I have felt shame. You have felt it too.
It’s that emotion when you want to tuck yourself into a tight little ball, roll into a dark corner, and disappear. You feel like a bad person who is unworthy, unlovable, and cast out.
Shame feels like you’ve done something very, very wrong — so wrong that your self-esteem withers, and you see yourself as seriously flawed. You are filled with self-loathing and inadequacy.
What is Shame?
Shame is a painful, debilitating emotion that arises from a negative, highly critical evaluation of one’s self. Unlike guilt feelings, which arise from one’s actions, shame encompasses your essential worth as a person.
When someone experiences deep shame, it can trigger the sympathetic nervous system which causes a fight/flight/freeze reaction.
Internalized shame that lingers for years can alter your self-image and ability to function in life. Or it can fester just below your conscious awareness and arise only when triggered.
Signs of Shame
If you’re living with toxic shame, the following symptoms should sound familiar:
- Low self-esteem and constant self-criticism
- Feelings of chronic worthlessness
- Chronic and compulsive people-pleasing
- Feelings of irrational guilt over things you’re not guilty of (or not uniquely so)
- Angry or defensive behavior
- Settling for less than you truly want in your career, relationships, etc.
- Imposter syndrome (“If people knew who I really was, they would hate me.”)
- Dysfunctional relationships with others
- Failure to connect or fear of connecting with others
- “Shame anxiety” — the chronic fear of being shamed or exposed to shame
- General suspicion or mistrust of others
In addition to fostering the symptoms listed above, shame changes our thoughts about ourselves. Those who live with constant shame may have patterns of negative thinking that reinforce the shameful feelings. These thoughts might be centered on beliefs like:
- I’m not lovable.
- I’m ugly.
- I’m stupid.
- I can’t do anything right.
- I’m a bad person.
- I don’t deserve to be happy.
- I hate myself.
- I’ll never be enough.
- There’s something wrong with me.
What Causes Toxic Shame?
If one or both of our parents were bound in shame, they passed that painful legacy to us through their feelings about themselves and their treatment of us.
Children are particularly vulnerable to shame because they develop their identity based on their parents’ reactions to them.
If you grew up in a neglectful, abusive, controlling or otherwise dysfunctional family, then shame is an inevitable consequence of your painful experiences.
How could you not feel shame if you were mistreated or ignored?
When it comes to shame causes, here are some of the chief culprits:
- Childhood abuse — physical and/or emotional
- Parents who withheld affection
- Feeling invisible or unimportant at a young age
- Constant disapproval and criticism from parents, teachers, bosses, etc.
- Traumatic experiences such as rape, incest, and other forms of sexual assault
Something must be wrong with you if trusted adults or your parents (one or both) can’t be there for you or show you love.
When we are made to feel deficient, inadequate, and unlovable, we begin to see ourselves this way.
“Shame is a soul eating emotion.” – C.G. Jung
Sadly, how we were treated by others when we were children becomes the way we internally treat ourselves.
Over time, the experiences around which we were shamed as children become the unconscious triggers for feeling and expressing shame as adults.
For example, if you were a little boy shamed for crying or being overly sensitive, then you feel deeply embarrassed and humiliated when you cry as an adult.
You’ll do everything in your power to repress feelings that might make you cry.
The Difference Between Shame and Guilt
We often confuse shame with guilt, but they are not the same.
As shame and vulnerability author and speaker Brene Brown says, “The difference between shame and guilt is the difference between ‘I am bad’ and ‘I did something bad.’”
When you feel guilty, you feel bad about something you did. When you feel ashamed, you feel bad about the kind of person you are.
It’s not the worst thing to feel ashamed of what something you did says about your character. We all have things to work on.
But when you start telling yourself the following things, your shame has taken a poisonous turn.
- What I’ve done — and what I am — is unforgivable.
- I’m a bad person. It’s just who I am.
- If someone loves me, there must be something wrong with them.
- I’m defective, and I can’t be fixed.
- What I’ve done is (further) proof that I’m a soulless monster.
- I’m no good on my own, but I’m no good for anyone else, either.
- I poison everything I touch.
- I’m ugly, and no one could ever be attracted to me.
- I don’t have any good ideas. I should just keep quiet.
- I don’t matter. If I died, no one would notice or care.
In an article on Brené Brown’s website, she describes guilt as something we have when we compare something we’ve done or failed to do to our deeply-held values and feel psychological discomfort.
This, in and of itself, is not harmful and can even help us to grow.
Shame, on the other hand, is not helpful or healthy. We feel shame when we take something we’ve done or failed to do and use it as proof that we’re unworthy of love or connection.
We develop a myriad of unhealthy coping mechanisms to muffle our feelings of shame, all of which have a negative impact on our close relationships.
Anger, withdrawal, blame, contempt, control, perfectionism, and people-pleasing are all strategies that temporarily alleviate the pain of feeling inadequate and unlovable.
However, these strategies don’t address the root cause of our shame. Recovering from shame and rebuilding self-esteem and self-love takes time and patience — but it can be done.
