All of us experience feelings of shame from time to time. In one sense, it stems from our natural instinct to be accepted by our “tribe.” When we do something that goes against the social norms that are collectively valued, we tend to feel embarrassed or humiliated about what we did.
For instance, say you’re driving to work and are running late, but the car in front of you is going under the speed limit and you’re getting increasingly frustrated. After 10 minutes of this, you finally get the chance to pass the car and as you do you wail on your horn, only to realize the driver is the nice woman who greets you every Sunday at church as she hands you the program… and she recognizes you too as you go flying past her.
Feeling ashamed about what you just did would be a normal response—and a good reminder to never do that again.
While this illustrates an adaptive social function, there is a more painful and potentially destructive side to shame. It’s largely caused by internalized negative beliefs people have about themselves that are reinforced by ongoing self-criticism and judgment. This can result in low self-esteem and feeling less worthy than others, as well as depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.
The Causes of Shame are Wide-Ranging
Shame rarely develops in a vacuum and can be caused by many different experiences. While certain situations in adulthood can evoke feelings of shame (such as being in an abusive relationship or hiding an eating disorder), most are caused by things that happen in our formative years. For instance, children who are subjected to neglect or emotional, sexual, or physical abuse often feel ashamed of themselves as they grow up.
Shame can also arise from less traumatic circumstances. I bet some of you can still hear a teacher’s voice in your head criticizing you in front of your peers for making a mistake, which left you feeling humiliated in a way you never forgot. Perhaps you were teased about some aspect of your appearance or were bullied. Maybe one or both of your parents were very critical, which left you feeling like nothing you did was ever good enough.
Even though experiences like these are in the past, the painful memories can get triggered pretty easily. This is because they linger in the emotional centers in our brain until we find a way to work through them, which can seem intimidating to some people.
But if I told you there’s a straightforward exercise you can do to challenge self-critical thinking that leaves you feeling ashamed about some aspect of yourself—would you be willing to try it?
4 Questions to Challenge Your Shame-based Thoughts
I learned this from an amazing woman named Byron Katie, and it has helped me so much over the years. To do this exercise, grab your journal or a piece of paper and write down one of your self-critical thoughts—something that makes you feel ashamed in some way about yourself. For example, No one will ever want to love me. Then answer the following questions with regard to your thought:
- Is it true?
- Is it absolutely true—with 100% certainty?
- How do you feel when you have this thought about yourself?
- How would you feel if you didn’t have this thought?
Then, turn around the thought you started with to its opposite. In this example, that might be, Someone will want to love me someday. Then see if this new thought isn’t actually truer—and more accurate—than the original one you had written down.
If you do this exercise regularly, you’ll find that the self-critical thoughts and beliefs you have about yourself will start to shift to a more positive and realistic perspective, which will help you feel better about yourself.
I can tell you from personal experience that this works! I’ve done this exercise many, many times, and I encourage you to try it. You deserve to see yourself in the same good light that others do.
For more inspiration, order my newest book, The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child: How Persistence, Grit, and Faith Created a Reluctant Healer.
If you’re struggling and need professional help, Amen Clinics is here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.