Shame is a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety. Although very painful, the capacity for shame is healthy and part of being human. The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our relationships and motivate us to repair them if we’ve damaged them. 

As Brene Brown explains, guilt says “I’ve done something wrong.” Shame says “I am something wrong.” 

OCD is marked by hypersensitivity to uncertainty, disgust, and guilt. Those that experience the mechanisms that maintain OCD (that is, anxiety sensitivity + intolerance of uncertainty + inflated responsibility + experiential avoidance) not only have sensitivity to the feeling of guilt, but also feel guilt excessively. 

Experiencing an unwanted intrusive thought doesn’t mean that you’ve done something wrong. You didn’t choose to experience the thought. If you didn’t choose it, then you are not responsible for it. A crucial belief that maintains OCD is thinking that you should have control over your thoughts and feeling guilty when you don’t control your thoughts. Rather than trying harder to force yourself to control your thoughts, you need to change your belief that you can control your thoughts in the first place. As long as you believe you can control your thoughts, you will feel guilty when you don’t. 

For many OCD sufferers, the belief that you can control your thoughts and are responsible for them creates so much excessive guilt that you also experience shame. It’s not just that I’ve done something wrong, but in fact, I am something wrong. If you feel this way, you are not alone and it is not truth about you. You are stuck in a loop of thinking, feeling, and responding that makes the shame you feel seem more and more true, when in fact there is a way out. When you change that internal process, you will also be able to shift your external behaviors and you’ll get more control of your life. 

Shame gives us the urge to hide and withdraw. The way through shame is to remind yourself of your humanity and share your shame in settings where that sharing reconnects you to others. There are many reasons people feel shame, besides the OCD process, and it’s safe in to talk about all of them.

Here are some questions to consider as you think about your experience of shame:

  • When you are feeling shame, how do you know it’s shame? 
  • What external and internal experiences trigger shame? 
  • What happens physiologically in your body when you feel shame? 
  • What happens cognitively in your mind when you feel shame?
  • How do these feelings and thoughts compare to other internal experiences like anxiety, anger, loneliness, excitement, or arousal? 
  • How do you respond to these shifts in your body and mind? 
  • What storylines in your shame narrative seem true to you? 
  • Which storylines in your shame narrative don’t seem true to you?