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Understanding and Overcoming Feelings of Shame

by Louise W. Rice
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Shame is a powerful emotion, but would you recognize it if you felt it? A lot of people don’t and end up suffering as a result. Its physical and psychological effects wreak havoc on humans, so it’s important to know what to look for. Once you’ve spotted shame, steps should always be taken to stop it right in its tracks.

Some people can effectively manage feelings of shame on their own, while others will need the assistance of a counselor to get it under control. There are many benefits to counseling, whether you go in person or online. Many shameful feelings begin during childhood and continue into one’s life. Many people can also continue the cycle and impart these feelings onto their children. This, sadly, can be a form of child neglect. The sooner parents can learn how their treatment can impact their children’s future, the quicker we can come to a solution.

What is Shame?

Shame is a strong emotion experienced by all people, in all cultures, in every part of the world. It can be described as an intense feeling of self-hatred, humiliation, or embarrassment from having done something wrong. People can even feel shame from their perception of having done something wrong, even if reality says otherwise. It is a negative emotion, but still plays a role in our survival as humans.

Looking back at history, it makes sense why humans developed it. Biologically, shame protects people from making mistakes that would damage their relationships. Centuries ago, if someone lost their social connections, they’d also be losing food, shelter, and protection. Shame isn’t going anywhere, so it’s important we learn how to cope with it.

Signs of Shame

Shame can present itself both physically and mentally and isn’t usually obvious from the surface. Most of the time, you have to ask a lot of questions and do some self-reflection to discover that you’re dealing with shame. Here are some common signs that you might be experiencing feelings of shame:

  • Feeling worthless
  • Dealing with anger issues
  • Engaging in destructive behavior
  • Feelings of embarrassment
  • Blaming yourself, even if something isn’t your fault
  • Coping with sex, drugs, or alcohol addictions
  • Withdrawing from friends or family members

Shame vs. Guilt

Shame and guilt are two very different emotions. While guilt can be positive and gently remind us of when we’ve gone off track, shame is negative and consuming. Guilty people realize they’ve done something that’s wrong or not aligned with their morals. Shameful people think that something is wrong with them.

Guilty people take accountability for their actions and realize they made a poor decision. Shameful people jump right into blaming themselves and contribute a mistake to them being a bad person. Guilty people tend to change their behavior to try and be better, but shame causes a person to freeze up and avoid changing.

Guilt can certainly be healthy or unhealthy, but shame is never good for anyone. Guilt focuses on actions, while shame focuses inward on self. When people feel guilty, they tend to have more empathy and understanding. When they feel shameful, other negative effects like addiction, anger and depression normally follow.

Causes of Shame

Shame can have many different causes and looks different from person to person. It can develop in childhood or later in life. Some common causes of shame are:

  • Bullying: Victims of bullying often feel shameful if they couldn’t stand up for themselves. They might also feel like someone bullied them because something was wrong with them. They may think that if they were more outgoing, skinnier, or popular, the bully wouldn’t have picked on them.
  • Cultural norms: People who are attracted to those of the same sex might feel shame if their cultural discouraged these feelings or didn’t accept them as is. Those who don’t meet gender norms can feel shameful about it, even when it’s not in their control.
  • Trauma/Neglect: Being neglected or abandoned as a child can cause trauma and make a person believe they weren’t worthy of being taken care of. Parents can cause shame through certain parenting methods. For example, if a child wets their bed, parents can either respond in a compassionate manner or blame the child and ask what’s wrong with them. It’s one thing to make a mistake and another to believe you are a mistake.
  • Goals: It’s good to have goals, but sometimes our goals can be unrealistic or unattainable. When we don’t reach them, it can create feelings of inadequacy and lead to shame.
  • Mental health disorders: Living with a mental health disorder can make people feel like something is wrong with them. Some mental health disorders, like social anxiety disorder, make it even harder to relate to others and feel good enough for other people.
  • Comparison: Those who go through life comparing themselves to other people might feel inadequate when they don’t live up to the success others are experiencing.
  • Being emotional: If you grew up in a house in which talking about feelings was abnormal or discouraged, you’ll probably feel shameful when you experience strong emotions and want to talk about them.

