The Shame About Shame in Mental Health Recovery

Shame. Just thinking the word brings a powerful experience of shame into our awareness.

We don’t even need to read the definition to know that shame is “a painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace” because we can feel it….feel its effects instantly. Like kryptonite, shame seeps into our being, sapping our sense of personal empowerment, our enthusiasm for life, our zest for self-discovery….and our dreams of recovery. In the wake of shame, we are left in the grips of a profound and enervating hopelessness that erases any recollection of why we ever thought we were worth recovering for in the first place.  

If you have personal mental health recovery experience, you have felt shame. You have most likely also been shamed by others who, in their ignorant but well-meaning attempts to motivate you to get better, have issued un-helpful advice like “just eat more!” and “snap out of it!”, and berated you for your seeming inability to “just get over” your issues with food, weight, body image, self-esteem, anxiety, depression……

This is exactly why it is so critical to say no to shame and say yes to knowledge as the first step to making real, lasting progress towards your recovery goals.

The more you learn, the less shame you feel. The more you learn, the less shaming you will tolerate from others, and the more you will be willing to educate yourself and others on the truth of mental illness. Most importantly, the more you learn, the more you can do to work towards your own recovery. Knowledge is a win-win for you and for everyone who cares about you – and where shame, like mental illness, kills, knowledge saves lives.

So here is what you need to know NOW to begin to replace shame with the factual knowledge that leads to lasting recovery.

Mental illnesses (including but not limited to eating disorders, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and body dysmorphic disorder) are at their core biological brain disorders.

These illnesses arise in large part due to genetic predisposition, and become greatly exacerbated in the presence of environmental triggers including but not limited to innate emotional vulnerability, experiences with personal trauma, grief, loss, unavoidable sudden change, and repeated exposure to our media’s focus on finding perfection in body image, career, love relationships, material possessions, and lifestyle.

Mental illness affects females and males of all ages, socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds – which is why there is no place in recovery work for the presence of shame. With the statistics* we have, chances are there is someone in your life who also struggles with mental illness…and the only reason you do not know of their battles, or they of yours, is due to shame.

Consider this example. We know so much more today than we did even five years ago about treating cancer, diabetes, and ADHD. Today, we would not dream of shaming a cancer patient for not being able to “just get rid of” the presence of cancerous cells in his body. We wouldn’t even think of shaming a diabetic for her inability to “just regulate” her insulin levels. Not a one of us would consider refusing further help or support or compassion to a child with ADHD because he can’t “just sit still already”!

So why do we persist in shaming ourselves – or in allowing ourselves to be shamed – for needing help and expert medical guidance to overcome the effects of the biological brain disregulation that is at the root of mental illness?

It is time to get smart about our disease. It is time to say yes to knowledge…so we can say no to shame, and yes to life!

Be Well.

Kimberly

*Eating disorders are responsible for the deaths of twelve times more females between the ages of 11 and 25 than any other mental illness-related disorder
*Depression affects an estimated 9% of the population in the United States
*Approximately 18% of adults suffer from anxiety; anxiety is the most common mental disorder in teens

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