Shame is a very negative emotion. The danger of shame is that it can be such a severe emotion it can lead to mental illness, serious injury or even suicide in an attempt to escape it.
External shame comes from the worry of what others may think of us. To consider that we are seen as unworthy or defective in the eyes of others can lead a person to feel that the world around them is unsafe and this can activate avoidant behaviour (not going out, not putting oneself in a position where they could possibly be rejected or detaching emotionally). Avoidant behaviour increases feelings of shame and can have a powerful inhibitory effect on information processing such that a person can feel his or her mind become blank or confused (Gilbert,1998). In external shame the focus of attention is on what is in the mind of others about the self.
Internal shame comes from our own inner critical self. A sense of shame often encourages or predisposes a person to engage in escape behaviours – such as addiction or disassociating from reality and hurtful feelings. A key component of internal shame is self devaluation and self-criticism.
The consequence is that in an episode of shame, the person experiences the outside world turning against him or her (this may not necessarily be happening in reality), and his or her own self-evaluations and sense of self (internal world) also become critical, hostile and persecuting. Under this type of threat the self can feel overwhelmed, easily fragmented and simply closes down—there is no safe place either inside or outside the self to help soothe or calm the self.
Shame is often accompanied by rumination, where a person overthinks without any form of resolution – the worst form of worry! Round and round we go, sinking deeper into anxiety and/or depression (and shame). Self criticism is associated with a life-time risk of dperession. (Murphy et al., 2002). People with low self esteem experience a greater loss of energy to a mood lowering setback than people with high self-esteem and those with low self-esteem struggle with far more self-criticism than those with high self-esteem, setting up a vicious circle of a dip in mood triggering self criticism that triggers a further dip in mood.
Shame leads to self criticism. A lack of warmth towards ourselves where no compassion four ourselves exists – a dangerous mix. Many people who experience shame and self loathing have an inability to show themselves warmth and compassion. Some people even find warmth and compassion frightening as it feels so alien and unfamiliar.
The Human warmth system
Mammals need affection and warmth from others and research has found we are sensitive and receptive to these positive behaviours/feelings.
There are TWO ways we can achieve these positive feelings (positive affect)
One is through control, achievement and success. This system may be dopaminergic and is arousing and activating (Panksepp, 1998) and more short lived. This often causes more long term problems than it solves.
The second is particularly linked to social signals of affiliation and care and involves neurohormones such as oxytocin and opiates – this one is longer lasting but also takes longer to build up. This type of positive affect can improve our immune system and lower pain thresholds – definitely having an advantage over the first type. There is increasing evidence that oxytocin is linked to social support,regulates stress hormones and buffers stress, those with lower oxytocin having higher stress responsiveness (Heinrichs, Baumgartner, Kirschbaum, & Ehlert, 2003). Such evidence points to the possibility that this oxytocin–opiate system is particularly linked to soothing and calming
Self-compassion is an antidote to self-criticism
Self-compassion can help reduce the sense of threat and create feelings of safeness. In Buddhism, compassion is seen as central to well-being (Davidson & Harrington, 2002) and there are a variety of meditation exercises to promote it. Understanding, acceptance and forgiveness are key elements of self compassion.
Self compassion works by helping us to acknowledge setbacks or failures, to be compassionate towards ourselves to the disappointment and fear by learning to tolerate, accept and work with the fear (e.g., by being empathic and tolerant of one’s distress), rather than activating the attack–self-criticism and submissive defence pathways.
One very important aspect of self compassion is to understand that when we initially feel fear, we respond almost automatically – adrenalin, primal reactions. As if a chimp lies within us who isn’t tame (read The Chimp Paradox for more on this theory). When we understand that our initial reactions often are beyind our control and that we aren’t necessarily to blame for those initial “old brain” reactions (the hypothalamus and amygdala), we can treat ourselves with more warmth and understanding. The basic idea is that some people have not had opportunities to develop their abilities to understand the sources of their distress, be gentle and self-soothing in the context of setbacks and disappointments but are highly (internally
and externally) threat focused and sensitive. When a setback, failure or conflict occurs they rapidly access internal schema of others as hostile/
rejecting (Baldwin, 2005) with (well practiced) selffocused self-attacking.
