Shame describes feelings of inadequacy created by internalized negative beliefs about oneself. Personal insecurities, secrets, mistakes, and perceived flaws can all trigger shame responses, causing people to become extremely self-conscious, self-critical, and embarrassed. Interrupting self-criticism, improving self-compassion, opening up to others and responding more effectively when ashamed can reduce distress and help build a more adaptive self-concept.
What Is Shame & When Does It Arise?
Shame is a form of extreme self-consciousness that results from negative and self-critical thoughts. Shame is categorized as a self-conscious emotion because it is triggered by internal thoughts and judgment of oneself. These self-evaluations can result in positive feelings of pride or negative feelings of shame, depicting each end of the spectrum of self-conscious emotions.7 When people experience shame, this self-evaluation has resulted in feeling bad, inadequate or unworthy.
People can experience shame about how they look, what they say or do, or about specific flaws or insecurities they have. Shame can be triggered by current experiences or even when remembering or imagining situations where these flaws or insecurities are apparent. Because shame is one of the most difficult and painful emotions people can experience, it often hides itself behind other emotions and defense mechanisms. When shame is hidden behind another emotion like fear, anger, or jealousy, it can be difficult to detect.
Shame has a central social component, and involves fears of being judged, criticized or rejected by others rather than just judging oneself. The origins of shame can almost always be tied back to past experiences of feeling judged, criticized, or rejected by someone else. People often respond to shame by pushing away others, withdrawing, and working to preserve their reputation by hiding the aspects of themselves they feel will lead to rejection.
Despite causing antisocial urges, shame is believed to serve a prosocial function. Shame is intended to motivate behaviors that lead to social acceptance and prevent behaviors that lead to rejection.7 These include behaviors that go against mainstream morals, norms, and expectations. Despite this adaptive function, shame can occur even when these negative perceptions of the self are incorrect and when fears of rejection are unfounded.
Because everyone has insecurities, everyone will occasionally experience shame in situations that expose or trigger their insecurities. Most people experience shame about specific insecurities but experiencing more generalized forms of shame (i.e. thinking they are worthless or completely bad on the inside) is a more toxic form of shame. Shame that is toxic, chronic or debilitating is often an indicator of an underlying mental health condition like anxiety, depression, or post traumatic stress disorder.1,7
What Causes Shame?
Any negative or critical self-assessment can result in shame and occurs when a person becomes overly focused on perceived mistakes, flaws, and negative traits. In moments of shame, people lose sight of their strengths, abilities or positive qualities. Sometimes these self-critical beliefs have an element of truth, but they are often greatly distorted and exaggerated when compared to a more global assessment of a person’s character.
People can experience shame in response to any current, past or imagined future situation that triggers a negative self-evaluation, but it mainly happens when existing insecurities or negative beliefs are exposed. These existing insecurities usually developed early on in life in response to painful experiences of being criticized, rejected or hurt. These “shaming” experiences cause people to internalize negative beliefs about themselves and to see specific mistakes, flaws or character defects as threats that could keep them from being accepted or loved.3,4,7
Traumatic experiences like sexual, physical or emotional abuse, neglect, or other forms of maltreatment in childhood are all closely correlated experiences of shame later in life.6 Children who experience these kinds of trauma tend to internalize blame and develop negative beliefs about themselves as a way of making sense of what happened to them.
Shame can develop in response to more common painful childhood experiences that may not qualify as trauma but have had similar lasting emotional impacts, including:6
- Being compared to a sibling and continuing to negatively compare yourself to them now
- Being scolded for making a mistake and internalizing the message that you were bad
- Making a mistake that resulted in someone else being hurt and not forgiving yourself
- Being bullied in school for how you looked or some other trait you became ashamed of
- Receiving love that felt conditional upon your performance in school/sports, etc.
- Growing up in a house where it was shameful to show or talk about feelings
- Having a deeply guarded family secret you were expected to keep and protect
- Feeling ashamed from where or how you grew up, how much money you had, etc.
- Parents or caregivers who had unrealistic or perfectionistic expectations of you
- Being subjected to frequent criticism, comparison, or disapproval
- Having an absent parent and believing you were unloved or unwanted by them
Whether or not shame will develop in response to an experience depends on a person’s interpretation of why something happened. When a person internalizes a painful experience and believes that it was caused by a personal flaw or shortcoming they have, they are most likely to experience shame. Children and teens are most vulnerable to these internalizations, but painful experiences in adulthood can also lead to internalized shame.
How Does Shame Affect Mental Health?
Shame and mental health have an interdependent relationship where each can trigger and exacerbate the other. Persistent shame is closely correlated with poor self-esteem and an overall negative self-concept. Self-concept and self-esteem reflect the foundations of a person’s identity and affect all aspects of what they think, feel and do.