The Impact of Shame

the impact of shame

Shame takes a toll on one’s mental health and overall well-being; it affects a person’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and life choices. Poor self-esteem, self-hatred, and negativity are common among those who experience shameful feelings regularly. If left untreated, shame can become one’s identity and impact multiple areas of their life. Certain mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, OCD, and personality disorders are common among those who have dealt with shame for an extended period of time.

Shame changes people, and not for the better. It can affect the way someone views their own behavior, body, personality, characteristics, morals, and beyond. If someone is experiencing feelings of shame, they might display these characteristics as a result:

  • Talking about how much they hate themselves or their choices
  • Feeling like they’re a bad person
  • Ruminating on past mistakes
  • Being overly sensitive to acceptance or rejection
  • Picking up addictive behaviors
  • Pretending to be someone they’re not
  • Detaching or withdrawing from people or activities they love
  • Physical symptoms like stomach aches
  • Having an overall negative life outlook
  • Feeling unlovable or unworthy of being loved

How to Overcome Shame

Before dealing with shame, one first has to recognize that that’s what they’re experiencing. Some ways of dealing with shame are certainly better than others. The goal is to reduce those negative feelings over time; here are some ways you can start to overcome shame and do so effectively:

1. See a counselor

Involving another person in your inner struggles is important. Counselors are an objective voice of reason, and they can help you see the ways in which your perception of yourself is skewed or incorrect. Talking about your shame out loud is a great way to process feelings that you’ve kept inside for so long. Your counselor will be able to give you practical tips for combatting shameful feelings head-on and reducing them in the long run.

2. Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of your own thoughts. It’s accepting each thought as it comes into your mind, but not letting it have power over you—especially if the thought is negative or untrue. Mindfulness involves “testing” your thoughts and feelings to cultivate awareness of your more subconscious mind. Mindful people tend to be less self-critical, more kind, and less judgmental of themselves, which naturally reduces shame.

3. Confide in trusted friends and family members

Shame often continues to grow and negatively affect one’s life because it is a hidden feeling. When you bring those feelings of shame out into the light and are vulnerable with other people, though, it tends to lose its grip on you. What sounds awful or unacceptable in your mind is probably not as bad as you think it is. Find friends and family members you know you can trust and open up to them about how you’re feeling.

4. Be present

Shame thrives on focusing on the past, especially past failures and mistakes. Staying present involves focusing on what you can control and do in the current moment. The past has already come and gone, so don’t waste time trying to fix or change what happened. Instead, focusing on making things right in the present moment and in the future.

5. Have compassion

The best way to combat shame is to have compassion for yourself (or for someone else if they’re opening up to you about their shame). Everyone will deal with shameful feelings at some point in their life; what distinguishes how each of us moves forward is in how we tackle those feelings. Showing yourself compassion requires shutting down thoughts that aren’t helpful (while still accepting them) and being kinder to yourself as well. The inner critic is loud, but rest assured you have all the tools you need to combat it.

In Summary

Each person’s journey with shame will look different because everyone experiences these feelings to varying degrees. However, no matter how little or how much you feel that shame is affecting your life, you should always take steps to overcome it. If left untreated, feelings of shame can grow over time or become stronger when exposed to a new trigger or trauma. While shame does have its reasons for existing and developed for a specific purpose (to help humans survive), it can also be incredibly damaging.

Everyone experiences shame at one point or another, but help is always available to those who seek it out. The hardest step is admitting that you’re struggling and then reaching out for assistance. Mental health professionals and a variety of other resources exist to help people all around the world move towards being more accepting towards themselves. Know that you are never too far gone, and shame doesn’t have to have the final word.


Marie MiguelAuthor Bio: Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health-related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with BetterHelp. With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.

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