Updated: Jan 30, 2020
Excessive feelings of shame are one of the common underlying reasons for seeking counseling. Shame is felt when people feel they have failed, when people are rejected, or perceive that they are somehow lesser in value than others. Healthy shame is a response to specific situations of failure or rejection. It becomes unhealthy when the negative self-evaluation is perceived to be a defining and unchangeable part of the self. It is important to note that shame and guilt are often used interchangeably but they are very different, and it is important to understand the differences. Guilt is regret for something one has done (or not done) whereas shame is feeling bad about who one is as a person, that they are inherently flawed, damaged, or otherwise unworthy (Muris et al., 2014).
Where Does Shame Come From?
Shame often is the result of (1) being bullied or humiliated, which sends the message that the victim is unworthy, undesirable, or unlovable, or (2) being the victim of some form of interpersonal violence or abuse, which leaves the person feeling at fault, contaminated by (or complicit in) the act, or incapable of becoming well again (Meyers, 2017). These feelings often result in a degradation of self-esteem and a fear of being continually judged by others, leading to chronic depressive and anxious feelings.
These experiences can be further complicated by feeling shame about their shame and turn into a perpetual spiral of negative self-talk and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Although often used as a motivator for change, especially in parenting, it is often ineffective and even harmful (Meyers, 2017). When the original source of the shaming is from one’s parents or other caregivers, it can be particularly powerful and difficult to dislodge from a person’s self-beliefs, since caregivers are the original providers of a sense of worth and love. In the long-term, recurring incidents that incur shame often result in a person becoming overly self-protective to avoid rejection and hurt to their self. These self-defense mechanisms can lead to:
Denial that there is a problem
Difficulty trusting others
Withdrawing from positive support systems such as family and friends
Not seeking help through psychotherapy or other wellness practice
One powerful antidote to shame is developing self-acceptance, wherein a person becomes accepting of their current and past experiences without judgment. There are several tools for reaching self-acceptance, including mindfulness meditation and cognitive reframing of past and current experiences.
Mindfulness meditation practice involves non-judgmental awareness of physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings through sitting meditation. This practice can be learned from meditation instructors trained in mindfulness and then practiced on your own or in groups. As our thoughts create our feelings, mindfulness meditation can benefit those coping with shame by increasing awareness of these unhelpful thoughts that are contributing to their feelings of shame (or any other feelings), providing an opportunity to replace them with more constructive and self-compassionate thoughts.
Reframing Your Self
Cognitive reframing is imagining different perspectives of yourself and your experiences. This can be achieved using several tools by yourself or with the aid of a therapist or counselor. One reframing technique for shame consists of imagining how you would provide support to a loved one that is feeling shame and then non-judgmentally applying that compassion to yourself. This can be implemented very effectively during meditation.
Another reframing tool for shame is to confront one’s own negative self-talk with contrary evidence, wherein you consider your perspective as a hypothesis to be tested with evidence. For example, a person who believes “I am unlovable” can recall that their mother, friend, or even their pet loves them, which negates their belief that they are unlovable. If you can poke one hole in the hypothesis of being unlovable, you can likely find other examples that refute that negative perspective. This helps the person to understand that their negative self-statements are beliefs, not personal traits. It is also helpful then to attempt to identify the original source of these self-beliefs, whether it was excessive criticism received from parents or caregivers or experiencing bullying or personally traumatic events.
When we experience shame and do not address it honestly and constructively, it can become embedded in our self-image and cause or contribute to many problems in our lives, including low self-esteem, relationship problems, anxiety, depression, addiction, and even physical illness. If you find practicing these techniques on your own to be less than effective, you may need assistance in confronting your shame with a counselor or other trained wellness professional.