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Overcoming Shame


Jacalyn Kelly

Every one of us experiences shame at one time or another. Some of us much more often. Shame is the result of having the perception that others view you as having unattractive characteristics or as having behaved in an unattractive manner [1-3]. Some of our experiences of shame are derived from direct shaming from others, such as when others outwardly criticize our appearance, choices, beliefs, actions, behaviours or personal characteristics. In other cases, shame is created in our minds, when we assume that others have a certain negative view of us, which may be the result of people having outwardly shamed us in the past, or oftentimes because the view we believe others have of us is actually a view we have of ourselves. Regardless of the cause of our shame, it can seriously affect our mental wellbeing.

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Despite the negative impact shame has on our psyche, social psychologists believe that shame actually evolved as a human emotion to benefit us [3, 4], as evolution tends to do. Specifically, it is believed that the function of shame is to “motivate behaviours that are appealing to others” by sending an emotional signal when the characteristics or behaviour that a person is currently exhibiting do not appear to be appealing to others [3]. This is aimed at preventing an individual from “losing social rank or being rejected” by others [3], which in primitive times could have meant being cut off from key resources provided by being part of a community [4]. In modern times, this may benefit us by driving us to behave in ways that allow us to develop valuable social connections from which we may derive friendship, romance, or even resources such as employment. Essentially, shame shows us when we have exhibited a characteristic or behaviour that is not considered socially acceptable within a given context, triggering us to re-evaluate what characteristics and behaviours are considered acceptable so that we may exhibit them next time and perform better in that social context.

So yes, shame may prevent us from unprecedentedly lashing out at our friends or repeating an offensive joke; it can teach us to engage effectively with our communities, such as by enacting objectively beneficial social expectations like offering your bus seat to an elderly person. However, while short-term instances of shame in reaction to poor behaviour may have its long-term benefits, the effects of long-term feelings of shame on our mental health can be drastic. Shame has been described as the strongest cause of emotional distress by psychology researchers [5, 6]. Shame causes us to feel defective, worthless and powerless [6,7]. In addition, shame is significantly associated with multiple mental health disorders, such as social anxiety disorders, depression and eating disorders [3, 6, 8]. Shame can be both a cause and outcome of these mental health challenges, and acts as a roadblock to recovery [6]. In fact, world-wide conducted studies have shown that the extent of shame an individual feels in relation to eating behaviours is the strongest predictor of the severity of an eating disorder [6, 9, 10]. Feeling shame about having a mental health challenge can also prevent individuals from seeking the treatment they need to recover [6].

Shame can be caused by many factors, and each cause of shame may require a unique approach to be overcome. In addition, different approaches may be effective for different individuals in dealing with their own shame. Here we present some approaches for overcoming shame that have demonstrated effectiveness for shame resilience. While this is not a comprehensive list, and these methods may not all apply to an individual situation, hopefully these suggestions can provide some insight into effective ways to deal with your own instances of shame.

Understand the difference between guilt and shame [3, 4, 11].
“The difference between shame and guilt is the difference between ‘I am bad’ and ‘I did something bad.’” – Brené Brown.

The difference between guilt and shame may seem subtle, but it can have substantial consequences. When we do something we are not proud of, both guilt and shame are reactions that help us realize that behaviour can be improved upon. However, while guilt puts the focus on the behaviour and how it affects others, shame puts the focus on criticism of the self; it leads us to associate our behaviours with our quality as a person, impacting our self-worth and self- confidence [3, 6]. It is important to recognize when feelings represent shame, rather than guilt, allowing you to identify when you may be judging yourself too harshly.

Recognize shame when you are experience it [3, 6].

Shame is often tagged along by other emotions such as anger, sadness and fear. In these situations, it is important to realize that these other emotions are the result of shame. This will help you better understand your emotions and determine how to appropriately deal with upsetting situations. This can prevent you from taking out your emotions on someone else when your qualms are with yourself.

Recognize your shame triggers and try to distance yourself from them [6, 11].

