Overcoming Shame-based Thinking
Overpowering negative emotions can derail efforts at achieving sobriety. A few therapy-informed techniques can help you stay on course.
Many of our feelings are simple reactions to specific events that we perceive as pleasant or unpleasant. After the event is over, the related feeling usually fades away. We can easily see that our emotions are fleeting and impermanent.
Shame does not work this way. The hallmark of shame is a constant awareness of our defects. Without realizing it, we become continual victims of shame-based thinking. Every day, we focus on our failures. Every day, we re-convince ourselves that we are defective. Our thoughts become riddled with judgment, regret, and images of impending failure.
When we consciously articulate these shame-based thoughts, we might be shocked at their severity. In Letting Go of Shame, Ronald Potter-Efron and Patricia Potter-Efron list the following examples:
- I am defective (damaged, broken, a mistake, flawed).
- I am dirty (soiled, ugly, unclean, impure, filthy, disgusting).
- I am incompetent (not good enough, inept, ineffectual, useless).
- I am unwanted (unloved, unappreciated, uncherished).
- I am weak (small, impotent, puny, feeble).
- I am bad (awful, dreadful, evil, despicable).
- I am pitiful (contemptible, miserable, insignificant).
- I am nothing (worthless, invisible, unnoticed, empty).
Shame develops as the slow, relentless accumulation of such thoughts--one self-insult at a time, delivered to ourselves over weeks, months, and years. Notice that each of the previous statements starts with the words I am. This reinforces our definition of shame as a state of being that goes far beyond anything we do or fail to do.
If we look closely, we can see that those shame-based thoughts exist on more than one level. The first level is an exhaustive list of our faults. The second level is an added message that those faults are permanent. In short, the first level is "I am not good." The second level is "I'll never be good enough."
In addition, it doesn't matter how well we perform in school, on the job, or at home. Shame-based thinking lingers. It colors the way we perceive everything. It leads us to automatically discount our skills and successes. Even if we receive recognition or praise, shame-based thinking forces us to explain it away: I don't deserve appreciation. . . . If only they knew who I really am. . . . They don't really mean what they're saying. . . . They're just setting me up for failure.
Other Hazelden authors agree that shame-based thoughts tend to be permanent and pervasive. These authors go on to identify additional features of shame-based thinking:
- Negative explanations of other people's behavior
- Dire predictions
- Selective focus on negative aspects of events
- Doubt in coping skills
- Rigid rules about how people should behave
Thinking that's marked by these characteristics leads to several paradoxical results. One is that we often believe we're being responsible when the truth is that we're just being controlling. This results from our rigid rules for how other people should behave and for how events should unfold. Trying to enforce those rules leads us to monitor other people's behavior and criticize them whenever they violate one of our many expectations.
Second, we become prey for perfectionism. Only an error-free performance can ever satisfy the demands imposed by shame-based thinking. Mistakes are disasters and cannot be openly admitted. The paradox is that we cling to perfection while remaining constantly aware of our imperfections.
A third paradox is that being highly critical of ourselves makes us highly critical of other people. We see our own faults mirrored in our family members, friends, and co-workers. We judge them, and in turn they perceive us as arrogant and self-righteous. The truth is that we see little of value in ourselves.
A final paradox is that we see our self-defeating thoughts as a form of self-protection and a way to escape from shame. In reality, however, we find ourselves even more victimized by shame than ever. We continually focus on the worst that could possibly happen--every new project resulting in failure, every new relationship ending in pain. In our mind, we relive mistakes over and over again, trying to explain and understand them, hoping to prevent them from ever happening again. In the end, we just feel more sad and fearful. Our shame is reinforced.
Challenge Shame-Based Thoughts
There's a saying: "Don't believe everything you think." This is a core principle of cognitive-behavioral therapy. Instead of viewing your thoughts as absolute truths, see them as mental events to observe and evaluate. Be willing to challenge shame-based thoughts and replace them with more accurate thoughts.
As explained earlier, shame-based thinking has several characteristics. It is often based on dire predictions, doubt in your coping skills, selective focus on negative aspects of events, negative explanations of others' behavior, and rigid rules about how people should behave.
... Choose a specific thought that you'd like to work with, such as I'll never find a job or If this relationship ends, I'll never get over it. Then challenge this thought by asking any of the following questions:
- Is this thought really true?
- How do I know it's true?
- What is the evidence for this thought?
- What is the evidence against this thought?
- Can I think of any times when this thought has not been true?
- Is this thought helping me or hurting me?
- Who would I be if I let go of this thought?
- What could I do if I let go of this thought?
- Am I willing to release this thought?
- What's the worst that could happen if I let go of this thought? Can I live with that?
Excerpted from the e-book How to Change Your Thinking about Shame: A Hazelden Quick Guide. Published by Hazelden, 2012. Visit the Hazelden bookstore for more information.
Passage on shame-based thoughts cited from Ronald Potter-Efron and Patricia Potter-Efron’s Letting Go of Shame: Understanding How Shame Affects Your Life (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 1989), 14, 115.