I was in therapy a good deal in my twenties and early thirties, and most of the work had to do with shame.
A therapist once suggested I read a book called,“Taming Your Gremlins.” It focused on recognizing the pesky, persistent, and highly damaging inner demons that whisper to you constantly about how no good you are, or how you’ll never amount to anything.
My own critical thoughts were often my worst enemy.
If this happens to you, this nasty creature could often be mimicking the voice of someone from your childhood — your father, mother, grandparent, coach or a bully at school. But now, that gremlin’s voice has morphed into your own, taking over where a harsh critic from your past left off.
Recognizing the book’s simple truth turned on a lightbulb in my head that still manages to glow brightly, at least most of the time.
“You mean, you don’t have to keep a thumb in your back to be worthy? No.
Constant shaming and questioning of yourself isn’t necessary to be a good person? No.
Your vulnerabilities don’t have to define you?” An even more emphatic “NO!”
Shame in classic and perfectly hidden depression…
Shame — the feeling that you’re a bad, worthless person — can play a significant role in classic depression. Guilt or remorse over past mistakes or missteps have seeped into how you think of yourself, and in your own mind, you’ve become a bad person. This can lead to terrible problems with self-esteem and erode self-confidence. You can give up. Isolate. Become angry and irritable. “I just don’t care anymore.” “Why try? I always screw up.”
For someone with perfectly hidden depression, it’s different. You’re constantly evaluating yourself; where you stand in your accomplishments or how much you need to push to be successful. There’s rarely a time when you relax, sit back, and enjoy whatever it is you’ve created. You constantly find fault, fear that others might see vulnerability in you, and there’s no fulfillment in your success.
Yet all of this self-doubt and criticism is masked; outwardly you appearing satisfied, as if your life is as wonderful as it looks to others.
Is shame ever helpful? And what about guilt?
Obviously, having a conscience is important, and empathy for those around you is necessary to enjoy quality connections with others. It’s also important to hold yourself accountable.
But what’s the difference between shame and guilt?
Shame tells you “I’m a bad person.” Guilt on the other hand says, “What you did was unkind. Or uncalled for. Or out of line.” You’re not bad – what you did was bad.
There’s a huge difference between the two.
Guilt can be helpful if it reminds you today of the person you want to be. It can lead you to an apology that will clear the air. It can lead you to do something positive — today. If it’s guiding you to be a better person — today.
Shame isn’t the same as a good conscience. Instead, it can become a prison.
Three steps to quieting your shameful voice…
1) Recognize when and how you began shaming yourself.
This means figuring out the origins of that voice. Where did you learn it? When did you absorb it? Allow yourself to identify and be compassionate toward the likely child that came to believe it. You can create a timeline to help you do just that.
2) Become aware of when shame is talking to you.
Once you recognize the origins of your shame, you can begin to hear how you shame yourself. If you’re dealing with classic depression, your inner voice might whisper, “I could never do that.” “I’m sure I’m wrong…”. If you fall in the category of perfectly hidden depression, you’ll think, “If it’s not done perfectly, I’m a failure.” “I could never admit that I’m feeling overwhelmed.”
3) Replace the shameful thought with this question: “Is this thought helpful to me today?
That’s the magic question!
Decide if it is a helpful thought for you. If it is, then keep it. But if it’s not, let it go. This takes practice, because those tricky demons are accustomed to having free rein over your mind and heart.
And yet, with time, they can be softened, and even silenced.
You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression has arrived and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.
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This was originally published on August 20, 2016 and was updated on January 19, 2019 and again on March 7, 2021.