Here’s a common exchange that takes place in the early stages of therapy with someone who is struggling to overcome low-esteem:
Therapist: So, what brings to therapy at this time?
Client: I’m wanting to work on building self-esteem. I just feel so unconfident and down on myself lately.
Therapist: That sounds like a great goal for us to work on. I’d be happy to help you with that.
Client: Excellent. So, how do we do it?
That “How do we do it?” question used to really stump me as a therapist. I wanted so desperately to be able to respond with a simple set of steps for building self-esteem.
Of course, I knew then just as I know now that there is no one-size-fits-all set of steps for overcoming low self-esteem. As much as I wish I could offer my therapy clients some easy-to-follow formula for overcoming low self-esteem, I know of no such formula.
Truth be told, the change process, both in therapy and in life, looks different for each of us. There is no worksheet, no formula, no guide that could possibly offer some sort of universal way forward when it comes to personal growth.
This caveat aside, I have made some important observations in helping clients work through low self-esteem over the years that I think just about all of us can benefit from. In this post, I want to focus on just one of these observations, and it has to do with the relationship between shame and low self-esteem.
The roadblock to self-esteem
As the above exchange between therapist and client highlights, we’re often quick to focus on the outcome we desire when we’re struggling with low self-esteem. Naturally, we want to arrive at feelings of security, confidence, self-worth and -respect.
But what if, instead of focusing exclusively on the place at which we hope to arrive, we gave more attention to what’s standing in our way?
Think about it. If you were setting out on a cross-country road trip from Charlotte to Las Angeles, you could focus absolutely all your efforts and energy on L.A., but if there’s a major roadblock preventing you from leaving North Carolina, no amount of focusing on L.A. is going to get you to your destination. You’d have to deal with the roadblock first.
When it comes to low self-esteem, I find that there’s an extremely common roadblock for many of us on our journey to self-worth—shame.
What is shame?
We’ve all felt shame before.
It’s that emotion that comes over us in those embarrassing moments of everyday life: tripping on that nonexistent step or being called out on a word you’ve unknowingly mispronounced your entire life.
It’s a universal human experience to feel embarrassed in awkward situations and common to feel ashamed in these moments.
But for some of us, shame is not just a feeling that comes up in specific situations; it’s a pervasive sense of being fundamentally flawed in who you really are.
With “core shame,” you feel naked, exposed and vulnerable. It’s as though nearly everyone is secretly judging your true self, criticizing your defects and deficiencies.
The difference between shame and guilt
How is shame different from guilt?
These terms are often used interchangeably, but there’s a big difference between the two.
When we feel guilt, we feel that we’ve done something wrong. We’re likely to feel regret and look for ways to right the wrong we’ve committed, such as by apologizing or making reparations.
With shame, however, the feeling is not one of “I’ve done something bad,” it’s that “I am bad.”
This core sense of “badness” is what leads the shame-prone person to hide from others, sheltering themselves from others’ perceived scrutiny.
Perhaps the key difference between guilt and shame is that, with guilt, there is hope of resolution or repair. Shame, on the other hand, is an all-encompassing feeling about one’s Self that brings with it a feeling of hopelessness that the “bad person” will ever change for the better.
The relationship between shame and self-esteem
When reflecting on our distress or describing it to others, we don’t often speak (or think) in terms of shame, and this is probably due to several different factors.
For one, many of us lack awareness of the many different forms that shame can take.
But there’s also the fact that we naturally don’t want to feel shame, so we avoid naming our feelings of shame internally, much less talking in such terms with others.
This is where “low self-esteem” comes in. It’s a handy euphemism, a less stigmatizing way of talking about our shame.
Only problem is, “low self-esteem” misses the mark.
Sure, others get a basic sense of what you’re going through when you say, “I’m struggling with low self-esteem.”
But “low self-esteem” ultimately names a symptom, not the underlying cause.
Why does it matter? Well, as the saying goes, You’ve gotta name it to tame it.
Dealing with shame means naming the shame. It means dealing with shame as shame. It means addressing the roadblock that stands in your way rather than moving your focus too quickly to your ultimate destination.
Are you struggling to overcome low self-esteem? Contact Modern Era Counseling today to learn more about how we can help you work though feelings of shame and enhance your self-worth.