Most of my personal work in therapy has had to do with shame.
A therapist once suggested I read a short, little book called,“Taming Your Gremlins.” It’s a book about learning to recognize 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. I’d slipped into a harsh, critical place in my head, hearing 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.” “No one will ever believe that you could help them.”
My own critical thoughts were often my worst enemy.
This nasty creatures’s voice can be traced back to someone from your childhood — your father, mother, grandparent or a bully at school. Or perhaps the gremlin’s voice has morphed into your own.
Reading that simple book turned on a lightbulb in my head that still manages to glow brightly.
“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 — the feeling that you are 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. You don’t believe in your own value. That can lead to terrible problems with self-esteem and self-competence. 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 a little different. You’re constantly evaluating yourself about how you’re not living up to who you believe you could be. Even if you’re successful, or have accomplished things very difficult to accomplish, you’ll focus instead on what could be better. There’s rarely a time when you relax, sit back, and enjoy whatever it is you’ve created. You find fault. Constantly. “It could’ve been better.” “I can’t believe I forgot something like that.”
It goes way beyond high expectations; nothing for you is ever quite as good as it could be. Your focus is on what isn’t, instead of what is, and you feel great shame for what you perceive as inadequacies and failures. Inwardly you’re chastising and demeaning yourself, while outwardly you appear quite satisfied and as if your life is wonderful — even perfect-looking to others.
One question that can catch your shame before it takes over...
So how do you stop shaming yourself?
Here is the “magic” and very important question. “Is this thought helpful to me today?“
Let’s say someone with PHD is thinking about a friend who’s undergoing cancer treatment. You texted last week, brought food in weeks past, but you haven’t contacted her in a few days. You suddenly remember and your mind is flooded with shaming thoughts. “I can’t believe I didn’t make that a priority.”
What does someone who’s healthier think? Someone who doesn’t immediately slide down the rabbit hole of shame? “I’m glad she came to mind, and I’ll put her on my priority list.“
Is shame ever helpful?…
Let’s face it. Sometimes, we all need to be critical of ourselves. 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.
Constantly nagging yourself? Opening your eyes first thing in the morning, and having some kind of negative thought about yourself?
It’s a waste of your life.
Shame can be helpful if it reminds you today of the person you 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.
Three steps to stop shame in its tracks…
This takes a lot of practice. A lot. But it can be done.
1) Identify how you started initially 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) Recognize shame’s presence in your present.
When you begin to catch how you shame yourself, you can recognize that shaming yourself may have become quite a bad habit. Saying things like, “I’m sure I’m wrong…”. Or if it’s perfectionism you struggle with, “If it’s not done perfectly, I’m a failure.”
3) Ask yourself the magic question.
Decide what’s a helpful thought. Ask yourself the magic question — “Is this helpful to me today?” Then let go of it. It takes practice,
But with time, those nagging critical voices can be softened, and even silenced.
To identify your own possible perfectly hidden depression, you can take this questionnaire.
Please confidentially email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you experience or have questions about perfectly hidden depression. Or you can read more of my posts here on Psych Central or on my own website.
You can hear more about PHD and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford.