Let’s Talk About… Shame

By Jeremy Godwin

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple things that you can do every single day to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing, based on quality research.

This is Episode 71 and this week I’m talking about shame. In this episode I’ll cover what shame is, why understanding it is essential for your mental health and wellbeing, and how to confront and overcome shame. So, let’s talk about mental health!

Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the article/transcript version.

Find links to other available podcasting services here.

Watch Episode 9 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV — in this latest episode I’m talking about five do’s and don’ts for when you’re feeling completely overwhelmed by everything that’s going on, whether that’s in the world or in your own life (or both). The content I post on YouTube is completely different to the episode you hear on the podcast, so if you’d like some more Let’s Talk About Mental Health goodness each week then watch it here and subscribe to the LTAMH channel on YouTube (links at end of video):

This podcast episode was originally released on 21 March, 2021.

Hello and welcome to Episode 71, and thanks so much for joining me! 2021 is The Year of Wellbeing here on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health podcast, and each week I’ll be exploring lots of different things you can do every day to make a positive difference in your own life.

This week is all about shame. Continuing on from last week’s theme of doubt being part of your self-belief system, shame is something that can show up for many of us time after time both internally and also in external terms, such as the judgments other people put on us, and a lot of it stems from factors like cultural norms, religion, family conventions etc. Shame can do a lot of damage to our self-esteem and our ability to be the best and most honest version of ourselves possible, so how do you identify it and, more importantly, how do you deal with it? Well, that’s what I’m going to be talking about this week.

Before I get into that, Episode 9 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV is out now on YouTube where I’m talking about five do’s and don’ts for when you’re feeling completely overwhelmed by everything that’s going on, whether that’s in the world or in your own life (or both). The content I post on YouTube is completely different to the episode you hear on the podcast, so if you’d like some more Let’s Talk About Mental Health goodness each week then head to YouTube or watch it now at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/YouTube — and while you’re there, if you like what you see then please subscribe to the channel.

So, now, on with this week’s episode about shame… 

Introduction

A few weeks ago I was planning out the topics for the month and listening to music on shuffle, when the song ‘Shame’ by the Eurythmics came on about three seconds after I wrote down the subject of ‘shame’ on my list, so I took that as a sign from the Universe that this was definitely something to talk about. Now I’m not going to quote the song (because the lyrics aren’t really relevant — it’s just insanely catchy, like most of the Eurythmics’ stuff!); instead, I’m going to start today the way I usually wrap up and that’s by sharing a quote that I’d like you to think about for a moment. This is by Brené Brown and it is:

“Shame is the… feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough.” — Brené Brown

A lot of Brené’s work focuses on topics like shame, courage and vulnerability (and if you haven’t checked out her fantastic special on Netflix, The Call to Courage, I highly recommend it). The thing is that shame, courage and vulnerability is all deeply connected and it’s highly relevant when we’re talking about good mental health and wellbeing. Shame is something that can hold us back from being true to ourselves, and when that happens we can find ourselves struggling with our mental health and wellbeing. So…

What is shame? 

Shame is a feeling of being wrong, unworthy or even bad. Shame can be caused by internal factors, such as your self-judgment and self-esteem, or it can be created by external factors, such as being judged by other people (family tend to be really good at shaming one another to comply with specific behavioural norms!). It’s similar to guilt and embarrassment, but not exactly the same; let me quote from GoodTherapy to explain what I mean:

“Guilt is usually understood to involve negative feelings about an act [that] one has committed, while embarrassment deals with a societal reaction. Shame, on the other hand, involves negative feelings about [yourself], and although a person can be shamed by peers or society in general, shame can also be experienced secretly.”

Source: https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/shame

So the piece here is that even though it can stem from either internal or external factors (like other people’s opinions), shame is something that sits within you — in other words, you can either take it onboard and internalise it, or you can release it or deflect it.

There’s a few different aspects to explore and I’ll start with the external stuff first because I see this as being a bit more straightforward than what you think of yourself (which I’ll come back to later).

When it comes to judgements by other people — your family, your community, your religion if you have one, and even society in general — you need to remember that other people’s opinions are just that: opinions. And opinions are not facts

Unfortunately there are far too many instances of people in this world deciding that their belief system is the only correct one, and so using that as an excuse to oppress others or even to actively discriminate against and even harm other people. No belief system is correct, and nobody has the right to judge another person — if you are someone who does no harm, is kind, and you give more than you take, then you, my friend, are a decent person… and to hell with what other people think. 