How to be more compassionate towards yourself
Understand where the self criticism came from. Were you criticised as a child? Do you use self criticism as a form of motivation?
Understand why you use self criticism. Do you feel that it keeps you on top of things? Ask yourself how it is helpful, has it helped you or hindered you in the past? Remember that the initial reaction if often your body’s automatic response to threat and not a voluntary action. Do you think that being self critical will somehow protect you from the criticism of others?
Learn to replace self criticism with acceptance and tolerance.
Recognize that there are multiple layers to each one of us – e.g., to attack or flee or seek reassurance,or win approval) that can have different priorities and subsequent reactions/behaviours that can pull us in different directions—and these ‘inner conflicts’ can be confusing. We might focus on the fact that ‘different parts of you have been trying as best they can to defend you or help you cope. However, these parts of you never have the overall picture, nor can they see far ahead. So they can pull in opposite directions and be very confusing and feel overwhelming’.
Develop compassionate imagery and compassionate and mindful ways of attending to fears and safety strategies (eg, avoidance, becoming over reliant on oneself) that can provide the emotional basis for new forms of attention, thinking, behaving and feeling. We try to teach how to
bring compassionate images to mind and reframe self-criticisms, e.g., ‘it is sad I feel frightened/ worthless/confused but this is understandable given the fears I have been confronted with. However, if I am gentle and kind to myself I can focus on . . . ; and it would help to me to do . . .’.
The key is to develop a new self-to-self relationship based on warmth, care and compassion for self, with compassionate insight into how one
arrived at one’s current position unintentionally. ‘All humans want/need to feel loved and accepted, because in our evolved past our very survival may
have depended on it. So when this does not happen for us the brain can register this as a major threat—and then our emotional minds try to
develop some kind of protection strategies, which can become automatic. Although very understandable these can become unhelpful and prevent
us from changing’.
It is important to begin to more fully appreciate that many of the efforts (including self-attacking) have been safety behaviours—to try to protect yourself and regulate your emotions because you have felt so unsafe with others and your external and internal worlds.
Therefore, it not so much distortions in reasoning that are key but automatic safety strategies/behaviours and conditioned responses, and not having had opportunities to develop alternatives based on genuine care.
For example, a patient may come to the view ‘I used to hate myself for getting anxious or angry because those feelings made me feel so vulnerable,
but now I realize these feelings are painful and part of my protection system; they are understandable and not reflections of me being bad or weak’
One patient wrote down her thoughts, shared them in the follow-up session and agreed that we could present them here. I would just like to tell you all here today what Compassionate Mind Training means to me. It seemed to awaken a part of my brain that I was not aware existed.
1. The feeling of only ever having compassion for other people and never ever contemplating having any for myself.
2. Suddenly realizing that it’s always been there, just that I never knew how to use it towards myself.
3. It was such a beautiful, calming feeling to know it was OK to feel like this towards myself without feeling guilty or bad about it.
4. Being able to draw on this when I was frightened and confused, to calm myself down and to put things in perspective and say to myself ‘IT’S OK TO FEEL LIKE THIS’.
Having compassion for myself means I feel so much more at peace with myself. Knowing that it is a normal way of life to have compassion for myself and it’s not an abnormal way of thinking, but a very healthy way of thinking. It felt like I was training my mind to switch to this mode when I start to feel bad about myself or life situations were starting to get on top of me.
What is striking about this, and what other participants thought, was how much they had (previously) felt that being self-compassionate and
empathic to one’s distress was a self-indulgence or weakness and definitely not something to cultivate.
Self compassion is a vital strategy for coping with the harshness of life. There is enough external trouble without adding to it with inner turmoil such as self criticism!
If you would like to know more about Compassion Focused Therapy: https://compassionatemind.co.uk/