There are two parts to this question.
First of all, I will address what shame, as an emotion, is.
Secondly, I will talk about how to deal with shame when you experience it.
So, let’s jump in.
The Emotions as Tools Model maintains that all emotions have a message.
The message of the emotion informs you about the lens through which you are viewing the situation in which you find yourself.
In other words, your emotions…
- arise within a given situation,
- are “caused” by and reflect your interpretation of your situation and
- inform (or call your attention to) how you are interpreting what is going on
The message of shame is that there is something wrong with you as a person.
Your shame tells you that you perceive the actions you have taken or the situation you are in as caused by the “fact” that you are, in some way, FLAWED, BAD, INADEQUATE, DAMAGED or INCOMPLETE.
Notice that I put the word “fact” in quotes and the characteristics in CAPS. I did this because there is no “proof” that you are FLAWED.
There are four facts here:
- You, as a human, are definitely not perfect.
- You define your weaknesses as FLAWS.
- You can improve, grow and change.
- There is no “proof” that you are flawed or damaged.
Let me use the manufacturing process of a product as a metaphor here.
When a product such as a computer component or a brake-pad is made, it is examined by quality control people before it is released. If it is “flawed” or damaged, it is discarded. The company does not want to ship flawed or damaged goods. If the product is not perfect and can be repaired, it may be fixed and sold at a reduced price.
You are not perfect and may need to be upgraded (self-change through therapy or a personal decision) but you are not flawed.
Shame can develop in a child when parents too often communicate that what a child does (his or her behavior) comes about because the child is a “BAD” boy not because he or she DID something wrong.
Now, I need to stop here for a moment…
I am not saying that you are forever damaging your child if you tell them “You’re a bad boy (or girl).” Every parent probably does this on occasion. I know I have. But, if this is the message that you overwhelmingly communicate to your kid (AS OPPOSED TO “WHAT YOU DID WAS WRONG!”) then you may be setting up your kid for future problems.
A similar problematic situation is one in which a parent denies their own responsibility in an interaction and blames the kid. This can happen when a parent says, “If you hadn’t done (x,y or z), I wouldn’t have gotten mad and beat you.”
Shame is a powerful emotion that can be used to subjugate or control another person.
This is often the scenario in abusive relationships.
Victims of abuse often feel shame when they are physically, emotionally and/or sexually beat down, treated as if they are worthless and blame themselves.
Now that you know the message of shame, you can use this knowledge to work through, resolve, or reconcile your shame.
You do this by challenging the “message” with questions.
- What proof do I have that I am flawed (beyond the fact that no human is perfect)?
I can tell you that there is no “proof” other than what you may have been told by others.
- In this situation, what might I have done that was dumb, inappropriate, or inadequate?
This question shifts your focus from yourself to your actions.
Note that when you feel bad about something you have done, the emotion that you experience could be guilt, embarassment, ridicule, disappointment, or humiliation.
While all of these feelings clearly inform you that you have done something wrong, inappropriate or even stupid, none of these feelings imply that you, as a person, are damaged, unredeemable, or bad.
What you are doing is allowing the feeling of shame to correctly change into guilt, embarassment, ridicule, disappointment, or humiliation.
This enables you to better and more objectively view your situation.
You can then use these behavior focused emotions strategically to guide you in making amends, better decisions, and more adaptive behavior?
This is the basis of strategically using your emotions as tools.
The next question you need to ask is…
- Have I, indeed, done something wrong or have I misinterpreted what is going on?
If you have “screwed-up”, you need to acknowledge what you have done.
If you have misunderstood what is going on, you can engage others and change your perception of the event.
On my blog, TheEmotionsDoctor.com, I have over 150 posts on topics dealing with all aspects of emotions. To help you access this all this information, I have included an “index to all posts” tab which allows you to access any specific post you want with a click. Let me suggest that, when you are done reading this answer, you click on over to my blog and browse through the index categories.