What Is Shame?

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Shame

Shame can be defined as a feeling of embarrassment or humiliation that arises from the perception of having done something dishonorable, immoral, or improper.

People who experience shame usually try to hide the thing they feel ashamed of. When shame is chronic, it can involve the feeling that you are fundamentally flawed. Shame can often be hard to identify in oneself.

While shame is a negative emotion, its origins play a part in our survival as a species. Without shame, we might not feel the need to adhere to cultural norms, follow laws, or behave in a way that allows us to exist as social beings.

Since we want to be accepted, shame is an evolutionary tool that keeps us all in check. 

When Does Shame Become Harmful?

Shame can be problematic when it becomes internalized and results in an overly harsh evaluation of oneself as a whole person. This inner critic might tell you that you are a bad person, worthless, or have no value. The truth is, how deeply you feel ashamed often has little to do with your worth or what you have done wrong.

Other common concepts that overlap with shame include embarrassment, humiliation, and guilt. However, these different terms have nuances in meaning that are important to know to better understand shame.

Symptoms of Shame

Are you wondering whether you might be experiencing shame? Below is a list of self-defeating shame reactions according to psychiatrist Peter Breggin in his book Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety. 

  • Feeling sensitive or being worried about what others think of you
  • Feeling unappreciated, used, or like others take advantage of you
  • Feeling rejected, regretful, inadequate, or like you have little impact
  • Uncontrollable blushing, or being afraid to look inappropriate or stupid
  • Worrying that you aren’t treated with respect, or wanting to have the last word
  • Feeling that you can’t be your true self, losing your identity, or not sharing your thoughts or feelings because you are afraid to be embarrassed
  • Being more worried about failure than doing something immoral or dishonorable, being a perfectionist
  • Feeling like an outsider, that you are different or left out, or feeling suspicious and like you can’t trust others
  • Being a wallflower or shrinking violet, wanting to shut people out or withdraw, trying to hide or be inconspicuous, or not wanting to be the center of attention

The behaviors below are examples of things that people do when they feel shame:

  • Looking down instead of looking people in the eye
  • Keeping their head hung low, or slumping their shoulders instead of standing up straight
  • Feeling frozen or unable to move
  • Not being able to act spontaneously
  • Stuttering when trying to speak or talking in an overly soft voice
  • Hiding their self from others
  • Crying if they feel shame or embarrassment

Four Categories of Shame Behavior

In the academic book Shame, published by Oxford University Press, the authors identified four categories of shame behaviors:

  1. The Hot Response
  2. Behaviors to Cope With or Conceal Shame
  3. Safety Behaviors to Avoid Shame or Being Discovered
  4. Behaviors to Repair Shame

The Hot Response

These are things you do when you feel ashamed and defensive, such as lashing out in anger or attacking the other person to deflect attention from yourself. The hot response is usually an impulsive reaction.

Behaviors to Cope With or Conceal Shame

These behaviors include doing things to make yourself feel small, trying to avoid being the center of attention, or not sharing your thoughts or feelings. Concealing yourself is a method of self-protection.

Safety Behaviors to Avoid Shame or Being Discovered

This category of shame behaviors might be things like apologizing, crying, or avoiding conflict. People who have a tendency toward being emotional or avoiding conflict may be more likely to engage in safety behaviors.

Behaviors to Repair Shame

These might include things like doing things to soothe yourself or apologizing to others. For example, if you forgot an important anniversary, you might tell yourself that you had a lot on your mind or engage in gestures to show that you are sorry.

Types of Shame

In addition to the four broad categories of shame that have been identified, there are also many different types of shame. Below are some to consider.

Transient Shame

Transient shame refers to that fleeting feeling you get when you make a mistake, perhaps in a social setting. It usually passes quickly and doesn't create problems in your life. In fact, transient shame may even be beneficial by causing you to pay more attention to feedback received from others.

Chronic Shame

Chronic shame is with you all the time and makes you feel as though you are not good enough. This type of shame can impair your functioning and mental health.

Humiliation

Humiliation is one of the most intense forms of shame and comes about when we are critically embarrassed about something. Often, this is felt when something happens in front of other people.

Defeat

We might feel shame when experiencing failure or defeat. If you lose a sporting match that you were expecting to win, for example, you may feel shame in the loss. Or you might feel shame when you didn't get a promotion at work.

Shame Around Strangers

Shame around strangers reflects a feeling that they will discover that something is wrong with you. This type of shame is common with social anxiety, with some studies finding that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) reduces social anxiety symptoms by reducing one's proneness to shame.

In Front of Others

Shame in front of others refers to the type of shame that is experienced when one feels embarrassed in front of other people. This form of shame is linked to the feeling of humiliation.

