Shame—feeling bad about yourself, rather than about your actions (guilt)—is common in depression and anxiety. Self-compassion helps our columnist fight back.
By Jay Boll
One day in sixth-grade gym class, the teacher ridiculed me in front of the class, calling me “Twinkle Toes Boll” for the awkward way I ran on the balls of my feet. For every other kid in Mr. B’s class that day, it was just another callous insult like those he hurled at all his students. For me, it was deeply humiliating, building up a lifelong sense of shame that remained with me into middle age.
Shame and guilt are common emotions in depression and anxiety. Shame is sometimes confused with guilt, but I’ve learned there’s an important difference. Guilt arises from a negative evaluation of one’s behavior, while shame arises from a negative evaluation of one’s self. Guilt is the feeling of doing wrong, while shame is the feeling of being wrong.
Guilt can be a powerful motivator to change one’s behavior for the better. Shame can have the opposite effect, making a person feel that change is hopeless because the problem is at the core of one’s self. This is what makes shame such a toxic emotion.
You can recognize toxic shame in these common messages people tell themselves: “I’m so stupid. I can’t do anything right!” “I’m always saying the wrong thing. What is wrong with me?” “I’m so fat. I look horrible. I can’t go to that party.” “I’m such a mess. I hate myself.”
That type of negative self-talk often grows from shaming messages pronounced by parents, teachers, and peers that we internalize and tell ourselves repeatedly.
For years, I suffered from a poor body image related to my posture and gait. I didn’t make the connection between those self-hating feelings and my childhood experiences. And I never thought in terms of having a medical condition to cope with, rather than an intrinsic weakness.
I do not remember being born with clubfoot and having to wear an orthopedic splint at night for the first year of my life. But I do recall what it was like to be 4 years old and wonder why I was the only patient under 65 in the orthopedist’s waiting room. Or to be teased at school for wearing ugly “bum man” shoes.
At the time, such physical abnormalities were labeled birth defects. So I grew up believing that I was defective, a belief that reinforced and was reinforced by shame, and ultimately contributed to episodes of depression and anxiety.
It was not until age 52, when I was treated for a previously undiagnosed necrosis of my anklebones, that I fully realized the problem was not me. It was in my feet.
During the course of my months-long treatment, a new intern who examined me looked up from the X-rays and asked in astonishment how I was able to walk. When I saw how much that puzzled him, I realized that I was neither weak nor flawed for not being able to move around a basketball court as skillfully as the top athletes in my class. I was strong, mentally and physically, just to have been in the game.
At that moment, I gained a kind of compassion for myself that turned my shame into pride.
Of course, it also helped to see dozens of comments on a Facebook page for my middle school calling out Mr. B. for being the worst teacher in the history of the school.
Both discoveries opened the door to cognitive restructuring, also known as positive reframing, which I have found helpful for dealing with depression and anxiety in my life.
I reframed my experience of shame into pride by having the compassion for myself that the “shamer” never showed me. I devalued the shamer’s power over me by seeing him through other people’s eyes as the bully he really was.
If you are lucky, you’ll have some moments in your life when you figure these things out as a gift that arrives by chance. Most of the time, though, you have to work at it.
Gaining a new perspective on the physical condition I was born with showed me I’m stronger than I realized. And there’s a parallel to be seen with my mental health conditions. Coming to terms with toxic shame strengthened my ability to cope with depression and anxiety.
Printed as “Viewpoint: The shame game,” Fall 2017
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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