June 1, 2016

More than Depression: Understanding Shame Based Depression​

Written by Rachel Eddins

a depressed woman

Lonely young latina woman sitting on bed. Depressed hispanic girl at home, looking away with sad expression.

There are many symptoms of depression and each individual may manifest different symptoms, or related symptoms, in different ways. Some people, however, check off all the markers for depression yet have not been helped by a variety of treatments and therapies for depression. In these cases, it may be something more. It might be shame based depression.

Shame is an inhibitory emotion, along with guilt and anxiety. Inhibitory emotions prevent people from experiencing core emotions, like joy or anger. Sometimes inhibitory emotions can be good.

A healthy amount of shame or guilt may provide helpful filters that prevent us from doing not-so-great things, like saying everything that’s on our minds, or failing to give up a bus seat to the elderly. But toxic shame, or shame based depression, means that the inhibitory emotion, shame, has taken over your ability to feel almost anything at all. It alienates you from your inner self.

Understanding the physiology of shame:

Shame is a combination of a primary emotion and a (parasympathetic nervous system) freeze or shut-down state. It can be produced when our sympathetic nervous system is too agitated. When our sympathetic nervous system is too high we have emergency shut-down and go into a freeze state. Shame is a physiological shut down of the nervous system, which is why it can share so many similarities to depression.

What are some characteristics of shame based depression?

Shame based depression, of course, takes many forms, but if you’re trying to see if you or someone you care about may be suffering from this form of mental illness, these signs may be helpful to consider:

  • You feel that you aren’t worthy of being happy, and purposefully undermine your happiness because you’ve convinced yourself you’re undeserving.
  • You apologize for things that are not your fault and blame yourself for things you cannot control.
  • You feel ashamed of being depressed because you feel you are a burden.
  • You experience “shame anxiety.”
  • Your feelings of shame last a long time and have a tendency to spiral into feelings of despair or hopelessness.
  • You feel inferior, inadequate, or dirty, often without knowing why you feel this way.
  • Shame is triggered as often, or more so, by your own thoughts than by an external event.
  • You believe you are a bad or stupid person.
  • You believe you are unworthy of love.

What causes shame based depression or toxic shame?

Shame based depression can affect people at any age. It may happen to a straight-A student who goes off to college and feels inadequate if he or she now has a more vigorous group of peers. His parents may actually be proud of their student’s achievements and not compare their child with others, but he feels like he is letting them down.

It frequently occurs in adults who’ve experienced a traumatic event in their childhood. This may be physical abuse, but could also be emotional trauma, like emotional neglect. When children don’t have parents who look after their emotional needs and wellbeing, the child learns to repress emotional needs, feeling they have no value, or will make a parent upset. For some people, shame is expressed by hiding what they perceive as weakness, so it is expressed with anger or violence. For others, it is directed inward and can result in depression.

Healing Shame and Depression

1. When you start feeling emotionally off-kilter, pause. What’s going through your head? If it’s messages about who you are instead of what you’ve done — “I am bad” instead of “I did something bad” or “I am a failure” instead of “I failed at that project” — you’re in shame’s toxic grip. Simply being able to notice the emotion and label it helps move you away from it.

2. Tamar Chansky, PhD, author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety, suggests choosing four compassionate and affirming people — living or dead, real or imaginary — and asking their opinions. How does your “possibility panel” interpret the situation? Borrow their perspectives on how you could see yourself and your options differently. You could even write down their names on a piece of paper and leave it in plain sight, so you’ll have a visual reminder to remember to not judge, but rather broaden your view and consider other perspectives.

3. Imagine having a tea party and inviting the negative messages along, suggests Kevin Roberts, author of Movers, Dreamers, and Risk Takers. “Oh, there’s my career-based inadequacy — haven’t seen you in a long time,” he jokes. Attempting to suppress shame’s destructive messages increases their power; conversely, befriending the messages lessens their intensity. Another tip from Roberts: Make eye contact with compassionate people. Since one physical symptom of shame is casting one’s eyes downward, eye contact can function as an antidote.

Start Healing Today

You are not alone. There are good reasons why you feel this way.

No matter how many times others tell you that you matter or are loved and important, it won’t be effective if you suffer from shame based depression. Healing is something that needs to come from within. Working with a therapist in Houston can help you learn to identify and express your other emotions and stop putting yourself down.

When shame has had many years to set in, it takes time to heal from shame based depression, but recovery is possible. You deserve to start feeling better!

Our counselors have extensive training in working with, and shutting down shame through a variety of sources. We are skilled at looking beyond the symptoms to the deeper issue to help you heal from the inside out. If you suspect that shame may be at the root of your concerns, contact us. We look forward to helping you create a bigger life for yourself.

Contact one of our counselors to find out how we can help you how to cope with depression. To get started now give us a call to schedule an appointment at 832-559-2622 or schedule an appointment online.

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