What exactly is shame?  Shame is the feeling that results from how we negatively judge ourselves about an action we did. Actions that create shame are ones that we want to keep a secret. For example, if you feel bad about leaving your dog alone all the time, you could be telling yourself that you are a bad person for getting a dog that you leave on its own often. Or, you could feel bad because you stole some money from your sister and you judge yourself as being a bad person, morally corrupt, a loser, etc. Actions that create shame can be big or small. We have the ability to judge ourselves harshly about anything which can result in shame.

Individuals that have struggled (or are struggling) with substance abuse, eating disorders, sexual compulsivity, gambling or any other impulse control issue often carry a lot of shame when they are engaging in the behavior but also after they have entered recovery.  Shame becomes even more complex in recovery because sometimes the person did actions that feel very out of character for them and it is even harder to accept. Part of the recovery process is addressing shame and resolving it. Resolving shame is a process. It requires getting out of your head and stopping the secrecy.

To begin working on resolving shame, try the exercise below. Write out your answers to the below questions in a journal or on a piece of paper.

What is an event that causes you to feel shame?

  • Describe the scenario. Try to include the specific actions or behaviors that caused you to  experience shame.
  • What is your analysis about the behaviors or actions that you took? Specifically what does it say about you that you did those specific behaviors and actions? Try to write out specific statements about what the actions say about you.
  • Could you easily insert always or never into the statements and still believe them? (For example you think “I am a bad person” and also agree with “I am always a bad person”. Or “I am not a good person” and also agree with “I am never a good person.”)
  • What makes you believe that about yourself? Or why do you believe that? Would everyone be judged by those same standards? Why?

Now that you have answered the questions, take a look at the analysis you made about yourself describing the shame.  What is the concrete evidence AGAINST the shame statements? Please note: Listing concrete evidence against your shame statements is NOT saying that your actions were o.k., or that you don’t need to take responsibility or apologize for them.  And it does not mean that those you have wronged should forgive you. The idea is for you to let go of your shame and forgive yourself. It is about acceptance of the actions, not letting them define you, and learning from these mistakes to prevent them in the future. You will likely need to read over the statements and the evidence against the statements several times to begin resolving the shame. Make sure that you are coming up with evidence that you can at the very least consider believable. If you don’t believe the evidence against the statement, you will continue to discount it and believe the shame statement.  Ask a friend who can be objective for help if needed.

For an advanced activity: Share your event and answers with another person and talk with them about it.

Many people want to push shame away and not think about it.  Pushing it away just makes it stronger and more difficult to resolve. When we feel shame and keep it secret, we have difficulty putting things into context, recognizing that we make mistakes and forgiving ourselves. If we don’t forgive ourselves shame will continue to exist. If letting go of shame continues to be a problem for you, consider setting up an appointment with a therapist at The Center for Growth 215-922-5683.