Feelings of shame can be enhanced by certain people, places and things that bring our insecurities top of mind. If there is a person in your life who treats you in a way that makes you feel ashamed, consider communicating this to them and ask them to change their behaviour. If this proves ineffective, you may want to consider distancing your relationship with that individual. If certain atmospheres, magazines, social media sites, activities or anything else triggers feelings of shame, consider how you can limit your interactions with these entities, or change your perception of them.

Remember that the intent of shame is to benefit you and use it to benefit you [4].

Shame feels awful and you may resent how often you feel it, but by remembering its evolutionary intent to teach us how to behave favourably in our communities, you can put a positive spin on this negative emotion. This will refocus your energy into thinking about what factors you can change, whether it be your behaviour, your perspective or the emphasis you put on others’ opinions, that may help reduce the chance of you feeling shame in the future.

Confide in people who are also experiencing what is causing you shame [6, 8].
When you confide in people with similar challenges as you, you are likely to find that the things causing you shame are a source of shame for others as well. Confiding in someone who understands what you are going through will help validate your feelings and show you that you are not alone in your shame. It is also cathartic to share your struggles with others and to hear their stories. Your communication with and perception of your confidant may help you re-evaluate your perception of yourself and what is causing your shame. This is particularly useful for healing from shame associated with eating disorders and body image [6].

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Confide in people you are worried are judging you [8].

Sometimes we superimpose our insecurities about ourselves on others and assume they are making judgements about our personalities, beliefs, capabilities or appearance [8]. When you address your concerns with individuals you think may be judging you, you are able to know the truth rather than making assumptions. More often than not, you will find that the other person does not hold any judgements against you, and rather is wrapped up in their own insecurities and struggling with how to best present themselves to the outside world. On the other hand, they may inform you of something you are doing that has been off-putting, giving you the opportunity to evaluate whether you want to alter this behaviour, especially if it is offensive to someone else, or potentially remove yourself from a particular social context that is not well suited to you. Overall, addressing your concerns with others will help to ease your anxiety about what others are thinking about you, and can lessen your shame or allow you to make changes to prevent feelings of shame in the future.

Resist repeated recalling of shame-inducing events.

Experiences that caused us strong feelings of shame can often linger in our memories and reignite those shame feelings whenever we think of them. This can perpetuate our self-criticism to an unproductive extent and over-emphasize a particular event in our evaluations of ourselves. After an occurrence leading to feelings of shame, once you have evaluated the situation (either thinking how you could prevent shame next time, if your shame was based on something you did, or confronting your feelings of shame, such as through confiding in others, in cases where shame was thrust upon you by someone else), then do what you can to resist returning your thoughts to that shaming instance. Work to let go of the situation and move forward. The more we actively recall a memory, the better we remember it and the more likely it is to passively pop up in our minds and elicit and emotional responses from us.

Invalidate perfection and re-define ideals [6].

Many instances of shame can stem from the standards we expect ourselves to meet, which can often be unrealistic. When we set unrealistic standards for ourselves and strive for perfection, we end up constantly evaluating our worth against those standards, leading to harsh self-criticism when we find we do not measure up to our ideals. This often to leads to strong feelings of shame. By maintaining unrealistic ideals, we maintain and support our shame, which strongly prevents recovery from shame and its effects on our mental health [6]. Therefore, invalidating perfection is an important step to overcoming shame. Reinforce to yourself that no one is capable of perfection, and that doing your best to be a good person and work towards your goals is the most you can expect from yourself. Rather than focusing on the fact that you have imperfections or shortcomings, set achievable goals for improving yourself in the areas most important to you. Focus on how you can utilize your strongest qualities and abilities to your advantage in an area where you can succeed rather than focusing on how other qualities may be disadvantageous in particular areas. When you direct your life around utilizing your best traits, you move yourself away from internal shame and towards a life of pride and success.

