When was the last time you felt ashamed? I don’t just mean feeling ‘bad’, like when you forget to take the bins out or hit snooze one too many times in the morning (guilty).
I mean self-critical, searing, loathsome shame; the sort of gnawing self-reproach you can physically feel deep in your gut that lingers much longer than any fleeting feeling of guilt. You feel, quite literally, sick to your stomach.
So, when was the last time you felt that sort of shame? I’ll go first. It was Tuesday night and my friend and I had gone out for dinner to a pizza place we’d wanted to try since it opened up last year. We ordered a pizza each and a bottle of wine and spent the evening chatting and laughing. When we realised we couldn’t finish our pizzas, we ordered them to go. Sitting in the taxi on the way home, my boxed-up pizza in my lap and my stomach bloated with food, I felt stricken with remorse. All I could think of was how I could ‘make up for’ the excess calories the following day.
I know what you’re thinking: this doesn’t sound very feminist or ‘body acceptant‘ of me. Well, that’s because it isn’t. After a long history of disordered eating, I’d be lying if I said my relationship with my body is always a happy and healthy one. But that thought – that I was being a terrible feminist for blaming myself for what I’d eaten – only compounded my shame. I went to bed that night tangled up in shame and wresting with my abusive self-talk and barely slept the whole night. It took another day or so for these feelings to fully subside when, really, all I should have been thinking was: damn, that was such a good pizza (it really was).
Sadly, I imagine that a lot of you will relate to feelings of shame around food (the result of being raised in a patriarchal society riddled with pervasive diet culture and dangerous beauty ideals), but shame doesn’t just exist around the way we look. In fact, it infiltrates almost every corner of our lives – particularly during the pandemic.
I’ve lost count of how many conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues who feel ashamed for losing contact with loved ones during lockdown, for lacking motivation and purpose at work, for cancelling plans post-‘Freedom Day‘, for being safe and healthy while so many others are suffering.
As well as the obvious impact on our mental health, shame can also manifest in our bodies physically. A study by the University of California investigated the relationship between shame and illness by observing how students’ opinion of themselves impacted their immune systems. Those who felt shame showed an increase in ‘cytokine activity’ – basically, an increase in inflammation – which could, researchers said, have longterm physiological consequences.
So, how does shame shape our lives, and how can we break the vicious cycle of shame and self-criticism?
“Shame is the emotion connected with the idea of being a bad or unworthy person,” says Dr Samantha Hartley, clinical psychologist at Pennine Care NHS Foundation Trust. “In that sense, it differs from guilt as guilt is tied more to an action worthy of apology; rather than linked with our sense of self. Shame is something that many people carry with them, like a heavy invisible backpack.”
Shame can, Dr Hartley says, lead to self-attacking and self-criticism, and create a toxic relationship with ourselves and potentially those around us.
“Shame often develops in the context of mistreatment and is associated with a number of mental health difficulties,” she explains. “When we experience contempt, criticism, blame or abuse from others – either in our early life or our adult relationships – we can then internalise that relationship. We might become super-sensitive to criticism from others, or dwell on mistakes of our own. We might adopt the same critical and hostile relationship with ourselves that others did (having a go at ourselves putting ourselves down) or work really hard to avoid it (trying to a ‘good person’ through occupations, relationships, hobbies and so on).”
This can lead to us avoiding closeness in relationships or even refusing to connect with ourselves, Dr Hartley explains. “Shame thrives on being hidden – we might have the sense that if people knew the real us, they’d reject us. This can lead to anxiety, sadness, loneliness, anger and frustration.”
Unfortunately, there’s no quick-fix to tackling shame, and dismantling patterns of negative self-talk takes time and commitment, particularly when more compassionate alternatives feel unfamiliar and vulnerable.
“Cultivating a more compassionate, soothing relationship with ourselves can be like training different muscles – it takes time, energy and the right environment,” says Dr Hartley.
“We can all work to reduce shame by contributing to a culture where abuse is tackled, where compassion is cultivated and where people are accepted,” she adds. “It’s so important that we cultivate safe therapeutic and social relationships.”
The best way to do this is through a talking therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or counselling. To find psychological therapy services in your area, visit NHS.uk, and visit mind.org for help and information. And remember, you’re not alone.