Performance Shame

Feeling self-conscious about one’s performance is another type of shame. This tends to show up when public speaking, as well as during musical and athletic performances. Some argue that performance shame serves as a transformational force, impacting both the "performer" and others at the event.

Shame About the Self

Feeling as though you are an inferior person can lead to shame about the self. This is a chronic type of shame with long-lasting effects.

Unrequited Love

Shame that results from unrequited love is another type of shame. This is a feeling of not being good enough for another person.

Unwanted Exposure

Public humiliation involves unwanted exposure and makes up another type of shame. An example would be making a mistake in public and having someone point it out.

Disappointment or Failure

If your expectations are not met or you fail at something, you may experience shame related to failure or disappointment. This is closely linked to shame about defeat.

Exclusion

If you feel as though you are being excluded from a group, not liked by the group, or that you don’t belong, you might experience shame about being left out. This type is also common in social anxiety.

Exclusion and shame often co-occur in people with obesity due to social stigma and weight bias.

Internalized Shame

Internalized shame refers to shame that has been turned inward. For example, those who experience childhood abuse may experience a feeling of being unworthy or feel shame related to their abuse.

Toxic Shame

Toxic shame is similar to internalized shame in that it involves the notion that there is something inherently wrong with you on the inside. Toxic shame is part of your core identity rather than a transient state. People who experience toxic shame may try to present a perfect outer self to hide how they feel on the inside.

Healthy Shame

Finally, healthy shame can also exist. Shame can be healthy when it causes you to have humility, allows you to laugh at yourself, makes you humble, or teaches you about boundaries. Without at least a little bit of shame, people would have trouble measuring the effects of their behaviors on other people.

Causes of Shame

Are you wondering about what causes shame? There are a variety of potential causes of the different types of shame, some that are transient and others that might have originated in childhood. In addition, sometimes mental health concerns can create shame in and of themselves.

Let’s take a look at some of the potential causes of shame:

  • Childhood trauma or neglect
  • Any mental health disorder that involves self-criticism or judgment (e.g., social anxiety disorder)
  • Not living up to overly high standards that you set for yourself
  • Feeling as though your flaws or inadequacy will be revealed
  • Being the victim of bullying
  • Expectations not being met or experiencing failure
  • Rejection from others or the weakening of a relationship

It’s important to note that infants experience shame naturally without ever learning this feeling. In this way, the shame response is normal and natural. However, when it becomes extreme, it becomes a problem.

Impact of Shame

If you've experienced shame, you probably know that it can have a negative impact on your life. Below are some of the potential negative impacts you might experience because of shame:

  • Makes you feel like you are flawed or there is something wrong with you
  • Can lead to social withdrawal, especially when it is a result of public stigma
  • Can lead to addictions (e.g., alcohol, drugs, spending, sex)
  • May cause you to become defensive and shame others in return
  • May lead you to bully others if you have been bullied yourself
  • May cause you to inflate your ego to hide the belief that you don’t have value (narcissistic personality)
  • May lead to physical health problems
  • Can be related to depression and sadness
  • May leave you feeling empty, lonely, or worn out
  • May lead to lowered self-esteem
  • May make it harder for you to trust other people
  • May make it harder for you to be in therapy or to stop feeling as though you are being judged
  • May lead to perfectionism or overachievement to try and counteract your feelings of shame
  • May cause you to engage in people pleasing
  • May cause you to avoid talking because you are afraid to say the wrong thing
  • May cause compulsive or excessive behaviors like strict dieting, overworking, excessive cleaning, or having too high of standards in general

As you can see, most of the impacts of shame lead to behaviors that create a vicious cycle. You feel shame, which causes you to engage in behaviors that can lead to more feelings of shame. These behaviors can also be detrimental in and of themselves, creating potential physical or mental health problems on their own.

Shame and Mental Health

Research has repeatedly made a connection between "proneness to shame" and psychological issues. Mental health conditions associated with shame include:

Shame vs. Guilt

Before we discuss how to start feeling less shame, it’s important to consider the difference between shame and guilt. While shame is often confused with guilt, they are actually two separate things.

  • Guilt: Guilt is generally about something that you have done. It refers to something you did wrong or a behavior that you feel bad about.
  • Shame: Shame refers to something about your character or who you are as a person that you believe is unacceptable. Shame is not about doing something wrong. It is about a feeling that you have when you perceive that you are not good enough in some way.

While guilt is about wrong actions, shame is about being wrong as a person.

In academic psychology, shame is associated with avoiding failure and its consequences while guilt is connected with forgiving and improving one's self, along with making amends. Learning to separate your guilt from your shame is one of the first steps to feeling less shame in general.

Coping With Shame

Are you wondering how to feel less shame? There are three main steps to healing your shame. The first is exploring your shame instead of avoiding it. The second is embracing your shame, and the third is achieving acceptance. Below we examine each of these steps.