It is absolutely disgusting that in the 21st century we still have to tolerate bigotry and hatred on the scale that we do, however the way that we fight that is by being true to ourselves and confronting shame so that we can call it out for what it is: a load of bullshit used by complete and utter arseholes to try and keep other people in line and living in a way that they consider to be ‘normal’. Screw that. ‘Normal’ doesn’t exist — it’s all totally subjective based on where you live and what you believe, and there’s no single correct way to live; race, religion, physical ability, mental ability, sexual preference, gender identity… it all just boils down to whether or not you’re a decent person. If you are, then you have nothing to be ashamed of. 

Internal shame is another story entirely. It’s about how you view yourself and your place in the world, and if you have low self-esteem or feel negatively about who you are then that is going to have a detrimental effect on your mental health (which in turn will impact on all aspects of your wellbeing — physical, spiritual, social, emotional and financial wellbeing are all directly linked to your mental wellbeing, and vice versa). Let me quote again from GoodTherapy:

“People experiencing shame are struck by the overwhelming belief that they are bad… as opposed to their actions or feelings. In some people, this may inspire a change in behavior. In others, shame can be paralyzing… Research consistently shows that shame can have catastrophic effects on mental health and behavior.”

Source: GoodTherapy https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/shame 

Sometimes internal shame can be triggered by secrets that we hold within, which we feel embarrassed or ashamed of; often, secrets are internalised judgements that we place on ourselves because we cannot bring ourselves to be completely true to ourselves, which can lead to shameful feelings. 

Of course we also need to talk about the elephant in the room: shame and stigma associated with mental health. Having challenges with your mental health is perfectly natural — like feeling anxious or stressed or constantly worried or whatever — and it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. We expect our bodies and our minds to work perfectly all the time and unfortunately they just don’t. The reality is that we get physically sick from time to time, and every now and then we might have a more serious injury or illness — it’s just part of being a human being… so then why do we treat mental health issues any differently? Stigma often stems from two things: fear, and a lack of understanding. And given that it’s estimated at least one in five people world-wide have a mental health condition, well… other people’s fears and lack of understanding say more about who they are as a person and how much growth they need to do in terms of compassion and kindness. So…

Why is understanding shame essential for your mental health?

In short, it’s because shame is a risk factor for mental health issues. To quote Healthline, ‘toxic shame’ is “shame that sticks around and starts to contaminate the way you see yourself” (source: https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/toxic-shame#causes).

In just about every episode I remind you that the baseline of good mental health and wellbeing is about how you conduct yourself internally and externally: do you do no harm to yourself or others, are you kind to yourself and to others, and do you give more than you take from yourself and from others. These three things are the foundation of wellbeing, because they recognise that your world is created by your interactions with others as well as how you think about yourself and how you treat yourself.

Quoting again from Healthline, these are some of the ways toxic shame can affect you:

“Toxic shame blocks a more positive view of yourself. If you believe you’re evil, unlovable, stupid, or any number of other negative and untrue things, you may see these as permanent states you can’t do anything to change and struggle to develop healthy self-worth… [Toxic shame] isolates you… it causes emotional distress… it affects relationships… [and] it can lead to harmful behaviours.”

Source: https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/toxic-shame#working-through-it

So hopefully those are some pretty compelling reasons why it’s essential to understand shame and, more importantly, to do something about it for the sake of your mental health. But what can you do to confront and overcome shame? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode…

How to confront and overcome shame

First, I want you to really consider whatever it is that you might feel shame about in an objective way. There is a great quote by the author Ann Patchett that goes, “shame should be reserved for the things we choose to do, not the circumstances that life puts on us.” So if you have been shamed because of a factor that you were born into or which is outside of your control — your skin colour, your heritage, your physical appearance, your sexual orientation or who you’re attracted to, your gender identity, and so on — then I want you to acknowledge to yourself that that kind of shame is about other people’s prejudices and so that does not mean that you are not worthy or are not ‘correct’; you are you, and you are unique, and you are worthy of love, respect and kindness… so be clear about what other people’s opinions and perspectives are doing to your sense of self-worth. 

