Alyssa Paul LCSW
Why You Don't Stay on Track...
Do you keep falling off of your personal goals? Research says shame can be a helpful motivator to change your behavior, but at what cost?
Whether it's a new years resolution, a falling out with a friend, or a dark moment in your life, there's a tendency for these situations to ignite a drive in us to do and be better. Do you find that you are genuinely committed to your goals, yet before you know it, you've fallen off? Do minor setbacks diminish your drive? Do your commitments fall to the wayside, only to be replaced by old habits?
Undoubtedly as humans, we misstep somewhere along the way while we are busy transforming ourselves. Mistakes are unpleasant, they force us to face ourselves and our flaws but how we respond to our mistakes makes all the difference between lasting and temporary change.
If you answered Yes to any of the previous questions, you might find that as you take another shot at self-development, the previous failed attempts compel you to modify your self-talk. You might conclude that self -disparagement was all that was missing, so you dig into yourself. The cycle repeats each time, bringing a harsher and harsher internal voice, "Get your fat butt up and in the gym!" "You won't be attractive till you lose 30lbs", "You think you'll find love acting like that!". Unfortunately, people often credit their successes to their inner critic (shames loudspeaker), and some research has backed that up!
Some shame theorists have claimed that shame positively contributes to self-development, alerting us to a problem and motivating us to repair the damaged self-image. But within the same research, theorists found that shame deteriorates self-love, and any self-transformation made will be short-lived. It's a common misconception that we can "dig into" ourselves as a form of self-discipline. Yet, there is a distinct difference between responding to missteps with guilt versus shame.
Whether to gain power, influence, or marketing purposes, shame presents itself in our society as; responding to rape victims by blaming or denying their experience; mocking a physically abused husband because it's not "masculine,"; or commercials that tell us we need to look a particular way to find love and we can only achieve this with their product.
Shame is the whispers brimming with judgments that uphold the "us" and "them" division (i.e., "I could never do that.", "They must be bad parents, their child is addicted to drugs.", "Oh, my partner and I don't fight, we love each other too much!"). The most destructive shaming behavior is when individuals are alienated for an aspect of themselves they cannot change. Such as telling individuals there is something wrong with them for their sexuality, skin color, or nose size.
Shame makes us forget we have value. Failing to recognize our innate worthiness, we lose power and faith in our intrinsic ability to change.
When I think about shame, I imagine the classic image of the mother, finger wagging in her child's face, "shame on you."
In a sense, this classic depiction of reprimand has a functional purpose. For example, your child is running towards a busy street, what do you do? You'll probably yell "Stop!", which suddenly immobilizes your child, causing a posture of defeat ( e.g., head and shoulders drop, hunched upper body, averted eye contact), and they become remorseful; thank goodness! When your child suddenly stops in their tracks and takes on regretful body language, that is the intrinsic nature of shame ( I recommend immediately having a conversation with your child explaining why you yelled and reassuring them of their worth).
We are social beings with a primitive need to belong to a group. Shame makes sure we stay aware of any threat to our belonging. Stephen Porges's Polyvagal Theory affirms that our social engagement system's (SES) function is to help us navigate relationships. The SES helps alert us to anything that jeopardizes our social standing, assessing other's body language, facial expression, tone of voice, etc. If no threat is detected, we are calm, residing in the parasympathetic nervous system.
On the other hand, spotted social threats activate the sympathetic nervous system bringing about anxiety, fear, pit in the stomach, anger, etc. Individuals with unresolved trauma commonly have an overly cautious SES, spotting the slightest cue of rejection, whether real or imagined, and struggling to regulate their intense emotional reactions. Typically, difficulty regulating emotions, such as rejection, results in; anger outbursts, isolation, self-harm, and other harmful coping attempts.
Brene Brown (2007) formulated a definition of shame she developed from countless interviews with research participants.
"Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging."