13 Strategies for Overcoming Shame and Restoring Self-Esteem
1. Revisit your childhood.
As painful as this might be, it’s important to have a realistic understanding that shame is not your fault.
You are an adult now, with adult judgment and perspective.
Look at the small, innocent child you were and how incapable you were of understanding and processing the expectations and hurtful behaviors of your parents, even benign behaviors that were “well-intentioned.”
You so desperately needed their approval and unconditional love, and if that wasn’t forthcoming, you grew to feel unworthy of anyone’s acceptance and love.
You were NOT at fault. Remind yourself of this whenever you feel your shame triggered.
Try to find the original source of your shame. Describe or journal about the experience, and review it from an adult perspective.
How does this perspective help you reframe the experience and understand it was not your fault?
2. Reconnect with and re-parent your inner child.
Think back as far as you can to a moment in your childhood when you felt blissfully happy or at least peaceful and content.
What were you doing? What were you hoping would last forever? What did someone do for you that you’ll never forget (in a good way)? What do you wish someone had done for you?
And what can you do now to give your inner child what they still need and have been looking for since then?
When you look back, do you recall finding solace or joy in any of the following?
- Drawing, painting, or coloring
- Taking things apart to learn more about them
- Swimming or playing on a beach
- Soaring on a swing
- Taking long walks
- Looking for frogs, fireflies, turtles, etc.
- Tending a garden or flowerbed
- Collecting rocks
- Writing stories of your own
Find ways to do one or more of the things you enjoyed then, and enjoy them as a child would.
3. Recognize your triggers.
Start to notice what triggers your feelings of shame. This may be difficult at first as we often bury our feelings under layers of coping behaviors.
So start with the behaviors, the way you react to the pain, and then ask yourself what just happened to make you react.
- Did someone say something to make you feel vulnerable?
- Were you rejected in some way that reminded you of childhood rejection?
- Were you caught in looping thoughts about an event that feels shameful?
Once you know what trips you up and mires you in feelings of shame, you can begin to manage the triggers and learn healthier responses.
4. Practice self-compassion.
When you feel shamed, it’s hard to be kind and loving toward yourself. But you can practice self-compassion even before you really feel it.
Talk to yourself and treat yourself with the same kindness and love you show a good friend or a beloved child. Pretend you are a cherished and valuable person until you begin to change your thoughts and feelings.
Compassion researcher and social psychologist Kristin Neff from the University of Texas at Austin discovered that self-compassion can act as an antidote to the self-criticism that comes with shame.
Self-compassion triggers the release of oxytocin, the hormone that increases feelings of trust, calm, safety, emotional stability, and connectedness.
5. Listen to and correct your toxic self-talk and false beliefs.
When you catch your own self-defeating thoughts, take a moment to reflect on whether the things you’re telling yourself are really true.
Ask yourself if you honestly believe them or if you’re just trying to harden yourself to the hate and rejection you expect from others.
If no one in your life calls you out for trash-talking yourself, you’ll have to get better at catching yourself in the act and being the friend you wish you had — and the friend you want to be for others.
Because you’re not the only one living with shame.
Start by making a list of the things you usually tell yourself in certain situations:
- When you see your reflection
- When you make a mistake
- When you get called out for something at work
- When someone else insults you
- When you’re feeling low
- When you’re giving into temptations or falling back on old habits
Then practice telling yourself something different. And make sure it’s 100% true.
Don’t just repeat what you’ve heard or what you’ve always believed to be likely or “true enough.”
6. Challenge your thoughts.
As mentioned before, looping negative thoughts are often a trigger for shameful feelings. When you mentally revisit conversations or situations where you felt shamed or if your thoughts are a series of self-criticisms, you are only strengthening your shame.
Your job is to weaken the grasp shame has over you, and you can do that by challenging your thoughts.
Shame-based thinking is often based on dire predictions, doubt in your ability to cope, selective focus on negative aspects of events or the behavior of other people, and rigid ideas about how people should behave.
Rather than believing everything your mind tells you, find evidence to the contrary. Part of you knows you aren’t a bad, unworthy person and that your thoughts aren’t the truth or the entire truth.
When your shamed-based thoughts try to control your mind, don’t allow it. Put up a mental fight by reframing your thoughts and focusing on the positive.
7. Don’t double-layer shame.
No one likes feeling shame and the weak, unworthy feelings shame fosters. When we live with shame, we add to our pain by feeling shame about our shame.
We are embarrassed that we aren’t the confident, positive, happy people we want to be.
Give yourself permission to accept that you feel shame when you feel it. Don’t layer on more pain by kicking yourself for your feelings.
We all experience vulnerability and shame at times, and by accepting that you can stop struggling against shame you can begin to heal the root cause of it.
8. Avoid shame reinforcers.
Are there still people in your life who reinforce your shame? It might be your parents who continue to say and do things to control, belittle, or hurt you.
Sometimes our shame leads us to be in relationships with people who repeat the dynamics we experienced in childhood.
Our spouses or partners and even some friends might unconsciously or consciously reinforce our feelings of shame.
You have a choice to be in relationships that are emotionally healthy.
