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Shame does not mean "I am bad"

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The Shame Lady's Blog

Shame does not mean "I am bad"

Kristina Cizmar

I feel like a bit of a shame heretic by saying that shame does not mean "I am bad." After all, that's how shame is popularly defined, and that's what shame feels like. But the problem is - defining shame as "I am bad" is harmful to our well-being!

Here's what's wrong with the "I am bad" definition of shame:

  1. It's a dead end. We might be able to change our behavior, our surroundings, our thoughts, and other things in our lives, but we can't change who we essentially are.
  2. It inclines us toward depression. Think of what therapists call "globalized negative" statements - "I suck"; "My life is a complete failure"; "I can never do anything right." These are hallmarks of depression. "I am bad" fits right in with these.
  3. It separates us from our social context. We end up looking inward for the problem and a solution. But shame doesn't arise in a social vacuum, so we aren't going to find a fix by only looking within ourselves. 

There is a better way and it starts with a new definition of shame. One that restores the social aspect of shame, and gives us a new perspective.

For me personally, redefining shame was a revelation. I realized that all those books I had read and audio programs I had listened to on shame, self-esteem, self-acceptance, self-love, self-compassion - they were all telling me (usually in a kind way)  that I needed to change something about myself or change my emotions, or that my feelings could or should be overridden.

But what if... what if the problem isn't me? What if the "problem" is actually my very human need for belonging? What if my early life experiences had left me with a deep feeling of "I'm not good enough to belong"? Now that is something I can work with! I felt like I'd been gazing down at my own belly button looking for a solution, when what I really needed to do was look up and look around. THAT is the difference that a new definition of shame has made for me.