3 Ways That Shame Can Transform Into Loneliness—And How To Stop It

Shame and loneliness are hard enough to deal with on their own. But when they reinforce one another, it becomes even harder. Here's how to break the 'shame-loneliness loop.'

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 27, 2024

Shame is a powerful emotion and a deeply distressing feeling associated with the perception of having done something wrong or being fundamentally flawed. While the link between loneliness and shame is often discussed in terms of how loneliness can lead to feelings of shame, the inverse relationship—how shame can lead to loneliness—is equally significant but remains underexplored.

Understanding the connection between shame and loneliness is important because it sheds light on the vicious cycle it can trap individuals in. Recognizing how shame contributes to loneliness can help develop effective strategies to break this cycle and promote psychological well-being. Here are three ways shame leads to loneliness.

1. Internalization Of Negative Self-Perception

When individuals feel ashamed of who they are at their core, they often develop a belief that they are inherently flawed or unworthy of love and connection.

For example, a person who grew up in a household where academic success was highly valued, and they struggled in school, might internalize the belief that they are not intelligent or capable, feeling ashamed of their perceived failure.

This self-stigma then acts as a barrier to forming meaningful connections with others. The belief that one is undeserving of love or friendship can create a self-fulfilling prophecy where they withdraw from social interactions, perpetuating loneliness. They may avoid social gatherings or feel uncomfortable sharing their accomplishments, fearing judgment and rejection. Research confirms that people cope with the threat of social rejection through socially avoidant behavior.

Here's what you can do to combat this tendency:

  • Recognize universality of flaws. Understand that everyone has imperfections and faces setbacks, but they don't define your worth. For example, if you feel unworthy due to a career setback, remind yourself that many successful individuals have faced similar challenges. Seeing setbacks as a natural part of life can reduce feelings of isolation and shame.
  • Self-compassion exercises. Practice self-compassion by writing letters to yourself from a compassionate friend's perspective. For instance, if societal beauty standards make you feel ashamed of your appearance, write a letter focusing on your strengths and qualities beyond physical appearance. This exercise shifts focus from self-criticism to self-acceptance.

2. Fear Of Judgment And Rejection

Shame stemming from specific behaviors or circumstances, like past mistakes or social status, often brings a strong fear of being judged or rejected by others.

For example, someone who lost their job due to a mistake might feel intense shame about this failure, fearing others will see them as incompetent. This fear can be so overwhelming that they isolate themselves to avoid potential rejection. They might skip social gatherings where job status could be questioned or avoid networking events crucial for finding new work.

Anticipating negative judgment heightens anxiety in social situations, leading to avoidance behaviors. Over time, this avoidance leads to increased feelings of loneliness and isolation, as the person misses out on opportunities to connect and rebuild their self-esteem.

A study investigating why unemployed individuals often avoid networking to find jobs revealed social stigma and associated feelings of shame are major factors. Many manage this shame by withdrawing from social circles and distancing themselves from others in similar situations, reducing their networking efforts. Additionally, studies show shame can hinder learning from failure. Having a restoration-focused mindset, which emphasizes recovery and improvement, can mitigate this impact more effectively than dwelling on losses.

To overcome judgment based shame, try the following:

  • Gradual exposure to social situations. Start with small interactions, like chatting with a colleague or joining a relaxed group activity. For instance, someone ashamed of job loss could begin by meeting a former coworker for coffee to catch up without focusing on employment status.
  • Remember people are accepting. Most individuals are more understanding and less critical than we think. Consider a time when someone shared a mistake or failure with you. You probably responded with empathy and support rather than judgment. Understand that others are likely to show you the same compassion. For instance, if you're worried about being judged for a social mishap, remind yourself that others have likely been in similar situations and will empathize rather than criticize.

3. Self-Isolation And Withdrawal

Self-isolation and withdrawal often stem from shame related to trauma or abuse, particularly among survivors of physical, emotional or sexual abuse who carry deep feelings of self-blame.

According to a 2019 review, shame, which centers around a core belief of worthlessness, is a significant therapeutic challenge for many survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The study identified four major themes illustrating the detrimental effects of shame:

  • It contributes to psychological issues and trauma-related symptoms.
  • It negatively impacts survivors' ability to form and maintain social relationships.
  • It complicates the process of disclosing abuse.
  • It profoundly affects survivors' self-esteem and self-worth.

This explains why, for instance, a survivor may avoid forming close relationships, fearing judgment or rejection due to their past. This withdrawal intensifies feelings of loneliness and shame, reinforcing the belief that they are unworthy of connection. Breaking this cycle requires deliberate effort to reconnect with others and the world. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Reconnect with supportive friends and family by scheduling regular meetups, like weekly coffee dates or phone calls. Sharing even small aspects of your day can rebuild a sense of connection.
  • Connect with others who have similar experiences, such as in a support group for trauma survivors. Hearing others' stories can help you feel understood and less alone.
  • Engage in enjoyable activities that help you build connections and shift focus away from shame. Joining clubs or taking classes related to hobbies like painting, hiking, or dancing can provide a sense of accomplishment and positive self-perception.

The relationship between shame and loneliness forms a challenging and harmful cycle. Understanding this entaglement is crucial to overcoming shame and cultivating meaningful, supportive relationships that promote mental and emotional well-being. Remember, you are not alone. With effort and compassion, you can restore your sense of belonging and self-worth.

Does your shame drive you into rumination spirals? Take the Mistake Rumination Scale to learn more.

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