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December 8, 2020

Why Do We Self-Shame? – #MTtalk Roundup

Yolande Conradie

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©©Getty Images/SvetaZi

We shame ourselves for not being thin enough or attractive enough. We shame ourselves for not being successful enough, rich enough, fit enough, or because we don't get enough "likes" on Instagram.

Why do we do it to ourselves? In our latest #MTtalk Twitter chat, as part of our initiative on Reflect, Recover, Reset, we discussed what self-shaming looks like, why we do it, and how to stop it.

Shame on Her? No, Shame on Me!

"We cannot grow when we are in shame, and we can't use shame to change ourselves or others."

Brené Brown, U.S. author and academic

There she is again: that fat, unattractive woman. Honestly, how does she get through a single day looking like that? Shame on her! How does she have the nerve to stick her nose out the door, never mind that rear end?

Does she expect to be loved and respected looking like that? It's obvious that she has no self-discipline or self-control. What could she possibly amount to in life?

If you think that sounds a bit harsh, you'd be right. But those were my thoughts about that fat woman, that she deserved it. But the fat lady was me. I was talking to my reflection in the mirror. Every time I saw myself I felt sick and disgusted. Shame on me.

Shame Was a Normal Feeling

I was 21 years old, and nearly 90 pounds overweight. Some nights, I dreamed that I was thin again. I dreamed of a version of me that was acceptable to my mother, that didn't look like a giant next to my petite sister, a version of me that I could be proud of.

But I'd wake up in my fat body, with tears streaming down my face.

They say that you don't know what you don't know. What I'm sharing next might sound unbelievable: I thought that how I felt about myself was completely normal. It wasn't until I was in my late 20s that I learned "self-shaming" existed. To me, it was normal to talk to myself that way. I thought that it would help me to "discipline" myself into a better version of me.

Self-shaming is not a very effective way of changing yourself or of dealing with mistakes. I only learned that when, with the help of a therapist, I came to understand the concept of self-shaming. I started accepting myself and my body, and with self-acceptance came the ability to love myself enough that I wanted what was best for me and my health: losing the excess weight – which I did.

Where Do We Learn Self-Shaming?

Self-shaming is a learned behavior. In other words, you hear and see people around you shame themselves and others. It becomes normalized behavior, especially if you are the one being shamed.

In my case, I heard my family fat-shaming other people long before I was ever overweight. It was no secret that they thought of overweight people as "less than."

In their opinion, "those people" simply had to get their act together and start losing weight. Being fat was much worse than being unkind or unforgiving. That's not what their words said, but that's the story their behavior told.

I've also experienced organized religion as being very adept at using shame as a mechanism to keep people "in line." In schools, even inept teachers use it to "discipline" learners!

The Unfairness of Shame

Recently, I had a conversation that I couldn't get out of my mind. A friend was talking to me about her overweight (adult) daughter, and how ashamed she is of her daughter's appearance. That was her focus, not that her daughter is an exceptionally gifted woman, and very successful in her professional career.

I asked her if she realized that what her daughter needs most is to be loved and accepted unconditionally, as she is now. She said she knew, but she couldn't help how she reacted. My friend admitted, "She says when I walk in the door, I look at her and lift my brows. I can't control it. I've always wanted to be thin and I don't understand why it doesn't bother her that she's fat."

Her words felt like someone stabbed me in my heart. It was like my own story all over again. I heard the pain of a daughter who had to live in a state of apology for not being the way her mother thought she should be.

I heard the unfairness of thin discriminating against fat. And I heard arrogance – the type of arrogance that makes one person think they're so much better than another because of their appearance, and that it's okay to shame or treat the other person poorly based on their looks.

On the one hand, I wanted to tell this woman in no uncertain terms how much she's damaging her daughter. On the other, I wanted to deal with the situation like a therapist, but she isn't my client. I had to change the topic to navigate through the conversation safely.

The Effects of Self-Shame

Looking back at my younger self, I realize that it must have been difficult to work with me. Someone who is so used to being shamed and feeling bad about themself tends to be defensive and over-sensitive. I can remember taking every bit of criticism personally.

I also felt like an impostor for many years. Even after I had completed two degrees "cum laude" in the top five percent of my group, I still felt like I was a fraud and that one day someone was going to "find me out," because I never felt good enough.

People who are constantly feeling a sense of shame might struggle to reach their full potential. They might also not put forward their ideas and speak up in meetings. Years of pent-up resentment and anger mean they often have to learn how to be assertive, rather than become aggressive or passive-aggressive.

Why Do We Shame Ourselves?

Maybe we shame ourselves for not being able to perfectly juggle our careers, children, partners, working from home, and cooking all meals from scratch. Maybe we don't stick to our six-days-a-week exercise regimen and don't get eight hours of sleep every night.

