When Jennifer Pastiloff was eight years old, she got into an argument with her dad over smoking. He’d promised to quit his four-packs-a-day habit but wasn’t following through. She flushed a load of his menthol cigarettes down the toilet. ‘I told him he always broke promises, and I said, “I hate you!” the way young kids do in those situations,’ says Jennifer. ‘It wouldn’t have been that big a deal, but it ended up being the last thing I said to him.’
He died from a widow-maker heart attack shortly after, aged just 38. ‘I thought I had caused the stress that killed him,’ she says. ‘I was so ashamed that I wouldn’t allow myself to grieve; I thought I didn’t deserve to be a person. I developed anorexia as I tried to fade away.’ Jennifer eventually recovered from her eating disorder, but she still carried shame from the experience and her father’s death, which destroyed her confidence in other aspects of her life. ‘I lied all the time, saying I wasn’t sad about my dad, or that I was auditioning for acting roles when, really, I was working at a restaurant. And I refused to admit I had a hearing disability.’ When she was 34, Jennifer had had enough and began writing in an effort to heal. To her surprise, her brutally honest essays were met with support online. ‘When I saw how sharing helped people, I decided I was finished hiding,’ she says. Jennifer is now a yoga teacher and the author of On Being Human: A Memoir Of Waking Up, Living Real, And Listening Hard, and also leads ‘Shameloss’ workshops on self-acceptance. ‘Being honest and vulnerable in spite of shame – that’s my superpower,’ she says.
Shame is particularly difficult to overcome because ‘it causes people to feel as if they’re flawed at their core’, says June Tangney, a professor of psychology at George Mason University and author of Shame And Guilt: Emotions And Social Behavior. ‘With guilt, you might think, “I’ve done something bad, but I’m not a bad person,” and that can actually encourage healthy change. With shame, you think, “I am bad.”’ Tainted character feels a lot harder (if not impossible) to change, so it causes people to isolate and withdraw. Women and younger people are the most likely to struggle with this emotion, research shows. And that has very real consequences. Feeling a lot of shame on a day-to-day basis is associated with a higher likelihood of developing anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders, studies show. It can also lead to health problems beyond mental wellbeing and disconnection. According to a study in the Journal Of Health Psychology, the shame people feel about contracting herpes (which can range from thoughts like ‘my life is over’ and ‘no one will ever love me again’ to severe depression and suicidal ideation) can cause so much stress that it triggers more intense and frequent outbreaks of a common and typically harmless skin condition. All those thoughts also keep herpes-positive people from being honest with new partners about it, making it more likely to spread. No surprise then that shame permeates doctors’ and therapists’ offices, too, leading patients to withhold information, such as how often they drink or exercise. Because of its link to so many serious mental and physical health issues, shame is one of the biggest health hurdles we’re collectively up against, Professor Tangney says. The good news is that while you can’t escape shame – it’s a universal human emotion – you can learn to manage it and be resilient. Let our experts guide you. It just might be the most important work you do for your health right now.
Stick to the facts
When you’re feeling ashamed of something, answer these questions honestly, says Professor Tangney: was this a mistake, or something I do all the time? Is this really something I should feel bad about? Are my current emotions about this productive? How would I respond to a friend who was dealing with this? Am I letting myself feel bad for not meeting a societal standard that I don’t even value? Your answers can help you see where you’re stuck and how to pull yourself out of it.
Share, share, share
Shame convinces people that they’re better off keeping it a secret, but the only way to heal shame is to expose it and connect with others so you feel less alone. That doesn’t mean you have to blast it from the rooftops/social feeds if that’s not your style. ‘Find a safe person you can talk to about it, whether that’s a friend, family member, partner or therapist,’ says Professor Tangney. ‘And be specific; when you hear yourself say it out loud, you sort of realise that what you’re saying isn’t that big a deal.’ Feel you can’t open up to those around you? Look for group therapy or support groups near you or online. ‘You can find your people if you let go of expectations of what that’s supposed to look like,’ says Jennifer. And if speaking your truth (to anyone) sounds horrifying, remember, ‘we fall in love with people when they’re the most vulnerable and human’, she adds.
Try to pretend you don’t care (fully)
One of the best tools therapists have for combatting shame is ‘opposite actions’. Basically, it means fake it till you make it, and it actually works. If you’re ashamed about, say, your body hair and not being perfectly waxed at all times, act as if you’re not, and don’t hide your stubble. Over time, this tricks your mind into thinking you really are unbothered. Plus, you get a little exposure therapy for your shame trigger. When people don’t react in the harsh way you’d imagine (or they do, but you get through it easier than you give yourself credit for), you learn to ease up.
Every day, practise self-compassion
Jennifer calls the voice of shame your inner enemy. ‘It can pop up at any moment, so battling shame has to be a regular thing,’ she says. A few methods she teaches: start each day with a self-love meditation. ‘Touch a part of your body that you’re feeling shame about and say, “I love you and I’m listening,” while you practise deep breathing.’ When you’re done, pick a mantra for the day and preface it with ‘May I remember….’ You might say, ‘May I remember that I am enough.’ ‘That phrasing puts the power back in your hands,’ says Jennifer. ‘It’s saying you’ve always been enough and you know it; you just forgot and needed a reminder.’ She also suggests carrying a notebook throughout the day. ‘Write down anything you feel shame about, so it’s off your chest and you can move on.’ Another powerful exercise? Write yourself a letter from the perspective of someone who loves you, about how they see you. ‘When people read these, they realise, “This person I respect sees me this way, and I’m not living like that’s who I am,”’ says Jennifer. ‘You deserve to. You get to have happiness.’ ■