Coping With Borderline Personality Disorder Embarrassment and Shame

Woman coping with shame and embarrassment

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Many people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) experience intense and chronic shame, a self-conscious emotion associated with a sense of worthlessness, self-contempt, or self-loathing. Shame may in part explain the high rates of self-harm and suicidal behavior in people with BPD.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

What Is Shame?

We use the word all the time, but what exactly is "shame?" Shame is considered one of the self-conscious emotions; it is an emotion that relates to our behavior or self, often in relation to other people's opinions. Other self-conscious emotions include embarrassment and guilt.

Although the lines between these emotions have been conceptualized in different ways, one way to think about this is that shame is different than embarrassment or guilt because we experience these two emotions in relation to our behavior, whereas shame is an emotion that relates directly to our sense of self.

To understand this distinction, let's use the example of an impulsive act that some people with BPD struggle with—shoplifting. Imagine that, on impulse, you shoplifted something from a store.

Even if no one found out about the shoplifting, you may experience guilt, a feeling that you have done something that is wrong. If someone did find out about your behavior, you might experience embarrassment, the feeling you get when other people find out you have done something that violates social norms.

Shame, on the other hand, is a feeling that you are bad or worthy of contempt. It is not necessarily about a specific behavior or event but is a feeling of being inadequate as a person. You may feel shame after shoplifting, but shame carries with it an additional judgment.

BPD and Shame

Many people with BPD experience pervasive and chronic shame, regardless of their behavior. This has lead researchers to believe that shame may distinguish BPD from other mental health disorders.

For example, a study from 2007 found that women with BPD and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were not more shame-prone than women who only had BPD. These findings suggest that shame-proneness could be specifically related to BPD rather than co-occurring trauma-related symptoms. Other studies seem to support this suggestion.

Research on the role of shame in BPD has shown that women with BPD report more shame-proneness compared to women who did not have BPD, as well as compared to women with other mental health disorders such as depression and social anxiety, and to women who did not have a mental illness (healthy controls).

The Link to Self-Harm

In addition to growing research that shows a connection between BPD and shame, a number of experts have suggested a connection between shame and deliberate self-harm and suicide attempts. Shame may also precede episodes of deliberate self-harm.

Self-reported feelings of shame and self-disgust have been associated with suicide threats and thoughts in people with several mental health conditions, including BPD. Research has also demonstrated that women with BPD who expressed more shame when talking about their self-harm behaviors were more likely to self-harm in the future.

Reducing Shame

While it is well-known that intense emotional pain is generated by feelings of shame associated with BPD, there are not yet effective treatments directly aimed at reducing shameful feelings. Researchers concede that more studies are needed to prove that reducing shame can reduce self-harm urges in people with BPD.

Some preliminary research indicates that the Dialectical Behavior Therapy skill of "Opposite Action" may help reduce shame about specific events for some people with BPD. Unfortunately, people who experience high levels of shame may also feel motivated to hide their feelings because they are afraid of judgment.

A Word From Verywell

Secrecy and shame can prevent those with bipolar disorder from receiving the treatment they need. If you or a loved one has BPD and is dealing with feelings of shame or having suicidal thoughts, it's imperative to share these feelings with a therapist or another qualified mental health professional that you can trust.

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