Here are the questions we asked during our #MTtalk Twitter chat, and some of your most insightful responses:

Q1. What is shame? How do you define it?

@J_Stephens_CPA Shame is an emotional response to stimulus. While most of the other responses covered the negative aspects of shame, there is a positive aspect. Shame is what we feel when we've done something wrong and know we shouldn't have. It is usually accompanied by remorse.

@MicheleDD_MT A feeling that I am flawed, that I am not good enough or unworthy. So, I beat myself up.

Q2. What are some examples of "shame words" or self-shaming phrases?

@lg217 Examples of shame words are curse words, as well as words that are hurtful to others. I do not wish to say them, but anything that harms someone's race or character is a shameful word.

@emapirciu Shame words: you can't do it/shouldn't do it. It's too much for you. You're doing it wrong. You've always been a little silly. You should feel bad about what you did. You're not a good person. You should be ashamed of yourself. How dare you?

Q3. Why do we shame ourselves? Where/how did you learn to self-shame?

@carriemaslen We learn or feel shame when we compare ourselves to others, or let others define us (for our looks, likes, successes... ).

@GThakore Self-shaming is a tool that corrects/helps from deviating from the path of self-values.

Q4. What are your shame triggers?

Almost all participants mentioned that making a mistake or not being "perfect" at something are shame triggers. Is that the mirror that society holds to us?

@JKatzaman Social media is a shame trigger when you look at others. As someone from a past chat said, "You only see the highlight reel."

@TwinkleEduCons Realising I've made a mistake I didn't even consider. (Shame of not knowing everything in the world, ever!) Hearing that I've genuinely hurt someone through thoughtlessness.

Q5. How well has self-shaming served you? How effective is it as a change catalyst?

@Dwyka_Consult Self-shaming is unproductive. It keeps you trapped inside the part of yourself you dislike most, like a fish swimming round and round the same little bowl.

@MicheleDD_MT Self-shaming made me a perfectionist. Perfectionism & fear of not being good enough created intense anxiety. I didn't jump on opportunities because I thought I would fail.

Q6. Why is self-shaming so destructive?

@WonderPix Maybe we know best how to hurt ourselves deepest. When we self-shame that can happen.

@LernChance There is no outside view. It's all my perception, my experience, my thoughts.

Q7. Are self-shaming and self-deprecating humor the same thing?

@ColfaxInsurance Depends on the intent behind the self-deprecating humor. If you laugh at yourself and then move past it, then it's different from self-shaming. If you're using the SDH to self-shame and dwell on the negative, then it's the exact same thing.

@Midgie_MT I personally view self-deprecating humor as another form of self-shaming. Sometimes there is a thread of truth in the jokes that can hurt.

Q8. How can you stop self-shaming? In what more positive ways can you interact with yourself?

@Yolande_MT Be aware of your internal dialogue and replace self-shame with truth. Self-shame: "I'm not good enough." Truth: "This is not my strongest point, but I'm learning and getting better at it."

@emapirciu Choose your values. Work with yourself to understand the difference between what you want to be and what other people expect you to be. Then cancel everything that doesn't belong to you. Freedom starts when you realize that the only opinion that matters is yours.

Q9. What do you think is the single most important antidote to self-shaming? Why is that your choice?

@JKatzaman The most important antidote to self-shaming is being comfortable inside your own skin. Coincidentally, that goes back to Mark Twain saying, "A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval." Under the Equal Time Provision, that also applies to women.

@SizweMoyo Detachment from your thoughts and ideas is a very helpful antidote to some self-shaming opinions: "I have these thoughts but I am not these thoughts."

Q10. How do you respond when you hear someone say something that is self-shaming? How can you support them?

@TwinkleEduCons I gently challenge with compassion & encourage kindness to self. Offer a more compassionate view of the situation.

@NgukaOduor I usually repeat the statement and ask them how it sounded and if they would like to own it. From that I help them out by [using] positive affirmations on the same statement which we repeat a number of times.

To read all the tweets, see the Wakelet collection of this chat, here.

Coming Up

Shaming ourselves is one cause of poor self-care, but it can also be a consequence of not practicing self-care. In our next #MTtalk chat in the "Reflect, Recover & Reset" series, we'll be talking about why we suck at self-care.

In our poll this week, we'd like to know which element of self-care you tend to neglect most. To see the poll and cast your vote, please click here.

Useful Resources

If you would like to dive deeper into topics and resources related to our discussion about self-shaming, the following Mind Tools articles may be useful. Please note, some of the listed resources may only be accessible in full to members of the Mind Tools Club.

Managing Your Boundaries

How Self-Confident Are You?

Boosting Your Self-Esteem

Making Amends


Beware the "Cheater's High"!

Building Self-Confidence

8 Ways to Strengthen Your Team With Positive Narratives

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