Poor self-concept and low self-esteem characteristic of shame are linked to a number of different mental health issues. Shame is most often observed in people with depression, anxiety (especially social anxiety), anger and trauma, but is also common in people with personality disorders eating disorders.3,4,7 Research also suggests that experiencing high levels of shame also increases the risk for a range of high-risk behaviors including substance use, self-harm, and suicide.7
All emotional and psychological problems are related to distinct changes in the way a person thinks, feels and behaves.
Some of the characteristic patterns of thought, emotions, and behaviors noted in people experiencing shame include:3,4,7,8
|Thinking more cynically about the future||Feeling embarrassed or humiliated||Self-destructive behaviors like drug and alcohol use|
|Negative and self-critical thoughts, hyper focusing on flaws||Urges to hide or withdraw from other people||Isolating, avoiding and withdrawing from others|
|Rumination on past failures and rejections||Feeling small, weak, helpless or “frozen”||Defensiveness, pushing people away, not letting guard down|
|Underestimation of abilities and strengths||Unsettled stomach or feeling nauseous or sick||Avoiding unfamiliar or challenging situations|
|Personalizing negative events and experiences||Feeling numb, detached or disconnected from the present||Self-sabotaging opportunities or relationships|
|Being more suspicious and distrustful of others||Feeling overstimulated, hypervigilant or overly sensitive||Compromising or settling for less because of fears of failing|
|Anticipating or dreading future failures or rejection||Feeling irritable, impulsive or on-edge||Not standing up for oneself or voicing needs or concerns|
|Being overly focused on self and less aware of others||Feeling moody or more emotionally unstable||Pretending or misrepresenting oneself to conceal shameful parts|
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Are There Different Types of Shame?
Shame describes feeling inadequate, less than, or not good enough in one or more area of life.Some researchers make a distinction between internal shame and external shame, making the point that shame can be generated either internally or externally. Internal shame originates from negative beliefs a person has about themselves while external shame is caused by worrying about negative beliefs others may have of them.
Regardless of whether shame originates internally or externally, it can develop in response to a number of different perceived mistakes, flaws, or shortcomings. Some researchers delineate between broad categories of shame including bodily shame, behavioral shame, and characterological shame:1
- Bodily shame includes shame about weight, body shape, physical attributes and other aspects of appearance.
- Behavioral shame includes shame experienced about things people have said or done or even things they failed to say or do.
- Characterological shame describes shame about some fixed aspect of personality or inherent flaw or weakness. Sometimes, characterological shame can also be globalized shame about being a certain “type” of person, having poor morals or judgment or generalized beliefs about being bad, unworthy, or unlovable.1
Examples of Shame
Within each type of shame, there are endless variations of what people feel ashamed of and the specific situations that trigger shame. Many of these are experiences that people have experienced in the past but may not have identified as being shame-based.
Some examples of shame include:
- Feeling unattractive about a particular part of the body or a specific physical feature
- Blaming oneself for being a victim of sexual, physical or emotional abuse
- Replaying embarrassing interactions or mistakes over and over again in the mind
- Feeling like an “impostor” at school or work and worrying about others finding out
- Comparisons with other people perceived to be better, smarter, more likeable or attractive
- Insecurities stemming from a lack of sexual experience or an inability to please a partner
- Replaying past rejections and avoiding situations where these might recur
- Having impossible or unrealistic expectations of doing things perfectly
- Feeling like a bad parent because of one impatient or harsh interaction
- Panicking after disclosing something personal or emotionally vulnerable
- Feeling intensely embarrassed when a credit card is declined
- Feeling like a horrible person for having an unkind or “impure” thought
Are Shame & Guilt Different?
Guilt and shame are often confused but describe emotional experiences that begin and end in different places. At the most simplistic level, guilt is feeling bad about something you did but shame is feeling bad about who you are. Both guilt and shame can be triggered by similar situations but manifest differently and motivate different responses.
Some of the main differences that can be observed between guilt and shame include:3,4,7,8
|Feeling bad about something you did||Feeling bad about some part of who you are|
|Evaluating an action as right or wrong||Evaluating a person as good or bad|
|Failure is the result of a poor decision||Failure is the result of a personal flaw|
|Triggers self-reflection||Triggers self-criticism|
|Worries about the harm caused by the choice||Worries about being judged by others|
|Promotes problem solving||Promotes rumination|
|Leads to apologies and attempts to repair trust||Leads to withdrawal and disconnection from others|
|Involves taking accountability||Involves blaming oneself|
|Can be protective of relationships||Can be destructive to relationships|
|Tends to motivate behavior change||Tends to lower motivation to change|
|Feels uncomfortable and unpleasant||Feels intolerable and overwhelming|
|Involves evaluating actions and choices||Involves evaluating identity and self-worth|
|Often expressed as disappointment||Often expressed as anger|
What Makes Shame Worse?
Shame is an incredibly difficult and uncomfortable emotion so when it shows up, people want to get rid of it as quickly as possible. This can lead to actions and choices that provide temporary relief because they help people bypass the immediate emotional experience but do nothing to address the underlying issues. In fact, many of the shame-based responses that people default to are ones that can strengthen the underlying mechanisms of shame, making them more likely to experience shame in the future.
