Shame, Guilt, Regret. These are all very close friends of mine.
It’s not just because I grew up Catholic, though–and honestly no hate to the religious here–that was definitely where my guilt cut its teeth. Whether living with Depression, Bipolar, or just the human condition, its important we develop a healthy relationship with our shame before it overtakes us.
Origins of Shame: Know your enemy
Guilt has been inherent in human society seemingly forever, as demonstrated by our history of shame based punishments.
The practice dates back to early history, and is still used both by the legal system, and by individuals. From medieval shame masks and colonial stocks to more modern internet shaming, humans love to guilt each other as punishment.
Overtly, the goal of shame based punishments is to keep social order. By presenting those who have breached the social norms as an example, it keeps the rest of society in line. This is why there are strict codes of conduct for religious and military groups. (source)
Some suggest, however, that those who shame others are revealing more about themselves, than those they shamed.
Trust and Punishment
So called “Third-party punishment” operates under the idea that there is an in group (those who follow “normal conduct”) and an out group (everyone else). The desire to maintain membership to the in group is what may drive shame.
In a study of hundreds of volunteers, it was found that the willingness to shame others was perceived as trustworthiness and fairness. The natural extrapolation being, Participate in shaming or risk being shunned and shamed yourself.
Why Shame Matters
Shame has a number of consequences even for those without mood disorders. When it attaches itself to your self-image and self-worth, these consequences multiply exponentially.
Marilyn J. Sorensen, Ph.D. suggests in her book, Breaking the Chain of Low Self-Esteem: “Early in life, individuals develop an internalized view of themselves as adequate or inadequate within the world,”
This internalized view becomes our self-esteem, our self-worth, and our shame. When it ingrains itself deep enough, that may lead to Depression and other mental disorders. (source)
Shame with Depression, Anxiety, and Bipolar
One of my least favorite parts of Bipolar Disorder is the loneliness. It’s not loneliness in the sense of being physically alone, but being outside the group. Not being “Normal”.
Thankfully, Dr. Sorensen suggests that I am not alone. In reference to those with low self-esteem, she says:
“They are afraid they won’t know the rules or that they’ve blundered, misspoken or acted in ways others might consider inappropriate. Or they might perceive that others reject or are critical of them.”
This is a fear that grips me almost constantly, and it has certainly fed into my illness.
When you combine this fear with the history of “shame or be shamed” politics, every small slight is perceived as a rejection. When someone criticizes even the smallest thing, it can be seen as a possible prelude to being completely abandoned.
Usually, this results in destructive behavior, whether it is self-destructive or toward others.
The other problem with shame and mental illness is that shame rewards those who fall in with the majority, and with rare exception, those with mental illnesses do not. We act differently than the majority of people, and so are shamed for our difference. The result being, the very thing that put is down is continually kicking us. And so, we can never hope to get up.
When shame moved in
Low self-esteem comes from years and years of reinforcement. If this goes on long enough, the shame may take residence. In those with predispositions for mental illness, this may be a trigger. (source)
When someone engages in shaming, they are suggesting: I am trustworthy, I belong, I am one of you. and consequently saying to the shamed: You are not one of us, you do not belong, you are alone and unworthy.
It is no wonder that common symptoms of Depression are feelings of loneliness, detachment, and in extreme cases, suicide. The minds of those with mood disorders look like telephone poles with hundreds of posters stapled to it saying: “You don’t belong”, “You’re not enough”, “No one cares for you”, and “Give up”.
Why we must fight shame
Today, shame is more accessible than ever. With social media and every opportunity to “voice your opinion”, shame has become a full time job for some. Unfortunately, it is often the most vulnerable who take the brunt of this shaming.
When combined with mental illness and other factors, shame can lead to suicide, violence, and hate crimes. The continual “trolling” and fighting on comments sections on message boards while harmless to the average reader, can be devastating to those with the feeling that they already do not belong.
We are doing something wrong.
Choose no shame
Society tells us that our options are shame or be shamed.
I reject that and offer a third option: Give up shame.
We do not need to degrade others to prove our worthiness. Every time we choose not to engage in shaming, we contribute to a better world.
We need to create a new criteria of trustworthiness, belonging and self-esteem:
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