Focus on what you can control, and not what you can’t [6].
Some cases of shame are derived from things we have no control over. For instance, we may feel shame if someone we are closely associated with behaves shamefully. In other cases, we may feel shame about something that someone did to us, which may have severely embarrassed us or made us question our worth, deservedness of respect, or lovability. Further, we may feel shame from a characteristic we were born with and cannot change. In all these instances, the entities causing our shame are out of our control. In these cases, it is important to realize that what is causing your shame is not your fault, and thus you should not feel ashamed because of it. You cannot change the past, but you can impact your future. You can work towards dissociating your thoughts around the shaming circumstance from yourself to prevent perpetuating the shame. You can also seek further support in relieving your negative feelings, either through your support system of family and friends, or through professional help with a counsellor or therapist.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy [3].

Cognitive behavioural therapy is an extremely widely used and evidenced-based method of therapy for mental health. Cognitive behavioural therapy focuses on changing patterns of destructive thinking or cognitive distortions and decreasing an individual’s association with their destructive thoughts. With cognitive behavioural therapy you can work towards alleviating distortions you create in your mind about how other may be judging you and help lessen the judgement you place on yourself. Cognitive behavioural therapy has shown to be effective in reducing shame in individuals with social anxiety disorder [3].

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Be compassionate towards yourself [6, 11].

Shame is often associated with strong self-criticism, which can lower our self-esteem and enhance feelings of stress or anxiety, sadness or even depression. Try to re-direct your thoughts and think of yourself with the same love and compassion you would a loved one. Find reasons to be proud of who you are and recognize your best qualities and make peace with your imperfections. Challenge thoughts which strengthen your shame and attempt to recognize where your self-criticism may be unwarranted or too harsh. Accept love and compassion directed to you from others. Self-compassion can help to balance out the self-criticism that comes with shame [11]. According to social psychologist Kristin Neff, self-compassion leads to the release of oxytocin, which is the hormone that elevates feelings of calmness, safety, emotional stability, connectedness and trust [11].

Shame, whether playing a huge role in our mental wellbeing or a smaller one, is something we all must deal with. Finding the most effective method for recovering from your own experiences of shame may take some time to work out. But the road to recovery, whether long or short, is always worth pursuing.

Disclaimer: This article is not written by a psychologist, psychiatrist or counsellor. Addressing feelings of shame resulting from trauma or abuse are beyond the scope of this article. Assaulted Women’s Helpline: 416 863 0511; Distress Centre Helpline: 416 408 4357; Counsel line: 416 946 5117



[1] Tangney, J. P., Miller, R. S., Flicker, L. & Barlow, D. H. Are shame, guilt, and embarrassment distinct emotions? J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 70, 1256–1269 (1996).

[2] Gilbert, P. The relationship of shame, social anxiety and depression: the role of the evaluation of social rank. Clin. Psychol. Psychother. 7, 174–189 (2000).

[3] Hedman, E., Ström, P., Stünkel, A. & Mörtberg, E. Shame and Guilt in Social Anxiety Disorder: Effects of Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Association with Social Anxiety and Depressive Symptoms. PLoS One 8, (2013). [4] Breggin, P. R. The biological evolution of guilt, shame and anxiety: A new theory of negative legacy emotions. Med. Hypotheses 85, 17–24 (2015).

[5] Scheff, T. J. Shame in Self and Society. Symb. Interact. 26, 239–262 (2003).

[6] Dayal, H., Weaver, K. & Domene, J. F. From shame to shame resilience: Narratives of counselor trainees with eating issues. Qual. Health Res. 25, 153–167 (2015).

[7] Gilbert, P. in Shame: Interpersonal behavior, psychopathology, and culture 3–38 (1998).

[8] Leeming, D. & Boyle, M. Managing shame: An interpersonal perspective. Br. J. Soc. Psychol. 52, 140–160 (2013).

[9] Burney, J. & Irwin, H. J. Shame and guilt in women with eating-disorder symptomatology. J. Clin. Psychol. 56, 51–61 (2000).

[10] Geller, J. Mechanisms of action in the process of change: Helping eating disorder clients make meaningful shifts in their lives. Clin. Child Psychol. Psychiatry 11, 225–237 (2006).

[11] Davenport, B. 8 Strategies for Overcoming Shame. (2015). Available at: self-confidence/8-strategies-for-overcoming-shame?inf_ contact

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