What Is Shame?

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What Is Shame?

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

Shame

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

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 internal critic. This critic might tell you that you are a bad person, that you are worthless, or that you have no value.

However, the truth is that how deeply you feel ashamed often has little to do with your worth or what you have done wrong; rather, we feel inherently more shame when we care more deeply about how we affect others.

In this way, deeper shame simply means that you feel deeply and care deeply.

Some other common terms that might be used interchangeably with shame include toxic shame, internalized shame, and guilt. However, as we will see in later discussions, these different terms have nuances in meaning that are important to know to better understand shame.

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

Finally, the behaviors below are examples of things that people do when they feel shame:

  • Looking down instead of looking people in the eye
  • Keeping your head hung low
  • Slumping your shoulders instead of standing up straight
  • Feeling frozen or unable to move
  • Not being able to act spontaneously
  • Stuttering when you try to speak
  • Talking in an overly soft voice
  • Hiding yourself from others
  • Crying if you feel shame or embarrassment

Four Categories of Shame Behavior

According to the academic book Shame published by Oxford University Press, the authors identified four different 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 the 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 might be things like making 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

These might be things like apologizing, crying, or avoiding conflict. People who have a tendency toward being emotional or avoiding conflict might 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 different ones 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.

Chronic Shame

Chronic shame refers to a feeling that 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.

Shame in the Form of Humiliation

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

Shame About Defeat

We might experience this type of shame when experiencing a failure or defeat. For example, if you lose a sporting match that you were expecting to win.

Shame Around Strangers

Shame around strangers reflects a feeling that they will discover something is wrong with you. This type of shame is common with social anxiety.

Shame in Front of Others

Shame in front of others refers to the type of shame felt when one feels embarrassed or humiliated in front of other people. This is linked to the feeling of humiliation.

Shame About Performance

Feeling self conscious about one’s performance is another type of shame. This tends to show up during public speaking, musical performance, athletic performance, etc.

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.

Shame Related to 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.

Shame Related to Unwanted Exposure

Public humiliation is one form of unwanted exposure that makes up another type of shame. It can also involve making a mistake in public and having someone point it out.

Shame Related to Disappointment or Failure

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

Shame Related to Exclusion

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

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 a feeling of 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 a 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 no way to manage how their behavior affects other people.

Causes of Shame

Are you wondering about the different causes of 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 a weakening of a relationship

However, 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 have experienced shame, you probably know that it can have a negative impact on your life. Below are some of the potential negative impacts that 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
  • Can lead to addictions (e.g., alcohol, drugs, spending, sex)
  • Maybe cause you to become defensive and shame others in return
  • May lead you to bullying others if you have been bullied yourself
  • May cause you to inflate your ego to hide the fact 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 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, overwork, 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. Or, these behaviors can be detrimental in and of themselves, creating potential physical or mental health problems on their own.

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 is generally about something that you have done. It refers to something you did wrong or a behavior that you feel bad about.

On the other hand, shame refers to something about your character or who you are as a person. While you might believe that if you feel shame, that must mean that you are guilty or are a shameful person, this is not necessarily the case.

Shame is not about doing something wrong. It is about a feeling that you have when you perceive that you are being judged (by yourself or by others) as not good enough in some way.

In other words, guilt is about wrong actions, while shame is about being wrong as a person.

If you can learn to separate your guilt from your shame, that will be one of the first steps to feeling less shame in general.

Coping With Shame

Are you wondering how to feel less shame? There are two main steps to healing your shame. The first is exploring your shame instead of avoiding it. The second is healing and moving on from your shame. 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 because it will be impossible for you to heal from your shame if you haven’t identified it for what it is.

Getting perspective on your shame and understanding where it has come from and how it influences your current decisions (through emotional memories) will go a long way towards preventing your shame from ruling your life.

Are you unsure how to identify and explore your shame? One way to recognize your shame is to start paying attention to your emotions in different situations. When do you feel as though your feelings of shame are triggered? 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 that you have and how you reacted to that past situation.

Then, spend some time examining how the 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 will be 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 is 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 into the light of day.

It is natural that you will want to put up defenses and barriers when doing this work. It’s important to show yourself love and acceptance and to surround yourself with people who will also 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.

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 in that safe space that you have created. Allow your suffering to be legitimized and normalized. This will help you to get some perspective on your shame.

If you feel uncomfortable doing this on your own, consider speaking to a mental health professional such as a therapist or psychologist who specializes in healing past experiences.

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, it’s time to accept your new reality that you are acceptable and lovable just as you are.

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

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 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 by a parent may have trouble recognizing that this is unacceptable behavior, as an adult you can recognize shaming for what it is and accept that the other person is trying to shame you.

However, you do not have to internalize that shame or let it affect you. And, you can also respond in an assertive manner to ask them to treat you with respect.

What to Do If You Have Shamed Someone

What if you are actually the person who has shamed someone else? Below are some actions you can take if you have shamed someone else and feel badly 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 many different causes or triggers and that requires attention and acceptance in order to overcome.

Depending on your specific type of shame, you may find it easier to speak to a professional about your feelings rather than try to overcome your shame on your own.

In addition, if you have other mental health concerns, then a mental health professional will be able to help you with those at the same time. 

An important takeaway is that shame is not about who you are as a person (e.g., whether you are good or bad). Shame is a internalized form of guilt that reflects how badly you feel about something you’ve done, about yourself as a person, about some aspect of your character, or about how someone has treated you (and in turn how it made you feel about yourself).

However, shame does not need to continue to be what determines how you view yourself. In fact, you can choose to identify your shame, embrace your shame, and then move on from it. This is particularly true if you have a tendency to feel shame in the absence of a good reason for guilt.

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 other people have judged you for, then you probably need a good dose of healthy self love.

You don’t need to change yourself or your character in order to be a worthwhile person. Once you come to 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, then it is time to start working on changing your thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes toward yourself.

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

This will be 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 also spill out into all areas of your life.

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Article Sources
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  1. Breggin P. Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions. New York: Prometheus; 2014.

  2. Gilbert P, Andrews B. Shame. New York: Oxford University Press; 1998. 

  3. Bolton J. What We Get Wrong About Shame.