your eyes and note any shift towards self-acceptance. This is the person you are at the core, the person who is worthy.