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Embarrassment

Unlearn Shame: Retrain Your Brain

The difference between guilt and shame and how to overcome them.

Key points

  • Unlike guilt, which is feeling bad about something we did, shame is feeling bad about who we are.
  • We can retrain our brain to hear criticism without criticizing ourselves.
  • We are the only ones who create our own feelings of shame, and we can actively choose not to.
iStock/Fiskes
Unlearn shame.
Source: iStock/Fiskes

Our brain’s capacity for shame is hardwired and inborn. But did you know that it doesn’t become activated until about two years of age? Until then, we don’t care what the world thinks of us; and after that, many of us begin to care too much. Unlike guilt, which is feeling bad about something we did, shame is feeling bad about who we are. Unlike guilt, which can make us apologize to others, shame usually makes us feel withdrawn from others. Guilt starts to go away after we are forgiven by the person we hurt, while shame can only disappear when we accept and forgive ourselves. While the lingering feelings of shame and guilt may be similar, it’s important to recognize the difference. And it’s even more important to realize how we can be kinder and forgive ourselves.

First, our capacity for shame serves a purpose. It helps us become more sensitive to others because we know how embarrassment feels, and we can interact with others in a sensitive and caring way. Also try to understand that if shame is so great that it leads to avoidance and withdrawal from others, it becomes toxic shame. For example, think of all the teenagers who feel so shamed by their peers on social media because they don’t fit a certain standard of appearance, that ultimately, they don’t even want to go to school. Another example: Fertility patients who avoid family celebrations because they feel ashamed to answer questions about why they haven’t had children yet.

How do we stop shame from separating us from others right at the moment we need their support the most? We retrain our brains.

We can retrain our brain to hear criticism without criticizing ourselves and learn to accept that we are not perfect, all-knowing, or universally loved without being embarrassed about it. We make room for our own shortcomings and for others' insensitivities without letting either change how we feel about ourselves. We embrace mistakes as learning experiences and remember social flubs as passing awkward moments. We realize that when we hurt someone’s feelings or fail to meet expectations, we can forgive ourselves. We are the only ones who create our own feelings of shame, and we can actively choose not to.

Inside-out thinking can also help retrain our brain to unlearn shame. Instead of looking at ourselves through the eyes of our peers, practice looking at everyone else through your own eyes. Be inside your own head looking out. If someone is saying or doing something that might create public embarrassment for you, recite this rhyme:

Everything they say and do is information about them, not you.

Instead of focusing on yourself and feeling exposed or humiliated, you will feel some power because you learned something important about them and will be less vulnerable next time. Remember, their negative evaluation will have no power over your self-evaluation or self-esteem unless you give it that power.

But retraining our brains takes more than insight, it takes practice. Here are three ways to unlearn shame:

  1. Monitor your inner dialogue and listen to how you talk to yourself. Do you put yourself down? If so, stop. Particularly in public, because other people can recognize your uneasiness. Actively and deliberately look for positive things that you like about yourself and give yourself a pat on the back when you find more.
  2. Find a shame-sharer. Not all friends and family are good listeners. Many just wait until we are finished talking so they can talk. Find someone you trust to be understanding and kind, and let them know that you are trying to break the shame habit. Talk to them when you are feeling toxic shame. Hearing your own words is often enough to restore perspective and hearing their words of support counteracts the feelings of isolation that shame creates.
  3. Every time you start feeling shame, think of what you would say to someone else. For example, think of what you would say to a best friend who was down on herself because she was being verbally bullied, dealing with gossip, trying to cope with a judgmental family, or being asked intrusive questions about her fertility. Say the same words of reassurance to yourself and have your own back. Giving yourself a break is also important. Your relationship with yourself is a life-long intimate relationship and you deserve the same love and support your give to others.

It can be hard to take the first step to unlearn your own shame, but it’s not an impossible task. Start small, and over time you’ll realize that retraining your brain is a manageable task, one that will help you love yourself again.

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