From a biological perspective, shame is an interesting emotion.
While there is little doubt that other animals experience fear, joy, anger, and even love, there’s not much evidence that they feel shame.
After all, shame is a social emotion requiring a high level of social development.
In that sense, shame may be one of the things that makes us human.
That doesn’t make it any more pleasant to feel ashamed of yourself, though.
The thing is, shame exists to get us to follow the rules of the society we live in. That’s why behaviors that are shameful in one culture are not necessarily in another.
But sometimes, shame can become destructive.
A lingering sense of shame can lead to feelings of low self-esteem and depression.
But shame can be quite subtle, and you may not realize that’s why you’re feeling the way you do.
Here are some signs that you are unnecessarily ashamed of yourself – and a few pointers on what you can do about it.
1) You worry about what other people think of you
As we discussed above, shame comes from the sense of having broken the rules of the society around you. And to feel shame, you have to agree, at least a little, with the social rule you feel you have broken.
That means that if you’re struggling with a sense of shame, you probably feel excessively concerned about what people think about you.
Now, we all care what people think of us to some extent. Even the most strong-minded and independent people still conform to at least some societal rules.
However, caring excessively about the opinions of others is a guaranteed way to make yourself unhappy.
Here’s the thing: Nobody thinks about you as much as you think about yourself.
And while you analyze every word you say and everything you do to try and figure out what other people think about it, nine times out of ten, the reality is that they aren’t thinking about it at all.
2) You feel like others take advantage of you
Pervasive feelings of shame weaken your self-esteem. That, in turn, makes you easier to take advantage of.
It doesn’t even have to be malicious.
People may not realize they are asking too much of you. And if you suffer from shame and low self-esteem, you’re more likely to give in to their demands in an attempt to make them like you, even if it makes things harder for you.
Over time, this can lead to feelings of resentment. But it’s important to remember that it’s you who defines your own boundaries. No one will respect your boundaries if you don’t respect them yourself.
If you feel that others often take advantage of you, look at your own behaviors and pay close attention to how you define and enforce your boundaries with other people.
There’s a good chance that it’s your own feelings of inadequacy that are preventing you from learning when to say no.
3) You feel inadequate
Shame is supposed to make us feel inadequate.
But this is one way in which feelings of shame can become a vicious circle.
Feeling ashamed makes us feel like we don’t measure up to others. We are not as smart, as successful, or as in control as they are. We could never do the things that they do.
Shame makes us feel inadequate when we compare ourselves to others. And those feelings of inadequacy lead to more shame.
It’s important to remember that life is not a competition, and comparing yourself to others is one of the clearest ways to make yourself unhappy.
Break the shame spiral by remembering that this is your life and nobody else’s. It doesn’t matter what others are doing.
It only matters how you live your own life.
4) You can’t be your true self
When you feel ashamed of who you are, it’s very difficult to be open and honest with others.
You may feel that if people knew who you really are, they would like you less.
You may feel that your true self is unworthy of admiration or affection, and that you need to hide who you are from the rest of the world.
This is a sure sign that you are deeply ashamed.
The thing is, we all have our flaws and failings. If we focus only on those, we might all have reasons to feel ashamed of who we are.
But that’s not a productive way to live.
Besides, people can often tell if you’re not being an authentic person.
Speaking personally, I prefer people who are honest about their flaws and about who they are than those who try to hide their true nature. And that’s true of lots of people.
5) You are afraid of failure
Sometimes, a sense of shame comes from an inability to achieve our goals. This is especially true if you’re prone to perfectionism, or someone who gets the sense of self-worth from tangible achievements.
This is another way in which feelings of shame can be counterproductive.
Shame makes us afraid of failing, which in turn makes us afraid of trying anything new.
But as any successful person will tell you, achieving anything worthwhile means accepting failure and using it as the fuel for growth.
If you are afraid of failure to the point that you have given up trying to achieve your goals, it may be because you feel ashamed of yourself.
6) You withdraw from people
By now, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that lingering feelings of shame and inadequacy make you not want to be around others.
Shame makes us fear judgment from other people, so sometimes, the easiest thing to do seems to be to withdraw from them.
If you isolate yourself from others, declining social invitations and making no attempt to form lasting friendships and relationships, it might be because you suffer from a deep sense of shame.
How to deal with shame
As you can see from the behaviors listed above, shame can be very tricky to deal with. In many ways, it can become self-reinforcing, encouraging behaviors that only make you feel more shame.
However, there are methods to cope with feelings of shame, guilt, and inadequacy.
Get to know your shame
You can’t control what you can’t understand. The first step in controlling your shame is understanding where it comes from and what triggers it.
Sometimes, a chronic sense of shame can come from overbearing parents who used shame to control you as a child. Other times, shame may come from failures in romantic relationships, rejection, or personality disorders.
Think hard about where your sense of shame comes from and what continues to feed it in your everyday life. It may be helpful to write your thoughts down in a journal to get them organized.
Embrace your shame
This might sound strange, but healing from lasting feelings of shame requires embracing those exact feelings.
This will require you to love yourself unconditionally.
It can be helpful to surround yourself with supportive friends, family, or even a support group that can provide encouragement to help you accept that your feelings of shame are part of you.
Accept yourself just as you are
Often, shame comes from holding ourselves to an impossible standard of behavior.
The key to freeing yourself from the psychological harm of shame is to accept yourself the way you are. Acknowledge that everyone on earth has flaws, and you are not unique in not being perfect.
We all make mistakes. We all fall short of our ideals sometimes.
Once you accept this, you’ll find that your feelings of shame lose their power over you.