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Breaking Free From the Chains of Shame: A Journey to Self-Acceptance

14 September 2023

Guilt and shame are often used interchangeably, but they are different.

Guilt is a feeling of remorse or regret for something one has done, while shame is a feeling of worthlessness or inadequacy due to something one is.

Guilt and shame are both emotions that can arise from a sense of wrongdoing or inadequacy. Still, they are distinct experiences with different implications for our mental health and relationships.

Guilt is a normal and healthy emotion that can motivate us to make amends and do better.

On the other hand, shame is where we find ourselves believing we are fundamentally flawed or unlovable.

Unlike guilt, which is focused on a specific action or behavior, shame is directed at the self.

For example, if a person gets a poor grade on an exam, they may feel guilty for not studying enough, but if they believe they are just “stupid” and that’s why they got a poor grade, they might feel shame.

A person gets rejected by someone they are attracted to. They may feel guilty for not being more assertive or doing something differently. Still, if they believe they are inherently flawed and that’s why they got rejected, they might feel shame.

To help identify and cope with shame, I have found it helpful to keep a journal and reflect on instances when I feel shame.

When I take notes of the specific thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that arise in these moments, I give my future self valuable information.

Identify And Address Shame Triggers

We create new perspectives by challenging our thoughts and beliefs and asking ourselves if they are true or if there is a different way of looking at the situation.

To help identify and address shame triggers, completing a shame triggers worksheet can be helpful.

List past experiences or situations that have caused embarrassment, then place the specific thoughts or beliefs that led to those feelings.

Here are some examples to get you started:

Situation: Being rejected by a romantic partner

Thoughts/beliefs: “I’m not good enough,” “I’m unlovable.”
Situation: Being passed over for a promotion at work

Thoughts/beliefs: I am not smart enough,” “I am not diligent enough.”
Situation: Being bullied at school

Thoughts/beliefs: I’m not cool enough,” “I’m weak.”

We all have different triggers, and once these triggers and thoughts have been identified, it can be helpful to challenge and re-frame them with more constructive and realistic beliefs.

Instead of thinking, “I am so stupid,” you could treat yourself like you would treat a friend who made the same mistake.

Everyone makes mistakes, and yours does not reflect your intelligence.

Guilt and shame are different emotions; guilt is a feeling of remorse or regret for something you have done, while shame is a feeling of worthlessness or inadequacy because of something you are.

Change Begins with Re-Writing Your Shame Story

The only way to change is to create new memories. This means that the shame and guilt we may feel are not reduced by numbing ourselves but by specific actions that result in a new experience.

Shame is a powerful emotion that can hold us back in life. However, change is possible by re-writing our shame story.

When we understand the root cause of our shame, we know the events and experiences that have shaped our shame story.

Worksheet to identify shame triggers

- Write about a recent experience that made you feel ashamed.

- Identify your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations in that situation.

- Challenge these thoughts by asking yourself if they are true or if there's another way to view the experience.

- Write down a more balanced and realistic perspective on the situation.

- Repeat this process for any other experiences that have caused you shame.

Actionable steps

We can re-frame our shame story:
We can see our past experiences in a new light and re-frame them as opportunities for growth and resilience. This can involve writing down our new perspective and reading it regularly to internalize the change.
We can practice self-compassion:
By treating ourselves with kindness and understanding, we can reduce the power of our shame, build a new, more positive story, break free from the chains of shame, and become our best selves.
We can surround ourselves with supportive people:
A network of supportive friends and family members can help us re-frame our shame.

Two things before you go…

1. Understanding our past experiences makes us self-aware and gives us the insight needed for continual improvement — therefore, we should focus on new experiences daily- instead of numbing ourselves.

2. Recognize that everyone experiences shame at some point; it is a normal human emotion, and it is important not to be too hard on yourself and to focus on progress — not perfection.

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