So, guess what I’m going to talk about next? The same thing I cover in the how-to part of most episodes and that is…

Spend time understanding why you might be feeling shame — everything in terms of your mental health begins with understanding what is happening and, more importantly, why it is happening. For the purposes of today’s conversation I’m going to assume you’re all good with the identifying what is happening bit (and if you’d like a bit of guidance on the subject, check out Episode 62 on Self-Awareness), and so the focus here is on digging into it and trying to understand its root cause. I explored the subject of dealing with baggage all the way back in Episode 7, where I talked about the Five Whys approach to identifying the cause of something: basically, think about your feelings and ask yourself why they might be happening. Once you have an answer, consider that answer and ask why that was the response you gave, then consider the next response and ask why that was the one you gave… ask ‘why?’ a total of five times and you should find yourself closer to the root cause of your feelings. Let me give you a general example of this in practice; it’s not really related to ‘shame’ but it’s something I was a bit embarrassed about for a while. So I would rate my social wellbeing as needing work. Why? Because I spend almost 100% of my time at home (I mean I work from home, but even outside of work time I mostly choose to stay home). Why is that? Well, it’s because COVID restrictions have meant that I cannot always travel (although we’re very fortunate in Australia compared to some countries and have few restrictions at the moment). Why is that the response I gave? Well, because if I’m really honest then it’s actually more a case of not wanting to travel anywhere even when there aren’t restrictions — I just stay in my little bubble which is about a 50km radius (about 31 miles). Why is that the case? Because I feel like I’m putting myself and my loved ones at risk, even when I’m being safe. Why is that? Well, it’s because of fear and anxiety triggered by the pandemic.

So, do you see just how different the responses are from one to five? If I just tried to respond to the first one or two answers, that would very likely do nothing… because the deeper reason why I need to do work on my social wellbeing is that fear and anxiety have been holding me back from going anywhere. If I want to deal with the situation, I need to work through that fear and anxiety (which, by the way, I am doing at the moment as part of working with my therapist to get my emotional eating under control, which has been going very well so far!). So the whole piece here, which has been quite lengthy, is about actually digging into why you might be feeling shame so that you can understand the root cause; which leads me to my next point…

Address the root cause(s) — so there are two pieces here. First, if it’s coming from an external source (like another person), make it stop. What I mean by that is to set and maintain clear boundaries, and be sure that the other person understands what the unacceptable behaviour is and why its unacceptable; it’s then up to them to decide whether or not they’re going to treat you with dignity as a fellow human being. If not, that’s 100% about them and their issues — you have no control over that, other than to stick to your boundaries and, if you need to, walk away. Look, I’m pretty blunt about this stuff and it’s because, for me, I dealt with so much bullying when I was a teenager that it led me to have a very low tolerance for bullshit. If someone treats me with disrespect, I let them know that I won’t tolerate it (and why) and provide them with an opportunity to change how they interact with me, but it’s a three-strikes-and-you’re-out thing and if it continues then I’m done. You owe it to yourself to treat yourself with respect, and that means not putting up with harmful, judgemental shit from other people. I covered boundaries in Episode 53 so check that out for more on the subject.

The second piece here is, if the shame is coming from within (like how you think about yourself), work on your self-esteem. I talked about this topic extensively in Episode 43 and I encourage you to check that out for more on the subject, however in a nutshell it’s about recognising that the way you think about yourself is entirely, 100%, up to you… nobody can change your mindset for you but you, and if you’re finding it difficult to see your self-worth and to celebrate all the wonderful things about yourself then you are missing out. Speaking of, my next point is…

Tackle your self-talk — this was the subject of Episode 9 so I’ll just cover this briefly and then you can check that out for more (head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes where the audio and full transcript are available for free), but the thing here is that how you talk to yourself matters because it reinforces what you think about yourself. If you tell yourself things like “I can’t do anything right” or “I’m stupid” then all you’re doing is keeping yourself down, and the fact of the matter is that these thoughts are just not true; if you really were that stupid you wouldn’t have made it to whatever age you are in life, so stop treating yourself so poorly! You hopefully wouldn’t tolerate someone else speaking to you like that, so stop accepting it from yourself. Which leads me to my next point…

Choose to incorporate kindness into your mindset and into everything you do — I talked about kindness in Episode 41 as well as mindset in Episode 31, and these things really are the foundation of good mental health because how you treat others and how you treat yourself will directly shape your entire world. Do no harm, be kind and give more than you take; these are things that matter in terms of how you treat other people, and how you treat yourself. I firmly believe that if you focus on living those three principles in everything you do, say and feel, then shame really shouldn’t be part of the equation because that means you are making conscious choices every day to be the best version of yourself possible.

