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 short, little book called,“Taming Your Gremlins.” It’s a book about learning to recognize the pesky, persistent and very damaging inner demons that can whisper to you constantly about how no good you are, or how you’ll never amount to anything. Whichever therapist it was realized that I very easily slipped into a harsh, critical place in my head, hearing a shaming voice that reminded me constantly of my mistakes and my vulnerabilities. “You should be ashamed that you’ve been married and divorced twice.” “No one will ever believe that you could help them.”

My own critical thoughts were often my worst enemy.

If this happens to you, this nasty creatures’s voice could be traced back to someone from your childhood — your father, mother, grandparent or a bully at school. Or perhaps the gremlin’s voice has morphed into your own, taking over where a harsh critic from your past left off.

Reading that simple book 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? Constant shaming and questioning of yourself isn’t necessary to be a good person? Your vulnerabilities don’t have to define you?”

No, you don’t. No, it’s not. And an even more emphatic — No, they don’t.  

Shame in classic depression and in Perfectly Hidden Depression…

Shame — the feeling that you are 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. You don’t believe in your own value. That can lead to terrible problems with self-esteem and self-competence. 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 a little different. You’re constantly evaluating yourself about how you’re not living up to who you believe you could be. Even if you’re successful, or have accomplished things very difficult to accomplish, you’ll focus instead on what could be better. There’s rarely a time when you relax, sit back, and enjoy whatever it is you’ve created. You find fault. Constantly. “It could’ve been better.” “I can’t believe I forgot something like that.” 

It goes way beyond drive or high expectations; nothing for you is ever quite as good as it could be. Your focus is on what isn’t, instead of what is, and you feel great shame for what you perceive as inadequacies and failures. Inwardly you’re chastising and demeaning yourself, while outwardly you appear quite satisfied and as if your life is wonderful — even perfect-looking to others.

Let’s face it. Sometimes, we all need to be critical of ourselves. Obviously, having a conscience is important, and empathy for those around you is necessary to enjoy quality connections with others. Holding yourself accountable is important.

Constantly nagging yourself? Opening your eyes first thing in the morning, and having some kind of negative thought about yourself?

It’s a waste of your life.

One question that can catch your shame before it takes over...

So how do you stop shaming yourself?

Here is the “magic” and very important question. Is this thought helpful to me today?

Let’s say someone with PHD is thinking about a friend who’s undergoing cancer treatment. You texted last week, brought food in weeks past, but you haven’t contacted her in a few days. You suddenly remember and your mind is flooded with shaming thoughts. “I can’t believe I didn’t make that a priority. I have to make up for it. I’ll take her flowers asap.”

What does someone who’s healthier think? Someone who doesn’t immediately slide down the rabbit hole of shame? “I’m glad she came to mind, and I’ll put her on my priority list.

Is shame ever helpful?…

Let’s face it. Sometimes, we all need to be critical of ourselves. Obviously, having a conscience is important, and empathy for those around you is necessary to enjoy quality connections with others. Holding yourself accountable is important.

Constantly nagging yourself? Opening your eyes first thing in the morning, and having some kind of negative thought about yourself?

It’s a waste of your life.

Shame can be helpful if it reminds you today of the person you want to be. “I did (or said) something that I’m ashamed of. It’s not who I want to be.” If it leads you to an apology that will clear the air. If it helps you grow today in a direction that’s important. If it’s going to lead you to do something positive — today. If it’s guiding you to be a better person — today.

And only if it lasts long enough to do some immediate good. 

It’s definitely not helpful if it’s a way to drag you down, even for years at a time, and feed those inner demons. Those guys don’t need any more fuel. They need to be quieted, tamed into submission. Shame isn’t the same as a good conscience. Instead, it can become a literal prison. 

Three steps to quieting your shameful voice…

This takes a lot of practice. A lot. But it can be done.

1) Recognize how you started initially 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) Catch and challenge the painful habit you have of continuing that pattern.

Once you recognize the origins of your shame, you can begin to hear both inwardly and outwardly how you continue to shame yourself. it’s in the way you describe yourself if you’re dealing with classic depression.  “I could never do that.” “I’m sure I’m wrong…”.  If you’re more 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 one that is more realistic and self-compassionate.

Decide what’s a helpful thought. Ask yourself the magic question — “Is this helpful to me today?” Then let go it if it’s not. It takes practice, because those demons that love to whisper hurtful thoughts into your ear 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 depression and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to this website and receive her weekly blog posts and podcasts, as well as  free downloadable ebook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy.”!

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My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression will be arriving November 1,2019! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the 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. More to come.

This was originally published on August 20, 2016 and was updated on January 19, 2019.