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 very damaging inner demons that can whisper to you constantly about how no good you are, or how you’ll never amount to anything. My therapist realized that I very easily slipped into a harsh, critical place in my head; I often heard 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.” And, “No one will ever believe that you could actually help them.”

My own critical thoughts were often my very 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.

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 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 find fault. Constantly. You fear that others might see vulnerability in you. 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?…

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.

But constantly nagging yourself? Opening your eyes first thing in the morning, and having some kind of negative thought about yourself? That’s damaging.

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. 

Shame isn’t the same as a good conscience. Instead, it can become a literal 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) Catch and challenge that painful habit.

Once you recognize the origins of your shame, you can begin to hear both inwardly and outwardly how you continue to shame yourself. Iff 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 one that is more realistic and self-compassionate.

Here’s the “magic” and very important question: Is this thought helpful to me today?

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.

And there’s a new way to send me a message! You can record by clicking below and ask your question or make a comment. You’ll have 90 seconds to do so and that time goes quickly. By recording, you’re giving SelfWork (and me) permission to use your voice on the podcast. I’ll look forward to hearing from you!

This was originally published on August 20, 2016 and was updated on January 19, 2019 and again on March 7, 2021.


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