Imagine this scenario: a wife cheats on her husband. He finds out. He’s angry and heartbroken. She, seeing how much her actions hurt her partner, feels awful. She’s ashamed of her actions, constantly apologizes, and tries to make amends.
Despite his deeply hurt feelings and broken trust, the husband is willing to forgive his wife and move forward. The wife, weighed down by shame, cannot seem to do the same.
The Science Behind Shame
Researcher Dr. Stephen Finn has spent is professional life studying shame. He believes a little shame is good as it indicates we have a capacity to feel empathy. But, when someone gets stuck in shame — like the wife described above — the feeling becomes toxic and does not allow the individual to learn from their shameful behavior and move forward.
Unlike guilt — feeling bad about a thing that we did — shame is feeling bad about ourselves. Believing that we are our mistakes, not simply humans who mess up sometimes.
Shame isn’t just for big betrayals, many people experience shame for small infractions.
Shame is self-centered. Dr. Finn believes the wife must acknowledge her feelings of shame then shift to guilt so she can be empathetic to the man she has hurt, seek and acceptance his forgiveness and move on.
Shame isn’t just for big betrayals, many people experience shame for small infractions - over time this can wear down a relationship, too.
1. Identify the beliefs behind your feelings of shame. Often these beliefs come from somewhere (parents, teachers, etc.). Acknowledging where the feelings came from gives us an opportunity to let go of those shameful beliefs. 2. Transform shame into guilt. This gives us a rulebook for future action. The unfaithful wife can keep the message that cheating on her husband is deeply hurtful but let go of the idea that she is a terrible person because of her mistake. 3. Replace toxic shame messages with positive ones. Shame is a form of negative self-talk—telling ourselves we’re only as good as our worst deeds. Overcoming toxic shame requires positive self-talk—stating that we are human and make mistakes but we are always trying to do our best.
By releasing yourself from the grip of shame, you give yourself permission to move forward, to try again, and to heal. Mostly, you give yourself permission to be human. And hey - none of us are perfect.