Coping With Borderline Disorder Embarrassment and Shame

Woman coping with shame and embarrassment

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Many people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) experience intense and chronic shame, a self-conscious emotion associated with a sense of worthlessness, self-contempt, or self-loathing; it may in part explain the high rates of self-harm and suicidal behavior in people with BPD.

What Is Shame?

We use the word all the time, but what exactly is "shame?" Shame is considered one of the self-conscious emotions; it is an emotion that relates to our behavior or self, often in relation to other people's opinions. Other self-conscious emotions include embarrassment and guilt.

Although the lines between these emotions have been conceptualized in different ways, one way to think about this is that shame is different than embarrassment or guilt because we experience these two emotions in relation to our behavior, whereas shame is an emotion that relates directly to our sense of self. To understand this distinction, let's use the example of an impulsive act that some people with BPD struggle with shoplifting.

Imagine that, on impulse, you shoplifted something from a store. Even if no one found out about the shoplifting, you may experience guilt, a feeling that you have done something that is wrong. If someone did find out about your behavior, you might experience embarrassment, the feeling you get when other people find out you have done something that violates social norms.

Shame, on the other hand, is a feeling that you are bad or worthy of contempt. It is not necessarily about a specific behavior or event but is a feeling of being inadequate as a person. You may feel shame after shoplifting, but shame carries with it an additional judgment.

BPD and Shame

Many people with BPD experience pervasive and chronic shame, regardless of their behavior. Research suggests that shame may distinguish BPD from other disorders. In one study, women with BPD reported more shame-proneness than healthy women or women with social phobia, an anxiety disorder characterized by a fear of social situations and being evaluated by others.

Women with BPD and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) do not have greater shame-proneness than women with BPD alone. This suggests that shame-proneness may be related to specifically to BPD rather than to co-occurring trauma-related symptoms.

The Relationship Between Shame, Self-Harm, and Suicide

In addition to growing research that shows a connection between BPD and shame, a number of experts have suggested a connection between shame and deliberate self-harm and suicide attempts.

Self-reported shame has been shown to be associated with past suicide threats and current and past suicidal thoughts. Shame may also precede episodes of deliberate self-harm. For example, one study demonstrated that women with BPD who expressed more shame when talking about their self-harm behaviors were more likely to self-harm in the future.

Reducing Shame

Although the intense emotional pain generated by feelings of shame in BPD, very few experts have attempted to develop treatments that directly reduce shameful feelings. However, some preliminary studies have shown that the Dialectical Behavior Therapy skill of "Opposite Action" may help reduce shame about specific events. 

Unfortunately, people who feel high levels of shame may also feel motivated to hide their shame for fear that others may judge them to be unacceptable. But, this secrecy may also get in the way of recovery. If your therapist doesn't know that you are experiencing shame, it will be hard for them to intervene.

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Article Sources

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