Mental illness influences everything from your thoughts to your behaviours and relationships. It may also distort your beliefs about yourself and worsen your self-esteem. It may feel like your days are filled with a series of obstacles. Navigating life with a mental illness is complicated enough, but there is also an overwhelming sense of shame.
People feel shame about not being perceived as “normal,” but what the heck is “normal” anyway. They feel like “broken,” “damaged,” or that “they will always be this way,” They judge and compare their lives with others that they view as successful.
What makes shame so destructive is the isolation it produces and the stories it spins. Shame relentlessly repeats a very compelling story about not being acceptable as-is, that to belong and to be lovable, and who they genuinely are. Shame stops people from honestly and compassionately recognizing their uncomfortable position. It makes it trickier to respond effectively to your mood patterns and recognize that you do have choices.
Shame can also serve as a structure of protection, a gatekeeper if you want that keeps them from dealing with painful feelings. When they stay locked in shame, they can avoid facing their sense of self or identity.”
Someone with an anxiety disorder may have shame-based thoughts such as “What’s wrong with me?” which keeps them stuck in their “wrongness” and stops them from exploring what’s driving their anxiety. Uncovering these underlying ‘drivers’ needs to take place at its own pace when they feel safe, strong enough, and they are mentally ready.
Shame magnifies the feeling of ‘bad’ with being ‘bad.’ It says, “You feel bad; therefore, you are bad.” This belief forms when, as a child, they aren’t able to understand the difference.
Culture reinforces this by perpetuating the idea that mental illness is a sign of weakness or a character flaw. Someone living with a mental illness may feel like an outsider, have low self-esteem or feel ashamed. You can reduce shame when you have a better understanding of it and become more accepting. Cultivating self-compassion is to build a healthy, unconditional sense of self-esteem, which includes education about your mental health. By doing this, it can help you escape isolation, connect with others and realize that you are not alone in your journey to self-compassion.
Bringing awareness to the stories you’re telling yourself about mental illness is also a critical part of overcoming shame. When a person says, “I’m such a control freak, and so critical of myself when they don’t do things the ‘right’ way. There’s something wrong with me.” Instead of judging themselves, they can rewrite their story, become curious about their experiences and consider other perspectives. Exploring different possibilities, such as: “I wonder why I need to control things. Why it’s so important that things are done the ‘right’ way.” Doing this helps them be more flexible in the story of who they are, rather than being “stuck” in the negative narrative that says “ they’re defective.”