Shame: Coaching versus criticism

  • Sunday, August 7, 2016
  • Shona Innes Psychology

What secrets do you keep about yourself?  What are you ashamed about?

Shame is the feeling that arises when we think about ourselves as being “bad”, or “wrong”, or “broken”.  Shame is a negative evaluation of the self – different from guilt which is a negative evaluation of our actions or behaviour. Guilt is where we wish we hadn’t done something.  Shame is much more about an attack on our “selves” rather than a regret about our behaviour. Shame is much more closely linked to being self-critical.

Of course, like all feelings, shame serves a function.  It helps to guide us and treat others in certain ways.  However, we need to be sure that we don’t magnify our shame, nor avoid it completely.

Shame is something we hide so it’s hard to find out a lot about it.  In my practice over the years, I have seen shame go hand in hand with depression, social anxiety, substance use, self injury and gambling.

We all have thoughts and it’s when we go looking at people’s thinking patterns that we can often see the patterns on their mood and behaviour. The stuff we say inside our head has a huge impact on our mood and our behaviour. Some people are a little more visual in their thoughts than others, but most report having an ongoing commentary in their heads – thoughts that guide, notice, and trigger certain feelings in us. These same thoughts can also judge us.  Some people are really high in self criticism.  Their thoughts about themselves are pretty toxic.  Self critical thoughts and shame have a close relationship. Shame and self criticism can make it hard to take risks, learn and make mistakes.

It can be easy for people to get stuck in a cycle where they try to avoid their feelings about themselves that they distract themselves with something that ultimately serves to make them feel worse about themselves.

Shame can be a very painful experience and it may stop people connecting with others.  Because it can be a painful experience and often linked to fear, many people tend to isolate or attempt to remove the bad feelings or run away from the bad emotions like shame. If left unchecked, shame can develop into self hatred.

Shame, like other feelings, has a variety of origins – essentially anything that has us judging ourselves harshly will likely impact on feelings of shame.  Of course, we all need to get feedback on our behaviour.  As we grow up, we rely less on adults to remind us how to behave or what to do in certain situations and we start to internalise the rules for ourselves. The way we are disciplined as children can speak to this harsh treatment of ourselves.  If we have hard harsh, strict and critical discipline, we can internalise this harshness and it can be easy for us to experience shame in response to a range of triggers. Typically, adolescence is a time where we start to notice our internal judge.

It’s easy to get stuck in a cycle of shame.

Sometimes, it can feel like, if we are just more critical of ourselves, we could be lovable or a better person and so some people can continue to elevate their standards and get harsher on themselves in order to make themselves more lovable or acceptable.

Of course, as soon as we make strict rules for ourselves, it is easier to break them.  So essentially, self criticism can spiral – we make a bad choice and break one of our rules, we feel bad and vow to make the rules for ourselves tighter and stricter, making them easier to break again.

How can we help people with overbearing feelings of shame and harsh self-criticism?  Here are a few ideas to contemplate:

  1. To break the cycle or intervene with shame, we first need to help people to tune into their criticism – to become aware of the judgments and rules they live by in their own heads. Self criticism can become something that is done so often over a life span it can become automatic – sometimes we don’t even notice our negative self talk.  If we can’t notice them, then it can be hard to actively do something about them.  Perhaps keep a journal or just tune in mindfully from time to time – especially when you are in the middle of experiencing the feeling of shame.
  1. It can then help for us to develop some distance from our criticizing thoughts – to play around with hearing them in a different voice or notice that they are just thoughts, not Laws. We need to help people work out different ways to respond to their self criticism.
  1. We can learn to deal with shame and self criticism by focusing on what is really important to us and our values. Some of the most self-critical people that I have met have been amongst the kindest in the way they respond to others.  It’s like they have different rules or Laws for themselves than for others and they just cannot even begin to think about the idea of being a little more compassionate or friendly to themselves.
  1. If you are going to have an internal conscience or guide for your behaviour, what would you look for? What aspects would you look for in a good coach?  Are your thoughts being that person?  Maybe, it’s time to recruit a new coach?
  1. Try to treat yourself as kindly as you treat others – it can be like learning a totally new skill and can feel very foreign for some. Ask yourself, “would I say this about my friend?”  If the answer is “no”, then let the thought go.