One of the most damaging and painful emotions that we experience as human beings is shame. Most of us feel guilt for the ways in which we’ve hurt other people, for the mistakes we’ve made, and for the wrongdoings we regret. This is normal. It tells us that we have a conscience, that we have the self-awareness to reflect on ourselves and our actions. It helps us to implement the lessons we’ve learned in order to do better moving forward. Some of us, however, take that guilt several steps further. We allow it to permeate our entire beings as feelings of shame, the overarching feeling that something is inherently wrong with us, that we are horrible people undeserving of forgiveness.
When we are ashamed, we no longer believe in our goodness or in our potential to change. We feel like all hope is lost for us to live fulfilling, rewarding, satisfying lives. We feel we’ll never be happy. We might forget all the good things we’ve ever done in our lives, all the people we’ve helped, all the progress we’ve made. We instead believe we are inadequate and inferior to other people. We are quick to blame ourselves, especially for the trauma we’ve experienced. It is second nature for us to focus on our weaknesses, our perceived faults and flaws.
All of this contributes to our belief about ourselves that we are and always will be shameful people. We can’t forgive ourselves, nor do we expect others to. As we allow our shame to fester and grow, we tend to become self-destructive. Why would we be good to ourselves when we feel so much shame? We don’t feel we deserve our own kindness and compassion. Our thoughts and behaviors reflect this self-destructiveness, and we develop patterns of self-abuse and self-harm. For many of us this can start in childhood, forming the behavioral and emotional patterns that become our addictions, depression and other mental health issues.
Examples of self-destructiveness can include engaging in compulsive sexual behaviors and experimenting with drugs, alcohol and other substances. These behaviors can provide a temporary escape from our feelings of shame, but like with any addiction, they don’t heal the shame, they compound it. Now not only do we feel the underlying shame that was already there, we feel shame for our self-destructive behaviors as well. This increased shame drives us to want to self-destruct more, escape more, bury our pain under things that give us momentary feelings of distraction and relief, causing ourselves even more pain. These are the cycles of addiction and self-destruction fueled by our persistent feelings of shame.
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