How to Turn Shame Into Changed Behavior

Experts say shame leads to continued maladaptive behavior, here are a few steps to stop the cycle.

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Photo by @felipepelaquim on Unsplash

Originally published in the Medium publication, Invisible Illness. (Apologies for the highlighting, it’s from that platform and there doesn’t seem to be a way to undo it…Wordpress 🙄)

Have you ever felt shame after making a mistake? How did it feel? And, what did you do with that feeling? According to science, odds are that it felt just miserable, so you repressed it, and then wound up repeating the err.

But while shame can feel unpleasant, it’s just something that happens in life; just like an occasional screw up is part of life.

And shaming is something that just happens in life, especially when people are emotionally triggered. While expecting a friendly explanation in response to an offensive mistake is unreasonable (due to the immense power of our ‘fight or flight’ response) — we do have power over what we do with our shame.

According to Scientific American, “We feel shame when we violate the social norms we believe in.” And, unfortunately, we can feel shame without even making a mistake.

For example, I’ve been trying to recover from a neurological crisis, which often leaves me trapped inside my tiny studio due to an inability to handle the light, sun, noises, and unpredictability of the outside world — but I’ve been doing increasingly better, even getting back to my beloved morning sun puddle meditation.

Today was a freakishly hot January day, even for Southern California, and I gratefully got to celebrate with an hour-long break to take a quick dip in the (still freezing) ocean, then soaked up the gloriously hot sun for a bit.

I needed it so bad, and it was sheer freakin’ bliss.

And yet, I got the ickiest feeling right after posting about my dreamy experience on Insta — a feeling I’m all too familiar with as a disabled person: shame.

My mind suddenly filled with haunting words from my past, we well as many aimed at others in my situation; words that amount to the sentiment that it’s not okay for disabled people to enjoy ourselves, as if managing to appreciate life makes us less disabled, less in need of support when we do need it.

I’ll admit, it’s tempting to go on a diatribe about how defeating it can feel to regularly share your struggle to only have people react resentfully when hearing of a good day, but this article isn’t about how misleading surface observations can be, and it’s not about the value of learning to be happy for others.

This article is about shame.

I’m doing my absolute best, which know in a very concrete way; because, like so many disabled folks, I keep winding up back into bodily malfunction due to pushing myself too hard.

And why do I do keep doing this?

Shame.

I sometimes feel like a bad person due to my inability to perform as other adults perform in our society. People have given up on me, and it made me want to give up on myself.

It made me feel like less. Capable of less. Worthy of less.

That’s what shame does.

It’s not the unpleasant-but-effective sting of guilt, the feeling of remorse caused by fucking up and wishing we hadn’t upset things. And it’s not the valuable experience of repentance, in which we reflect on our wrong-doings and commit to correcting our behavior.

Again from Scientific American, “Shame makes us direct our focus inward and view our entire self in a negative light. Feelings of guilt, in contrast, result from a concrete action for which we accept responsibility. Guilt causes us to focus our attention on the feelings of others.”

Shame is the mofo that makes people conflate the mistake with who they are. It’s when folks give up on themselves; deciding that since they’ll never do better, they may as well not try at all. It’s why people decide having a negative effect on society is better than no effect at all.

Sociological researcher Brené Brown professes, “Shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the [associated] fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”

And work done by other scientists backs her up — the Association for Psychological Science found that “inmates who feel guilt about specific behaviors are more likely to stay out of jail later on, whereas those that are inclined to feel shame about the self might not.”

Because shame is such an unpleasant feeling, it’s often repressed; which leads to a lack of accountability, of never reflecting on the mistake, nor seeking counsel on how to not repeat it.

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Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash

And in a society like ours, where taking accountability for a mistake might get you thrown under the proverbial bus — this is happening a lot.

It’s very likely that even you’ve felt too bad to acknowledge an err, dooming yourself to repeat it. (Who hasn’t?)

Maybe you’re even doing it right now, let’s see — how do you feel when you think about the last mistake you made?

Listen to the language of your immediate response. Do you feel like a worse person for it, or do you simply wish you could do it over again, but better?

Another helpful way to spot shame within yourself is to reflect on the areas of your life that make you feel like you’re less in other people’s eyes. When (and why) do you feel diminished in life?

Here are a few tried-and-true suggestions to help get it to bugger off and change your ways:

1. Own it.

For example, “I have several disabilities and this presently results in an inability to perform a ‘normal’ amount of responsibilities, despite this I still sometimes allow myself (very) occasional leisure breaks instead of striving to get more done; this brings me shame because I can’t meet up to society’s expectations of a ‘good’ adult.”

2. Look for a mistake.

If you find that you’ve erred, identify the behavior that led to it, and seek outside advice to correct that behavior. That can be found in more articles like this, trusted humans, and/or professional support, like a therapist.

If you don’t, precisely identify why it wasn’t a mistake. (If you can’t specifically identify this, your ego may be involved.) Ex., “Taking an hour to recharge in nature is good for me, it inspires me, which actually helps me write/work; especially since autistic burnout is a big part of my neurological troubles. I’m also a human being who is worthy of the pursuit of happiness, and I truly know that I am doing my very best to contribute to society and meet my responsibilities. Everyone needs a break sometimes.”

3. Try, try, again.

If you’ve erred, apologize without attachment to being forgiven, or otherwise do what you can to make it right. Either way, keep your awareness peeled for repeat situations, watching your reactions, and trying to adjust them. Repeat, persistently working to change this behavior. (And be kind to yourself in the process, change very often takes time. All we can do is our very best.)

Also look for the various ways it appears in our society, sometimes blatantly, and sometimes with more subtlety (perhaps even with an unintelligible smile) — you’ll very likely observe that it’s pretty freakin’ ubiquitous, with all kinds of opportunities for more effective change.

As Brown says, “I believe the differences between shame and guilt are critical in informing everything from the way we parent and engage in relationships, to the way we give feedback at work and school.”

Meg Hartley studied sociology and psychology extensively in college and has been engaged in self-education in the 15 years since. As a recently-diagnosed Level 2 autistic woman who’s masked large portions of her personality for decades, she’s also all too familiar with the feeling of shame (and its highly counterproductive results).

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Photo by Ravi Roshan on Unsplash

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