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How to manage and combat shame

If we continually try to deny or run from shame, we lose an opportunity to grow, says a psychotherapist and clinical psychologist. 

Speaking to Wellness Daily, Joseph Burgo, PhD said the feeling of shame can be hugely detrimental to one's health and wellbeing and have deleterious effects on one's psyche. 

"When shame becomes unbearable, we often make use of defensive strategies to escape from it, and these defenses in themselves become problematic," he explained. 

"Unacknowledged shame often drives social anxiety and also lies behind problems with addiction, promiscuity, narcissistic behavior, and masochism. When it's chronic and profound — what I refer to as "core shame" — it can lead to suicide." 

But rather than viewing it as a "uniformly toxic experience", we should be asking ourselves whether there's a lesson to be learned from our feelings of shame, he posited. 

"When society-at-large or intolerant people you know try to shame you, then resisting it or defending yourself can be an effective strategy. But in other situations, ask yourself whether you have some good reasons to feel ashamed," he suggested.  

"Did you behave in a way that violates your expectations for yourself? Is shame telling you that you need to try harder next time? Sometimes your shame experience can guide you toward becoming a better person." 

We need to bear in mind that we all feel shame from time to time, he continued, such as when we feel unloved or left out, when we find ourselves painfully exposed or when we fall short in some public way.

"Remember how you felt in similar situations; recall the pain you felt and use it to help you empathise with the other person's experience, Dr Burgo said. 

"Shame drives most people into hiding, but if you can let them know you understand their pain — that you've felt the same way yourself — you will help to make their shame experience more bearable and not one they need to hide from." 

Further, there is such a thing as healthy or appropriate shame, he added, and it sometimes offers lessons for us, pertaining to who we are and the person we expect ourselves to be. 

"If we violate our own standards and values, or if we behave in ways we don't approve of, we will feel shame; that can be a good thing, provided we can listen to and learn from our feelings of shame.  If we can bear our shame and understand what has stirred it up, we can then change our behavior and go on to earn our own self-respect. If we continually try to deny or run from shame, we lose an opportunity to grow." 

"Don't feel ashamed of feeling ashamed! Shame is a part of everyday experience and we all feel it throughout our lives," he concluded. 

Joseph Burgo, PhD is a psychotherapist and clinical psychologist. His latest book is Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem.