How Shame Affects Your Health
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August 16, 2014
By A. Turner,  Featured Columnist

Shame on you! All of us have heard that finger-wagging admonition
since we were children. Shame, psychologists tell us, is one of the basic
human emotions, along with happiness, anger, guilt and pleasure.  
Shame is a special emotion. Unlike guilt, which is the emotion you feel
when you feel bad about doing something, shame is an emotion you
feel when you feel bad about yourself. Shame is in fact an injury to the
self, your personhood, you.

Why Was Shame Invented?

Okay, it’s a bit of a mislabeling to say that shame was "invented".  

However, shame does serve a social function. Shame is used by
societies to punish and to inhibit behavior.  Publishing people’s names
in the paper for certain crimes, putting someone’s mug shot online and
in the newspapers –these are public shamings which are designed to
inhibit anyone else from committing the act that prompted the shame.
But does shame work?

New research has discovered that shame is overrated as an inhibitor of
future bad behavior.

In 2011, a team of researchers from George Mason University looked at
how shame influences prison inmates. What they found was rather
surprising. Prisoners who felt shame tended to be more likely to offend
and to be violent.

Huh?  That’s right. Making a prisoner feel shame has the opposite effect
we as a society want.

Here are the 4 after-effects of shame and shaming:

  • Evade Responsibility. People who feel shame tend to evade

  • Blame the Victim. People who feel shame tend to blame the victim.
    She was in the way. He ran into my knife. She asked for it.

  • Mismanage Anger. People who feel shame can’t handle anger.

  • Hostile and Aggressive. And, last but not least, people who feel
    shame tend to lash out violently.

It turns out that guilt is much better as a motivator of future good
behavior.  The difference between guilt and shame is that when you
feel guilt, you feel bad about something you have done. When you feel
shame, you feel bad about you.

Why Guilt is Better Than Shame

People who feel guilt are more likely to

  • Apologize
  • Repair
  • Take Responsibility
  • Empathise with the Victim
  • Make Amends

Physical Effects of Shame

Shame Makes Your Muscles Contract

When you experience shame, certain unmistakable changes occur in
your body. A cascade of responses starts to occur. The first one is that
shame triggers the spike in a chemical called “cytokines”. Cytokines are
pro-inflammatory.  Also, your body releases a flood of the hormone
“cortisol”. Cortisol is the stress hormone.

When these two chemicals are released in your body, your body
believes that it is under attack. And it is. Those who are shamed feel as
though “eyes are on them” even when they are alone.

Immediately after the release of the cytokines, your muscles contract
more. You are more likely to crouch or curl up into a fetal position,
according to a 2004 study from the University of California at Irvine.
On the outside, you feel 3 things when you are shamed:

-Physically Diminished
-Psychologically Diminished
-Socially Diminished

Remedies for Shame

1.        Feel Bad About What You’ve Done Not Bad About Yourself.

Studies have found that people who can channel bad feelings toward
the act rather than themselves, adapt better to society. Lame the act
not the person or “blame the sin not the sinner” are two ways you may
have heard the same idea expressed.

When you internalize the bad feelings toword the act, you remain
powerful as a person. Thus, you remain empowered to change yourself
in the future. But when you turn the bad feelings toward yourself ---
you are  a bad person , rather than you are a good person who did
something bad –then you make yourself powerless to change. For,
after all, judging yourself as a bad person leaves you no room to
change. If you’re bad, you’re bad.

This is about the most  important distinction you’ll make.  Because no
matter how exemplary or good we are, we are bound to make mistakes
in life.  We hurt others, we sometimes hurt them deeply, and yet, we
have to find a way to move forward with our lives.  The only way
forward is to focus on what you did, accept that it is not what you
wanted to do, and repair the damage to the person you hurt.  In doing
so, you will affirm to yourself that you are, inside , a good person –just
a good person who did something bad.

Make Amends—The Way Back from Hurt and Shame.  

Making amends is something that most of us have forgotten how to do.
In these times we live in, people have forgotten the power of saying “I
did wrong. I am sorry that I did wrong. And I am especially sorry for
hurting you”. Note that I did not say “I am sorry IF I hurt you.”  Don’t
give yourself that “out”.  Acknowledge fully that you hurt another
person. That is the magic balm that starts the healing of all wounds.

Fight Shame by Repairing Your Social Status.  

People who feel inferior, feel shame. And, as we’ve seen, people who
feel shame experience a rise in pro-inflammatory cytokines and the
stress hormone cortisol.

One of the best ways to fight the rise in cytokines is to practice “power
Power poses, practiced for just a few minutes a day, can help
to reduce cortisol levels and make you feel more powerful, confident
and secure.

The reason that power poses may work is that fight to expand your
muscles and  increase blood flow. Thus, they work to counteract the
very responses your body naturally has to shame.


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Shame releases certain chemicals in your
body which make your muscles contract.