Counseling for Overcoming Shame

at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids

Counseling for Overcoming Shame
In Grand Rapids, MI and West Michigan At Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids, MI

Shame is a deeply personal and often hidden emotion. While it may not seem so impactful at first glance, it can actually have a significant negative impact on our mental health and psychological well-being.

Shame is more than just a feeling of embarrassment or regret. Unfortunately, sometimes it can affect our sense of self and spiral into anxiety, depression, grief, and even issues with our identity. All these challenges make people feel isolated and misunderstood.

However, there is a way to overcome this toxic shame. In fact, counseling has helped multiple people understand and confront the roots of their shame.

So, if you feel like you’re not good enough and find yourself falling into a shame spiral, you might need to consider receiving help from professional counselors. But before, let’s discuss what the “shame spiral” is and when shame can lead to mental health issues.

What is Shame and When Does It Become Toxic?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines shame as “a highly unpleasant self-conscious emotion.” It arises from comparing one’s actions with one’s standards and is accompanied by withdrawal from social interactions. Shame is usually expressed in either avoidant or defensive behavior. According to psychological research, a sense of shame can lead to feelings of distress and inadequacy (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2018). Sometimes it can also trigger symptoms of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and low self-esteem (e.g., Nechita et al., 2021; Weingarden et al., 2017).

While shame can be a normal reaction to certain situations, it becomes toxic when it starts to impact your sense of self and identity.

A sense of toxic shame can develop as a result of a critical self-evaluation, which is usually related to messages received from others, especially during childhood. This negative self-assessment makes people internalize the belief that they’re fundamentally flawed or inadequate as a person. Internalized shame can lead to negative emotions and behaviors, including anger, self-disgust, and harmful coping mechanisms like substance misuse or self-harm.

How Shame Can Spiral into Mental Health Issues

During our childhood, responses we receive from our parents help us learn acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Ideally, parents teach us that mistakes are normal and help us understand the consequences of our actions in a supportive way. Unfortunately, sometimes the messages we receive are not helpful and in the worst-case scenario, they’re harmful. Disapproval, disappointment, anger, neglect, and abuse are some of the harmful messages from parents that can isolate individuals, cause toxic shame, and spiral into mental health issues.

When our physical or emotional needs are ignored, it can leave us feeling like we don’t belong or deserve love and affection. This toxic shame can significantly impact our mental health as we grow older. It can lead to persistent feelings of being unworthy or inadequate, which, in turn, negatively affect our self-esteem and how we interact with the world.

In this case, shame can manifest as anxiety, where constant worry about judgment or failure becomes a part of everyday life. It can also lead to depression symptoms such as feelings of hopelessness and a deep sense of sadness. In either case, toxic shame is related to poor psychological functioning and reduced psychological well-being (Webb et al., 2007).

Studies show that toxic shame can also trigger grief, particularly in the context of bereavement. In fact, feelings of shame and guilt are associated with complicated grief and depression, but shame has been identified as a more significant predictor of post-loss psychopathology (LeBlanc et al., 2020). Furthermore, shame can lead to identity issues, where individuals struggle with their sense of self, feeling lost, disconnected, or unsure about who they are.

Strategies to Overcome the Shame Spiral

These mental health issues often create a vicious cycle that reinforces the toxic effects of shame. This spiral, characterized by negative self-talk and feelings of unworthiness, can feel like a trap that’s hard to escape. However, with the right strategies and support, it’s possible to break free from the shame spiral.

  • Recognize what you’re feeling

The first step in overcoming shame is to acknowledge it. Often, people experience toxic shame without even understanding that they’re feeling it. This type of shame can be so deeply ingrained that it feels like a normal part of one’s personality. To begin addressing it, pay attention to moments when you feel inadequate, embarrassed, or unworthy. Try to identify the particular situations that trigger these feelings and how you react to them.

  • Challenge negative thoughts

Often, shame is fueled by negative and critical thoughts about oneself. When you catch yourself thinking negatively, pause and challenge these thoughts. Ask yourself if they are truly accurate or if they are exaggerated by your current emotional state. Reframing negative thoughts, also known as ‘Cognitive Restructuring’ in CBT, is an effective strategy that can lead to lasting changes (e.g., Shurick et al., 2012).

  • Get support from people you trust

Sharing your feelings with trusted friends, family members, or a support group can provide relief and perspective. The reason is that isolation easily fuels a shame spiral. But talking about your feelings of shame can reduce its impact, help you feel less alone, and lead you to reconsider negative beliefs about yourself.

  • Write it out

Sometimes it’s hard to talk about your sense of shame, especially when it makes you feel embarrassed. During this time, writing about your feelings of shame can be a powerful way to process them. Generally, journaling is considered an effective way to express your emotions freely. Therapists even use it as a complementary strategy in the management of mental disorders (Sohal et al., 2022).

  • Try to find the root cause

Finally, understanding the origins of your shame is a key to overcoming it. Reflect on your past experiences, especially those in childhood, to identify any patterns or events that may have contributed to these feelings. However, sometimes the sources of shame are deeply buried in past experiences and it’s difficult to access them without guidance. In such cases, you might need to consider professional help from a therapist.

How Counseling Can Help You Overcome Shame

Studies show that counseling is an effective way to overcome shame and its associated mental health challenges. Through therapy, individuals can gain insights into the nature of their shame, develop strategies to cope with it, and therefore work towards healing and self-acceptance.

Currently, there are a number of interventions that are proven to be effective in overcoming shame. For example, a 2020 study found that CBT is one of the most common and effective approaches that reduce shame as it helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns (Goffnett et al., 2020).

Research on Trauma-Informed Guilt Reduction Therapy has also shown promising results. A randomized controlled trial indicated that this technique effectively reduces trauma-related guilt, PTSD symptoms, and depression symptoms (Norman, 2022). The same can be said about mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which can increase self-compassion and reduce shame-proneness, anxiety, and stress symptoms (Proeve et al., 2018).

Considering the effectiveness of various therapeutic approaches in reducing shame and improving mental health,  seeking professional counseling can be a significant step towards healing and self-acceptance. At Health for Life Counseling, we are committed to providing personalized care that addresses your unique needs and challenges.

Our Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids is a safe space where you can talk to our professional counselors to explore your feelings, understand the roots of your shame, and start the healing process. Our team of skilled therapists is experienced in a range of therapeutic approaches, including Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and other forms of treatment you need to receive the support and guidance that’s right for you.

So, if you’re struggling with feelings of shame and its impact on your life, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at our offices in Grand Rapids, MI, and Ada, MI, or talk to us online.

Keep in mind that in order to make therapy accessible, we accept a wide range of health insurance options, including Optum, Blue Cross Complete, Golden Rule, and many more. You can find the full list of insurances we accept here.

Therapists For Counseling for Overcoming Shame

Dana Kennedy

Relational, trauma-informed, strengths-based therapy with a foundation of authenticity and hospitality to heal and grow

James Love

Specializing in Adults, Men’s Issues, & Therapy with Children from a grounded, authentic, and non-judgemental perspective

Kori Crask

Trauma-Informed Counseling and EMDR Therapy for long-term healing

Kaiti VanWormer, Counseling Intern

Culturally Sensitive and Creative Person-Centered Counseling

Stephen Lovell, Counseling Intern

Person-Centered Counseling for Children, Teens, and Adults

Jonathan Swiftney

Culturally Sensitive & Holistic Counseling for Adults and Adolescents

Lucas Perkins, Counseling Intern

Culturally Sensitive & Holistic Counseling for Adults, College students, and Older Teens

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