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Every so often a shame punishment will make the headlines. The most recent case involved an Ohio woman who was ordered to wear a sign that read, "Only an idiot drives on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus." While that may prevent someone from breaking the law in the future, what impact will shame have on a recipient's mental health?
"Shame is a very deep emotion that can have an incredibly negative impact," said clinical psychologist Phyllis Koch-Sheras, president of the American Psychological Association's media psychology and technology division. "If people have history where there was a lot of punishment for behavior involving shame in their childhood, it could trigger depression or anxiety that is quite severe. You think back to the Depression and when some people lost their fortunes they jumped out of windows and for other people it was difficult but they took it in stride. A person's reaction to shame depends on what their upbringing and associations are."
Koch-Sheras said the most severe type of shame is "psychologically toxic" shame, often caused by a complex trauma such as incest or sexual abuse, which can lead to a pathological dysfunction.
"It's also important to know the difference between embarrassment, shame and guilt," she said. "Embarrassment is usually something that can be gotten over more quickly. If you feel guilty about something, apologize and make penance, but it doesn't work that easily with shame. ... It's much deeper."
Paul White, a psychologist and co-author of the book "The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace," said people who are shamed often continue to blame and punish themselves long after the initial act took place.
"Shame has a deeper meaning of 'You are a bad person for having done this,'" White said. "For a lot of people, thinking they are a bad person could make it difficult to have a healthy sense of self."
Here are some tips for coping with shame:
Understand that this can be learned behavior
"Often people are taught to shame by their parents," White said. "What may have been considered common punishments decades ago would be thought of as very emotionally damaging today. So be aware of the source of the shame. Someone's idea of 'inappropriate behavior' may just be their filter, and that may not necessarily be correct."
Koch-Sheras agreed. "Shame goes back to the earliest trauma level of development," she said. "Even when you're being toilet trained as an infant, if you are shamed by what you have done with your bodily processes then shame gets ingrained in you. If you have good, benevolent parenting you deal with these things much better."
Know the consequences
"Most people's response to shame is to withdraw socially, and that can create secondary problems, such as not having relationships, or supportive relationships or healthy relationships," White said. "And shame clearly is counter to the message of being loved and accepted. It's not possible to feel loved and shamed by the same people at the same time."
"If a patient doesn't deal with their shame it will come out later in life and many times they won't even realize it's still causing them harm," Koch-Sheras said. "I just had this happen. A woman was pushing away her husband and we discovered that it went back to something that had happened when she was very young. Your partner wants to support you and help you. It hurts them when you are hurting. There's nothing wrong with asking for help."