This fear that our behavior or personal attributes will be negatively judged, ultimately outcasting us, is the fuel that drives shame. For example, you don't say "No" because your friend might get mad or think you are uncaring if you prioritize yourself; You keep your mental health struggles to yourself for fear you may not get that promotion; You don't tell your family about your abortion because you've heard them voice some disheartening judgments. In situations such as the latter, we tend to sit in secrecy (shame thrives on secrecy), marinating the self with thoughts of unworthiness.
Shame and guilt are only similar in one aspect; both arise from an unfavorable self-evaluation. Besides that, each uniquely involves the self, and each emotion has stark emotional and behavioral outcomes.
The self is quiet when experiencing shame, meaning we look at ourselves from the perception of others; "Do they think I'm talking too much; "They probably see I am anxious"; "Will they think I am awful if I say no"; "If I firm up, they'll find me more attractive." When we are experiencing guilt, the self is alive and earnestly participating in change; "I hurt them, I can make this better"; "I strayed off my diet, but I'm back on track, I got this"; "I'm not alone in this, people have been through similar things." Shame is a very intense and disorienting emotion; guilt is not as intense.
In the throes of shame, negative self-criticism and unpleasurable sensations ignite a desire to camouflage and dissipate into the background of life. Our inner critic puts feelings of shame into words, ushering shame into our awareness. A constant tape of "not enough" plays in our heads. The tape is initially recorded in early childhood, containing messages from important adult figures. The tape guides an individual through their adult life, continuingly being revised and reinforced by more hurtful experiences.
If the love you received as a child was conditional ( as opposed to unconditional), your worth is dependent on the "next thing"; "When I lose weight, then I'll date"; "I need to work myself to death until I'm rich enough or until I can buy that car and be cool enough." These are examples of future conditions that we hope will establish a sense of worth and bring happiness. These conditions are based on the future, creating discontent with your present moment. And if you do achieve your goal.... well, it's never good enough, and you quickly move on to achieving the next condition.
We often feel shame or guilt when we are not honoring our ideal selves. When our ideal self is based on conforming to external standards of belonging (e.g., family, society, friends, etc.), it's easier to fall off positive habits.
The paradox of shame is when we act on it (i.e., keeping secrets, other ways of hiding or escaping, judging others, aggression towards others ) to maintain our belonging, it inevitably distances our connection with others, and we are left feeling alone and inadequate anyway.
Shame's Interference With Your Motivation.
If you react to your missteps with shame, you are more likely to see an unsuccessful future ("I'll never find love," "This weight will never go away") and view that fault as an implication of who you are ("I'm not a lovable person," "I'm ugly").
Progress made through shame at its best is a temporary satisfaction. Satisfaction is fleeting because efforts to change are not driven by true passion but by fear of rejection. Ambition based on avoidance perpetuates a cycle of starting habits and, amidst a setback, reverting to old habits. Because shame does not like the spotlight, an intense urge to safeguard oneself from thinking of failure arises. In turn, you are less motivated to try again, taking weeks, months, maybe years before you try again. Shame-driven self-development doesn't express your belief in your inherent value and goodness; rather, it represents a devotion to avoiding any sense of being flawed and ultimately outcasted. This powerful urge to block out painful emotions contributes to avoiding shame triggers( e.g., gym, social situations, public speaking, expressing feelings, going for that promotion etc.).
Remember! Shame diminishes the part of us that believes we are capable of making lasting change.
On the other hand, guilt helps us recognize the breach of the ideal self while simultaneously maintaining a sense of self-worth ("Cheating on that test is not who I am," "I am beautiful as I am now, but I'll feel healthier if I lose 15lbs"). Healthy self-worth motivates immediate action to be a better person. In a study (Amodio et al. 2007), participants were made aware of personal, racial bias, and they found that experiencing guilt led to an immediate avoidance. Yet after some time, participants were more inclined to read information about how to reduce their biases. We can assume alternatively if these research participants experienced shame, they would not have taken the initiative to reduce their bias.