You can avoid immature, dysfunctional people and choose to surround yourself with supportive, understanding, and loving people instead.
If you are married to someone who triggers your shame, go to counseling together so your partner can better understand your history of shame and you can create boundaries to protect yourself.
It is painful to let go of relationships, even if they are harmful, but if someone in your life is using your shame to manipulate or hurt you, then you must say goodbye if you want to escape the cycle of shame.
9. Release the tension in your body.
There are a number of ways to do this, but here are a few you may want to try:
- Get a massage.
- Apply heat to tense muscles (heated massage pillow, hot shower, etc.)
- Take a long soak in an Epsom salt bath
- Give your muscles a gentle stretch.
- Try some yoga.
- Take a long, refreshing drink of water.
- Take a walk at a comfortable pace.
- Light some candles and relax with a glass (or mug) of something soothing.
- Write it out.
- Spend time with your pet.
- Listen to some soothing music and just breathe.
When you’re physically relaxed, it’s much easier to feel mentally and emotionally relaxed – which makes it easier to exchange negative self-talk for truthful and healing affirmations.
10. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and risk the outcome.
As Brené Brown said in her TED talk, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”
Toxic shame keeps you stuck in a risk-averse shame spiral – fearful of losing what little comfort you have.
Unless you can see or, on some level, believe in the possibility of a better life and better relationships, it’s much safer to plant your feet and cling to your invisibility cloak.
But it is possible to break free of this and grow beyond old, self-limiting beliefs. Think of what you’ve survived so far, and remind yourself, “Whatever happens, I’ll survive that, too.”
You’ll do more than survive, though.
Just making the leap changes things in you. It gets the wheels of transformation moving. And it opens your eyes to other possibilities.
Allowing yourself to be vulnerable takes courage, and even if it blows up in your face, you’ve just learned that you have the courage to take that risk and the resilience to survive the outcome, however painful it might be.
And just knowing that about yourself loosens the grip of shame.
11. Accept love and kindness.
The feelings of unworthiness attached to shame make it very difficult to accept love and kindness from others.
In fact, you might even distrust people who are kind to you because they can’t discern that you are really “bad” and unworthy. You feel like a charlatan accepting goodness from others.
I’m sure you can see the dysfunction in this reaction to loving behavior from others, but you must teach yourself a new way of responding.
When someone is kind to you, don’t diminish their act by rejecting their kindness.
Practice accepting it openly and with gratitude. Accept compliments without deflecting or diminishing them.
Allow yourself to trust the good judgement of the person who sees the good in you.
This will take conscious, concerted practice, but over time it will feel more natural and pleasurable to relish kindness and appreciation from others.
12. Practice forgiveness.
You may not really need forgiveness for anything, but it probably feels like you do. You want absolution for all of the “badness” that shrouds you.
You want all of the shameful feelings to be washed away so you can finally feel good about yourself and enjoy your life.
The only person who can really offer that absolution is you. You are guard holding the key to your own internal prison.
Whatever failings you might perceive in yourself, why not just give yourself a pass? Every person on the planet is flawed and has made mistakes.
We all want and deserve forgiveness. This is part of the human condition that will never change.
Can you accept that being flawed is acceptable? Can you forgive yourself for that? You can.
It’s OK. You are OK. Put your shame in a little box and place it on a mental shelf in a locked closet. You know it’s there, and if you must revisit it from time to time, then do so.
But otherwise, leave it on the shelf so you can live your life and like yourself. There is no rule requiring you to examine it and stir it up every hour of the day.
13. Practice meditation.
The practice of meditation helps you manage your thoughts with non-judgmental awareness. As you focus on your breathing and notice your thoughts, they begin to hold less power over you.
You discover that thoughts are simply energy — not truths that define who you are or your worthiness. One type of meditation, called loving-kindness meditation, can help highly self-critical people increase more positive emotions and feel more connected to others.
To practice a loving-kindness meditation for yourself, begin by sitting quietly on a chair or cushion. Focus your attention on your breaths, mentally following each inhalation and exhalation. After a few minutes, begin thinking these words:
May I be filled with lovingkindness
May I be held in loving kindness…
May I feel connected and calm…
May I accept myself just as I am…
May I be happy…
May I know the natural joy of being alive…
If you get distracted with a thought, just notice it and begin again. Repeat this meditation several times, then end with more focused breathing.
Some people with severe toxic shame may find meditation difficult, as you notice many shame-based thoughts in your meditative state. You may want to work with a meditation teacher or therapist trained in meditation to help you move past these difficulties.
More Related Articles:
How is shame damaging you?
Shame is a soul-crushing emotion. No matter what you think you have done to deserve it, no amount of shame will make you feel better.
It will only create more shame. Step off the shame cycle by practicing these strategies and working toward healing.
You may need the support of a professional therapist if your shameful feelings are debilitating. If so, don’t hesitate to do so.
Working with a counselor is a life-affirming, positive step that puts you back in control of your future happiness and well-being.
Are you dealing with feelings of shame? What strategies have you discovered to help you heal your shame? Please share them in the comments below.