And hopefully this goes without saying but I’m going to put it out there… don’t judge other people — I really believe that judgement is the root of 99.9% of problems in the world because it’s effectively one person saying ‘I’m better than you’ which we all know is a load of shit. Nobody is perfect, nobody has all the answers, and nobody’s version of ‘right’ is actually right. Nobody is better than another person. So because I talk a lot about how what you put out comes back to you, I want to remind you that if you’re judging other people then don’t be surprised when other people judge you. Please treat people the way that you wish to be treated. I know this Gandhi quote gets used all the time, but you really do need to be the change you wish to see in the world, so don’t judge other people. 

If you’re dealing with shame, talk to someone you trust (like a family member or close friend) — look, we all know some people are just not going to be understanding (or it may take them some time), but hopefully you know at least one person who is generally reasonable and understanding: talk to them. The more we internalise negative stuff, the more it eats away at our soul. There’s a good reason why the Post Secret website and Instagram account continue to be so popular after many, many years — if you’ve never heard of it, check it out at postsecret.com or @postsecret on Instagram; it started in 2005 and people send their anonymous secrets in on a postcard or online, and it’s fascinating to see the things people keep bottled up or what they feel shame about. I am a big advocate of choosing to release your secrets; find a way to do that which feels appropriate for you. One of the best ways to do that is with…

Therapy — I’m officially the poster child for therapy now lol and I’ll be continuing it well after I’ve worked through my current challenges with anxiety and emotional eating, because there is something so powerful about talking to another person on a regular basis where you know that (a) what you say is completely confidential, (b) that person isn’t going to judge you, and (c) the person is going to be objective with you and help you to look at things from different perspectives. It doesn’t need to cost a fortune; there are some very reasonably-priced counselling and coaching services, just make sure you’re selecting someone who clarifies their approach (for example, a person-centric approach which is about talking therapy and helping you to find the answers that feel right for you) as well as making sure that you know what their policy is on confidentiality, because you want to know that you can say whatever you need to say without it being shared (and that’s a basic expectation from a professional in this space, but never assume — always check). 

Whatever you choose to do, do something — because as I said before, shame will eat away at your soul if you let it fester.

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to shame and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: Sometimes there is so much pressure put on us by society, our family, our peers, our community… and there is this expectation that we need to conform to this idea of ‘normal’ which, frankly, just does not exist. Your normal, my normal, someone else’s normal… no two ‘normals’ are alike, because we are all unique individuals and there is no single correct version of what you must say and do, and how you must live your life. Be true to yourself and recognise that shame, in all of its many forms, is just doing more harm than good, so let it go and focus on choosing to be the best version of yourself possible.

The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today? 

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is another by the American writer and researcher Brené Brown, and it is:

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame [cannot] can’t survive.”

Brené Brown 

Next week I’ll be talking about truth. I often say that in any situation there are three versions of the truth: yours, mine, and the actual truth. And the reason I say that is because so much of this notion of ‘truth’ is tied up in how we perceive the world and how we perceive ourselves, as well as how we judge ourselves based on our intentions versus our behaviour. So next week I’m going to dig into the topic of truth and how it relates to your mental health and wellbeing, as well as your relationships with other people. I’ll be talking about what truth is (and what it isn’t), why real truth matters, and how to incorporate genuine truth into everything you do for the sake of your wellbeing. 

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday 28th March. And join me for Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube, with new episodes released every Wednesday. 

Head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for links and past episodes (including audio links and full transcripts) and while you’re there join the Let’s Talk About Mental Health mailing list to have exclusive updates land in your inbox — those of you on my email list receive the full transcript for each episode every week and you also find out about new stuff related to the show and my work at least a week before anybody else, so if you like this show then sign up at the website: letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au.

You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, where I post extra content throughout the week, and if you follow me on Instagram then you’ll notice that I make a point of interacting with as many people as possible there so it’s a great way to continue the conversation!

Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

Did you like what you just read? Then please share this with someone who might appreciate it, like a friend, family member, or coworkerbecause word of mouth helps other people to find Let’s Talk About Mental Health! Thank you 🙂

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2021 Jeremy Godwin.

One thought on “Let’s Talk About… Shame

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