Explore Your Shame

The first step in moving on from your shame is to understand what it is all about. This is important because it will be impossible for you to heal from your shame if you haven’t identified it for what it is.

Gaining perspective on your shame by understanding where it has come from and how it influences your current decisions (through emotional memories) can go a long way toward stopping shame from ruling your life.

One way to recognize your shame is to start paying attention to your emotions in different situations. When are your feelings of shame triggered? And when you feel shame, how do you react or how do you feel differently?

If you aren’t sure, try writing in a journal about your feelings of shame. In particular, you could write about events from your past in which you felt shame or that influence you today in your feelings of shame. Write down any feelings or thoughts you have and how you reacted to that past situation.

Next, spend some time examining how past shame still influences you today in terms of current shame. What did past situations teach you about yourself? Bringing your shame into the light is a way to escape from having it cast a shadow on your current self.

Embrace Your Shame

Now that you have identified and acknowledged your shame, it's time to work on embracing your shame. While this might feel counterintuitive, in order to heal from your feelings of shame, it is necessary to bring those feelings out from your internal world and into the light of day.

It's natural to want to put up defenses and barriers when doing this work. Therefore, it’s important to show yourself love and acceptance and to surround yourself with people who will show you the same. You need a safe place to belong and a group that will shower you with unconditional love.

If you don’t already have that in your life, seek it out from friends, family, or even a support group. When doing this:

  • Remember that your love for yourself must be unconditional (without any strings) when you feel shame.
  • Be honest with yourself and with other people.
  • Don’t avoid the shame that you are feeling. Rather, talk about your feelings and share them when in the safe space that you have created.
  • Allow your suffering to be legitimized and normalized. This will help you gain some perspective on your shame.

If you feel uncomfortable doing these things on your own, consider speaking to a psychotherapist.

Aim for Acceptance

As you go through this process, it’s important to reexamine your beliefs and attitudes about yourself. This is the time to start rejecting the old beliefs that there is something inherently wrong with you. Instead, accept your new reality that you are acceptable and lovable just as you are.

You will also be accepting the fact that you may make mistakes and that is okay. During this time, you may want to find a mentor or accountability partner who can help you set priorities and make decisions.

Although your own healing process is highly personal, going on the journey with another person who understands could be highly beneficial.

Press Play for Advice On Dealing With Shame

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares how to address your shame so you can move forward. Click below to listen now.

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Signs of Being Shamed

Are you curious about the signs that someone is intentionally trying to shame you? Below are some things to watch out for.

  • They speak in an overly loud voice
  • They point their finger at you
  • They glare at you or make intense eye contact, or they refuse to make any eye contact
  • They mock you or belittle you
  • They make fun of you in front of other people
  • They stand over you in an aggressive manner

While a child who is being shamed may have trouble recognizing this as unacceptable behavior, as an adult, you can recognize shaming for what it is and realize that the other person is trying to shame you.

However, you do not have to internalize the shame or let it affect you. You can respond in an assertive manner, for instance, and ask them to treat you with respect.

What to Do If You Have Shamed Someone

What if you are the person who has shamed someone else? Below are some actions you can take if you have shamed another person and feel bad about it.

  • Apologize sincerely for your actions
  • Explain the reason for your behavior (if there is an explanation)
  • Offer restitution or make amends
  • Offer to give them something or do something that makes them happy

Overcoming Shame in the Long-Term

Shame is a complex human emotion that can have multiple causes or triggers and that requires attention and acceptance in order to overcome.

Depending on your type of shame, you may find it easier to speak to a professional about your feelings rather than trying to overcome shame on your own. In addition, if you have other mental health concerns, a mental health professional can help you with those at the same time. 

Shame is not about who you are as a person (e.g., whether you are good or bad). Shame is an internalized experience about yourself, some aspect of your character, or how someone has treated you (and, in turn, how it made you feel about yourself).

Shame does not need to continue to be what determines how you view yourself. In fact, you can choose to identify and embrace your shame, then move on from it. For example, if you were abandoned as a child, you may feel shame that your parent did not want to stay. In that case, it is better for you to identify that shame and let it go than to hold on to it.

By the same token, if you feel shame about some particular aspect of your character or something that others have judged you for, you probably need a good dose of healthy self love. You don’t need to change yourself or your character to be a worthwhile person. Once you accept yourself, you will feel less shame and be able to move forward.

A Word From Verywell

Shame is a universal emotion but everyone experiences it to different degrees. If shame is a problem for you, it is time to start working on changing your thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes toward yourself.

Once shame is no longer an issue, you will find it easier to accept the parts of you that cannot be changed while also changing the parts that you wish. Through this process, you’ll also learn that others can support you in a positive way.

This is particularly helpful if your shame is the result of having been treated badly. The end result will be less shame and more self-love, which will spill out into all areas of your life.

11 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."