Published Categorized as A look at one emotion, emotional literacy, self esteem

Shame is an odd emotion in that we nearly all feel it but it is rarely mentioned as an emotion. I assume this is partly because shame’s direct or simple expression (‘I’m feeling shame!’) is somewhat suppressed by itself because it’s an emotion that makes us want to hide-away!

So what is shame?

Shame is an emotion that is concerned with how you are seen by yourself and others -and not in a positive way. It’s what we experience when something happens that triggers us to feel we are rubbish, useless and unlovable – and we feel that others are judging us in the same way. It can feel like a powerful rejection that leads us to fully adopt the idea that we must be awful. It can feel like the opposite of acceptance, love and connection.

Shame is an emotion that can rush up inside us with such intensity as to make us instantly withdraw and disengage, want to escape or sometimes become defensive and lash out to protect ourselves. (There might typically be a gender trend in how it is expressed.) But with shame, many of us are just aware of our reaction, and rarely acknowledge that we are in the grips of this all-consuming emotion.

I read many years ago that shame was a socialising emotion. Its purpose was to help us align to what our tribe or society deemed acceptable behaviour. The triggering of shame would therefore happen when we were a young child and say, for example, we bit someone. Our parents’ or carers’ firm reaction, usually in the form of the rejection of the behaviour, would trigger shame. Sadly, though, we might not just feel the rejection of the behaviour, we might also feel the shame as a rejection of the whole of us. This was especially true if our parent/carers did not make us feel like they still loved us by making reparation for our rejected feelings so they were erased quite quickly.

Shame used in hunter-gatherer times might well have been needed for survival. Walk too near the edge of a cliff and you needed a reaction from adults that meant a guarantee of no repetition. However, many would argue now that children’s behaviour can be managed without the need to shame but that is clearly a big shift away from what most of us experienced as a child and maybe why so many people struggle with low self-esteem.

There is clearly a link to how strongly we feel shame and our self-esteem. Shame can be crippling if what we already feel about ourselves (and I mean deep down) is the result of low self-esteem. By this same connection, I feel our self-esteem can improve as our emotional intelligence increases because it means we can manage and challenge shame so it becomes less intense.

So how do we become better at handling shame so that it doesn’t keep knocking us down and take the wind out of our sails?

Well this is where my knowledge of person-centred personality theory helps. The big antidote to shame is mostly true empathy from another. Undoing the damage shame has done, is a huge part of the healing process of counselling as it aims to help a person be fully themselves without the restricting baggage they received from the shoulds (approval) and should nots (disapproval – telling off) of childhood. To be free of those, makes you more authentically yourself.

To use a shallow example: if as a child you were reprimanded for being messy and you are naturally really messy, you will carry round a ‘hang up’ about this part of you unless it is consciously addressed. The shame triggered by your own messiness can mean you might even deny this aspect of yourself, despite clear evidence you are really messy! You might even start judging others for being messy, even though they are no messier than you – because you have learnt quite clearly that being messy is bad! (In Jungian psychology, this accusing others of things you can’t see you also do is called projection.) Shame protects us from seeing our blind spots about ourselves – because those things are too shameful for us. Denying these aspects from ourselves is an attempt to keep shame at bay.

In the counselling process, if, as we explore ourselves, whatever we share is totally accepted, if we feel completely understood and not judged, we can start to unfurl and realise how our self-imposed restrictions from childhood conditioning no longer serve us well. We search less for approval from others and are no longer bound by the fear of the disapproval we received as a child for doing certain things. It’s rarely a quick process but it definitely works to make us more self-accepting and self-compassionate. (A further pleasant symptom is that we stop judging others too as the should and should nots benchmarks deteriorate!)

So in the unlikely event of everyone accessing counselling, here’s my step by step guide to managing shame and increasing self-awareness:

  1. Make sure you understand what it is!
  2. Try and become aware of the times it is triggered, in the moment it is triggered and try to fully accept it is there – head on – no denials!
  3. Once you’re aware of the shame being triggered as it arises, hold back on any automatic responses you might feel urged to do (e.g. defensiveness, dismissiveness, instant disengagement, sabotage, etc)
  4. Challenge any of the negative self-talk that might pop into your head when shame is triggered.
  5. Be curious about the self-belief the shame touched upon. It’s usually something like, ‘I am rubbish because… e.g. I made a mistake and everyone will think I am stupid. or I sounded so stupid when I said that. Consider the messages you received from childhood that might have been touched upon. Did you do something your received strong disapproval for as a child?
  6. Realise that shame reactions are nearly always far more intense than your actions warranted and that shame very rarely serves us well.
  7. Employ some self-compassion. Everyone makes mistakes and messes up and all mistakes can be forgiven. Do you really think nobody else has ever made the mistake you just made? Remember all the times you do things well!
  8. Share what happened with someone you trust and they will help you see from their reception of what happened, that your reaction was exaggerated and it did not need to erode or challenge your self-esteem to the very core! You will have to be brave to share it as you’ll be working against the power of shame but the more you share, the weaker the shame will become.
  9. Know that this process will eventually boost your self-esteem as you realise the many things that eroded it were irrational and restrictive.


A Comparison of Shame and Guilt

Shame and guilt are both emotions evolved to moderate our behaviour so we are more acceptable to our ‘tribe’ – but they are not the same.

Shame is about how you and others see you whereas guilt is about how your actions affect other people.

With shame we often want to hide away but with guilt we are compelled to repair the damage done by our actions.

Shame is a less complex emotion and we feel it as young as the age of two. Guilt takes a little longer to develop (about age eight) because it requires a greater amount of cognitive capability and empathy for it to be triggered.

Shame can affect our relationships negatively as it can lead us to blame others when negative events happen (it’s too shameful for us to accept we have done something wrong). People who feel a lot of shame tend to experience anger more readily. People prone to feeling guilt, however, are less likely to express anger or blame others, they are usually more direct when addressing problems, they empathise more and they are more likely to accept responsibility for mistakes they have made.

Or as the wonderful Brené Brown puts it:

Shame – I am bad. The focus is on the self, not behaviour. The result is feeling flawed and unworthy of love, belonging and connection. Shame is not a driver of positive change.

Guilt – I did something bad. The focus is on behaviour. Guilt is the discomfort we feel when we evaluate what we’ve done or failed to do against our values. It can drive positive change and behaviour.


I also made a video about shame a while ago -aimed at children and young people: What can we say about shame?