Some of the unhelpful responses that can exacerbate shame include:
Distractions can provide temporary relief from self-critical thoughts and emotions and while distraction is sometimes necessary, over-relying on it can worsen shame. Over time, ignored shame can fester, lurking below the conscious awareness where it can subtly influence a person’s actions and choices without them noticing.
Because shame comes from an inability to provide internal validation, many people rely on external validation from money, praise, success, status, or material things. While these can provide temporary boosts to self-esteem, they make people more dependent on external forms of validation, and more prone to experience shame when their circumstances change.
Shame creates an intense urge to hide or conceal the insecurities that feel exposed, but secrecy creates an environment where shame grows stronger. Even when people are very successful at keeping their insecurities and flaws hidden, they still lose out on the ability to feel fully accepted and tend to feel more pressure and anxiety about needing to keep up the façade.
Comparisons fuel shame and create an unwinnable battle for self-worth, as there will always be someone who is perceived as better, smarter, more attractive or more successful. Comparisons keep self-worth conditional upon who else is around instead of keeping it stable, leading to constant fluctuations between pride and shame.
Self-critical thoughts feed into shame and rarely lead to actions that are productive or helpful. The more people participate in self-critical, negative, or judgmental thoughts, the more they strengthen the negative self-concept that will keep bringing them back to the experience of shame.
5 Ways to Overcome Shame
There are certain ways of responding to shame that are more likely to be helpful in reducing shame, guarding against its negative impacts, and building a more stable self-concept. Instead of the defensive responses listed above, these responses are ones that encourage people to move towards their shame instead of away from it. While counterintuitive, moving towards shame puts people in a position of power where they can recognize shame, interrupt self-criticism, and guard against destructive shame-driven responses.
Some of the helpful responses to shame include:3,5
1. Accept the Shame & Track the Sensation
Rejecting and struggling to get rid of shame takes a lot of time and energy, and usually does not produce lasting results. By accepting the emotion and being willing to let it run its course, this time and energy is freed up to reinvest in ways that are more productive. Usually, focusing on the body and tracking the sensations associated with it results in experiencing a “wave” of emotion that rises, crests, and subsides fairly quickly.
2. Learn Mindfulness Practices
It is important not to get sucked into the negative and critical thoughts and stories associated with shame, as these kinds of thoughts provide fuel for shame and can make it more intense and lasting. Mindfulness techniques, like bringing attention to the present moment by focusing on breath, one or more of the five senses, or even devoting full attention and energy to a task can be helpful in reducing shame.
3. Be Vulnerable With Those You Trust
Because shame often involves fears of rejection, being open, honest, and vulnerable with people can offer a healing and corrective emotional experience. Being vulnerable prevents shame from building up inside and also helps people feel less alone. This also extends to other forms of vulnerability like admitting to mistakes, not feeling the need to hide flaws, and asking for help when it’s needed.
4. Practice Self-Compassion
Self-compassion teaches people to be kinder and more accepting of themselves. Self-compassion involves interrupting the inner critic with a more gentle and compassionate voice and maintaining this positive self-talk even in situations when people make mistakes or feel insecure. Self-compassion also involves becoming more attuned and attentive to inner wants and needs rather than always putting the needs of others first.
5. Focus on What You Can Do Now, Not What Happened in the Past
When shame arises in situations where there is a need to repair, resolve, or find a solution to a problem, it is more productive to think about what can and should be done now rather than what already happened. Problem solving also prevents the “collapse” response that is common in people who feel ashamed, which can increase the feelings of helplessness and shame.
When Should I Get Help for Shame?
Therapy can be incredibly beneficial for anyone working on self-improvement, even when there is no serious underlying mental health issue. In therapy, people can become more self-aware, address underlying issues contributing to their shame, and learn more effective methods of coping. It is not uncommon for people to come into therapy for another emotional issue like anger, anxiety or depression and eventually uncover shame as a root cause or major contributor to their problem.
People should seek treatment from a licensed therapist if they experience shame that is persistent, chronic, or debilitating. Online therapist directories are a good starting place, but people should also plan on setting up phone consultations to find a therapist who is a good match for their needs. Many therapists offer these consultations at no cost.
Where Can I Learn More About Shame?
Brene Brown is a social worker, author and researcher who has dedicated her career to researching shame. She is widely respected in the field of mental health as an expert on overcoming shame. She has a viral TED talk on the topic of shame and vulnerability, and has also authored a number of bestselling books.
Kristen Neff is another industry expert who has dedicated her career to helping people overcome toxic shame and self-criticism and build more authentic forms of self-worth. Her niche is self-compassion, which she has extensively researched and written about. Her website has a number of free exercises that can help boost self-compassion as well as a number of other resources targeted to overcoming shame.
Infographics About Shame