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Haunted By Shame

answered 09:16 PM EST, Wed September 12, 2012
anonymous anonymous
I am feeling a lot of shame about stuff from the past. It haunts me. Sometimes I am ashamed of something I did and sometimes it is more like I am embarrassed about how I acted and feel shame about what other people think about me. I used to drink a lot so I had ample opportunities to make an ass of myself. This shame is doing me no good, it’s like heavy baggage just sucking me down and it still hurts when I think back on it. But it never fails, whenever I wake up in the night or whenever I am out driving or whenever my mind is just drifting I always end up dwelling in shame from the past. How can I let it go so that it doesn’t haunt me all the time?

David Johnson Says...

You are one of many people who suffer daily from negative self-talk that could very well be shame. Unlike guilt, which helps us form conscience and motivates us to make changes in our lives, shame is a form of self-punishment. Some people seem to automatically attack their self-concept with insults whenever they feel that they've made a mistake. Rather than recognizing the behavior as the source of the mistake, they assault their person-hood, their value as a human being.  Rather than encouraging change, shame saps their strength, and discourages them from believing they can make a change. After all, they believe, they are the sort of person who does shameful things. Changing this habit is not as simple as one might think.

"Shame doesn't come naturally, it has to be learned. It tends to be learned in early childhood, often before a child has a good command of the language, before the age of 8. Young children learn their lessons in a different way from adults. Young children learn emotionally, rather than with words.

"Very young children tend to see the world as revolving around them. Adults appear as all knowledgeable and powerful giants. When an adult mistreats them, they tend to believe that they must have deserved it, that it was something they did or something bad about them. So not surprising, abused children tend to believe on an emotional level that they deserved how they were treated. As they grow up, they may well learn that it wasn't their fault, that their parents were inappropriate. But what they learn in words doesn't necessarily change the older emotional learning.

"... Shame is learned emotionally. Even though we know in our heads that we are not to blame, we feel the blame none-the-less. Shame is often learned in childhood from parents and caregivers." Read more.

We can also learn shame from peers at school, teachers, friends, romantic relationships, even from television and other media. Adults can learn on an emotional level, too. The parts of our brain that help us manage our emotions are shut down when we are highly upset. So anything we learn when upset, may end up a part of our emotional memory.

Because we learn this lesson on an emotional level, the emotion erupts automatically whenever we're reminded of the offending behavior shutting down the rational part of the brain temporarily. We can make some headway by persistently over months, even years, refocus our thoughts on sufficiently compelling thoughts with competing and preferably incompatible emotions. We say to our selves, "I'm not stupid, look at all of the creative things I've done for which I'm really proud."

An Emotion Focused Therapy practitioner can help you make some quicker progress. The idea is that if we re-experience our shameful memories in the presence of a supportive therapist, we can change our emotional memories to be less self-destructive, to be understanding, self-supportive, and assess the learning event more objectively. Therapy can be an effective way to recover from a shame-based style of emotional life.

I wish you the very best.

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Page last updated Sep 12, 2012

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