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Do You Have a “Shame Demon” on Your Shoulder?

How to break free of shame.

Key points

  • When shame dominates your life, a gloomy hopelessness settles in around you. 
  • Shame undermines confidence, self-image, and creativity and fuels self-destructive behaviors.
  • Group therapy is a potent intervention against shame because it targets your history and helps you rewrite it.
Photo by M. on Unsplash
Source: Photo by M. on Unsplash

If you’ve ever lost a battle with shame, the outcome is the same: shame sucks the joy out of life. It can be triggered anywhere, at any time, and throw your whole day off.

For example, the voice of shame in your head may cause you to:

  • “Compare and despair” yourself with peers and feel like a failure.
  • Scroll social media and conclude that everyone has a better _______ than you (insert the shame of your choice: body, income, home, hair, etc).
  • See a happy couple on the street and experience the shame of loneliness, “What’s wrong with me? Am I so unloveable?”
  • Experience “shame shudder” regrets: “I can’t believe I dated that person.”

When you consider all the words associated with shame – guilt, humiliation, disgrace, failure – is it any wonder that shame packs such a powerful punch? When shame dominates your life, a gloomy hopelessness settles in around you. Shame wants you to believe that life should be endured rather than enjoyed.

Though shame comes in many forms, it generally serves one purpose: to make you feel bad about yourself. It undermines confidence, self-image, and creativity; it can even rob you of your dreams. Even worse, shame is often the driving force for many self-destructive behaviors, such as self-harm and substance abuse.

Where does this feeling of shame originate? Where did it begin?

Shame on you

Not all shame originates from childhood, although those treacherous development years are frequently a vast storehouse.

Nearly any negative criticism we receive as children has the potential to harden into life-long shame and haunt us well into our adult years. Like an object dropped on wet concrete, when children are shamed, it leaves an imprint.

Whenever Sammy, an older man in one of my weekly therapy groups, talks about his past, he references the “shame demon on my shoulder.” He traces his earliest struggles with shame back to the social trauma that he experienced in elementary school due to his undiagnosed learning disabilities:

“I had trouble with reading. The teacher would call on me, and I would freeze and stumble over every word. I felt so stupid. The teacher rolled her eyes, and the whole class laughed and imitated my nervous stutter. There was no word for learning disabilities back then; you were either smart or dumb. Well, I got the message—I was dumb.”

Despite becoming a self-made businessman and holder of a world record in his field, the shame from those early years took years to shake off.

“Even today, sometimes I make a simple mistake and catch myself thinking, “God, I’m so stupid.” That's my teacher’s voice. She was so heartless; she told me I was lazy, unmotivated, selfish.”

How did Sammy overcome the shame?

“Well, it was a long process. Ultimately, I turned it into revenge. Business success was my payback. I became successful out of spite. I don’t recommend it, though.”

Why not?

That’s no way to live. The burden of carrying anger and resentment took a toll. Finally, I was able to let it go. Group therapy helped me to do that. With the support of group members, I learned that I no longer have to prove myself. They helped me to see that I did nothing wrong. I was just a kid. I deserved better.”

The power of group therapy to reduce shame

Group therapy is one of the most potent interventions against shame because it targets your history and helps you rewrite it. The power of a room full of people supporting you, believing in you, and cheering for you drives a stake through the heart of shame. The adage holds: By the group, they were broken, and by the group, they will be healed.

How does group therapy help reduce shame? Over time, the voices of your fellow group members start to take root in your head and silence your shame demon. Over time, as the volume of your shame decreases, joy emerges even in the simplest tasks. Once you break out of the prison of guilt, you experience much more energy and emotional freedom.

In my weekly therapy groups, members learn to release their shame and replace it with confidence, self-care, affection, warmth, and resilience week after week.

More steps to reduce your shame

If the seeds of shame were planted early in your life, you must mount a mighty fight to unearth them. Shame can feel like a part of your identity; extracting it will take time and effort. Here are some steps to take today:

  1. Identify it: Dig deep and find the sources of your shame. Naming it will start to remove its power over you.
  2. Target it: Most people have one or two central shame-related issues. Once you identify yours, take action to address it. Journal, read self-help books, and talk to your friends and family.
  3. Gather support: Therapy groups, support groups, individual therapy, inspirational workshops, lectures, online classes…sign up for everything, and surround yourself with support.
  4. Don’t give up: There will be tough days ahead, but there will also be moments of liberation and lightness. Exposing your shame is part of the process of evicting it. Don’t give up. Keep using the tools outlined here to address it, and eventually, like Sammy, you’ll be shame-free.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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