Enough With Not Feeling Like Enough!
Because rejection can feel inevitable, diminishing the power of your inner critic ( shame's surveillance system) can feel dangerous. It can feel almost like you will welcome rejection into your life with open arms. Your inner critic will attempt to work against you, formulating a very persuasive case of why growth isn't possible. Let's respect it's trying to protect you from seemingly unbearable feelings but the cost is disproportionate to the benefit.
Seek Other Evidence!
We seek what we believe. What does that mean? If your inner critic is running the show, you will connect with your world through a lens of limiting beliefs ("I'm not smart," "I'll be alone forever," "I'll never be happy" ). Your faith in your abilities and other's actions get tainted with these harmful beliefs.
For example, if your limiting belief is that you are "not smart", a constructive suggestion from a coworker is taken as "They must think I can't do this by myself"; They think I'm stupid!" and most likely you'll feel angry and dismiss the advice. In that moment you twisted your immediate external experience to match your internal beliefs, thus creating conclusive evidence in favor of the belief , "I am not smart."
With an awareness of your inner critic and self-beliefs we can see beyond that lens and entertain more options. The response to the latter example would change. Instead constructive criticism is a taken as an opportunity to improve your skills, master your craft! Maybe you and your coworker help build each other up and collaborate and discover a great advancement for your company! Possibilities are endless only if we can see beyond the lens of limiting beliefs.
Whats the Origin Story?
Understanding the origin of your shame and the body sensations you have when experiencing shame can help build awareness of triggers and reduce behavioral and emotional reactions. Reflect on a time that you felt shame. What did your body feel like at the time? As your reflecting on it presently (not in the past), how does your body feel now? Then name that shame. By naming the story, you can acknowledge that shame exists within you and build awareness of what triggers feelings of shame to improve your response.
To advance the exercise, draw a cartoon that represents your inner critic. Imagine your inner critic as that funny character with a funny voice. Next, imagine you're driving a car, and the funny character is in the backseat. You are in the driver's seat of life; you control the destination, the inner critic, annoying yes, is only along for the ride, it does not command your choices!
Talk to Others and Yourself.
Self-affirmations are a great way to change your inner dialogue and break negative thinking habits. Shame loves secrecy because it is powered by making us feel alone. Secrecy compounds shame, and you will become less and less willing to reach out, resulting in feeling more and more flawed and isolated. Confide in trusted people in your life or find social media groups experiencing similar things. You are not alone!!!! Find some positive self-dialogue examples here.
Affirm Your Core Values
What is important to you? Bring awareness to what you value in your daily life. Values usually develop from personal needs. We value food, especially when we are hungry; you value honesty because you know the pain of deceit. A poor sense of self-worth blinds you to your own needs. You may prioritize other's needs; you may feel undeserving of personal needs, or your needs are based on what others want for your life. It can help to have some examples of values in front of you. I have a values list on my site. What kind of person do you want to be? Ask yourself, is this value true to me? Or true to someone else in my life? It's about what you need for yourself, not what someone else wants for you.
"It's Better to Live Your Own Destiny Imperfectly Than to Live an Imitation of Somebody Else's Life with Perfection" - Bhagavad Gita
When we fall short of personal expectations, guilt can motivate us to try harder without destroying our sense of worth. Forgive yourself and acknowledge ALL your previous accomplishments, no matter how big or small they seem. I have some fantastic exercises to practice self-forgiveness here. Additionally, if you find it challenging to identify if you are experiencing guilt or shame, answer the following questions to help you decipher. Is this thought helpful? Is it sustainable? If I continue to talk to myself in this way year after year, how am I going to feel? How will I treat others? Will I enjoy the journey?
Although these exercises are very useful, they do not supplement professional mental health services. I believe everyone could use support from time to time and therapy can be very helpful, but therapy is your individual choice.