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The Birth of Shame and 8 Ways to Combat It

By Limor Weinstein with contribution by Bespoke Clinical Director Marissa Tolero.

The other day as I was waiting to get into a restaurant I noticed a nice couple with a 4-year-old daughter who noticed my dog and asked if she could pet it. I told her of course she could pet my very friendly dog and pointed out my three daughters standing nearby. When I asked the girl her age, she answered in a sweet, confident way and said, “My parents are not living together anymore and they have two houses…they got a divorce.” Before she finished the sentence, her dad snapped back in an angry tone, “Why do you have to say that right away when you meet someone? You should not be saying that. Instead you can tell people how handsome and good your dad is.” 

My first instinct was to tell the dad to stop being so full of himself, but then I took a deep breath. I looked at the little girl and I could see and feel that she was very affected by his words and immediately became very sad. I was also feeling her sadness. It was obvious to me that at that exact moment she got the message loud and clear that she did something very wrong—she had been reprimanded for being honest and open. At first I wasn’t going to say anything, but then I looked at the little girl and said, “My parents are also divorced and they live in separate houses and it’s kind of cool that you have two houses.” She looked at me and seemed a little bit confused and her father remained angry and tried to pull her away from me. The girl kept coming closer to me and my dog and we all ended up having casual conversation. The father was there with another woman who I assumed was his girlfriend and the girlfriend wasn’t happy with the whole situation. 

This all made me think about how as parents or caregivers, our words and actions send strong messages to our kids about being honest and vulnerable. How often are we teaching them that being honest and vulnerable is bad?

According to Merriam-Webster, shame is “a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety; a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute.” Shame is an unpleasant self-conscious emotion typically associated with a negative evaluation of the self; withdrawal motivations; and feelings of distress, exposure, mistrust, powerlessness, and worthlessness (Wikipedia).

There are varying theories as to where shame comes from. I'm sure you’ve heard of nature versus nurture. For some of us, shame is a part of our genetic makeup, and for others, it is more a product of the environment, or a mix of the two. From a psychological perspective, the first two years of a child’s life are the most crucial ones, as during these two years, whatever is happening to us will influence our neurological development and determine how our brain will shape in following years. The most important among the brain parts that develops during the first early months of a child’s life involve the emotional and social functioning. In order for these parts of the brain to develop appropriately there is a need for a healthy relationship between the caregiver and the infant.

What this basically means is that if you experienced bad parenting, trauma, or insecure attachment, or if anything else went wrong during the first two years of your life, your brain will be damaged and this will affect you forever. This doesn’t sound very promising, but with the right type of therapist and support and lots of hard work and determination, you can reverse parts of what was damaged and lead a happier healthier life.

How about you? Do you ever feel shame? Do you ever think about why you feel shame, and more importantly, how you can overcome the feeling?

When I think about shame, I am reminded of the many years I spent feeling ashamed of where I came from, my parents and all of their struggles, and particularly my dad and the way he behaved. I was also ashamed because of my struggles with eating disorders for so many years. What role did shame play in maintaining my illness? Why is it that some people feel shame while others don’t? These are questions that haunted me for years. Shame is such a loaded word and even as I type it, I feel a sense of heaviness. Why is that? Why do we feel shame? 

Oftentimes the words “shame” and “guilt” are used interchangeably to describe experiences that are actually quite different. Feeling ashamed and feeling guilty are not actually the same thing, but so many times we’ve used one in place of the other. This misunderstanding can deeply affect the way we view ourselves and our actions, leading to incorrect negative self-judgments.

According to Brené Brown, a leading researcher on shame and vulnerability, shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” In contrast, the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine states that guilt is “psychological discomfort” and remorse for doing something that goes against our values and is “objectively wrong.”

Although these may sound similar, there is one main difference: Shame involves seeing yourself as a “bad person while guilt implies, you are a good person who did something bad” (BetterHelp). Notice the difference in self-judgment in the two definitions and we can start to see how one is more damaging than the other.

Take this example: You are in a rush to catch the train to get to work and almost knock someone over while you are running. Guilt says, “Oh no, I could’ve hurt that person. I should be more careful. I’ll make sure not to miss my alarm next time so I’m not in a position to rush.” Whereas shame says, “Oh no, I’m clumsy for almost hitting that person and stupid for missing my alarm this morning. I am just a horrible person who shouldn’t be allowed to take public transportation let alone be in public!”

Where shame and guilt overlap is in the fact that they are “social emotions” that function for us to develop and maintain our interpersonal relationships (PositivePsychology). They force us to reflect on our actions and how these impact others. However, while guilt will allow you to do that reflection and then move you forward to think about how to repair any wrongdoing, shame stops at the reflection, internalizes it, and doesn’t provide a solution forward.

If we internalize negative judgments about ourselves, which occurs when we feel shame, we start to believe these are parts of our character. “I am a bad person” versus “I did a bad thing.” The first one is a lot harder to move on from, as it holds a negative self-judgment that will then work its way into other areas of your life and become part of your narrative.

Here are 8 steps to overcoming shame that are entirely possible with support and time.

Tip 1: Understand the function of shame in your life.

“The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them,” according to Daniel Sznycer. It makes us care what others think of us, and helps us determine the “social cost” of a particular behavior or action. People who live with shame are prone to suppressing their emotions, often avoid relationships and community, and feel depressed. That's the reason shame is such a powerful emotion. Shame is closely tied to guilt. Guilt is very damaging because we are constantly aware that we might be called out for what we've done.

Tip 2: Identify the true source of shame.

If you feel shame around a particular incident (instead of guilt), it’s likely that this exact instance is not the true source of shame for you. Ask yourself, “When have I felt shame like this before?” It’s likely that you can trace your feelings of shame further back then you might initially think—maybe even to your young adult, teen, or childhood years! Just like the first step in the KARMA Coaching Method, Awareness is the first step in starting to release shame. Noticing when you feel the effects of shame and digging deeper into recognizing where this comes from is the best place to start. A lot of the shame that is felt comes from childhood—it may have been a big event or one thing someone said or did to you. Either way it is important to notice it and then allow yourself to release it.

Tip 3: Examine how and why that true source of shame comes up now.

Now that you know where the shame might be coming from you need to be very curious about why you still feel this way and ask yourself as many questions as you can so that you can identify the possible triggers. For example, do you feel shame when you disappoint someone? Where did you learn to feel this way?

Tip 4: Redirect your thoughts to a more positive place.

I write a lot about the importance of not just having the awareness of what you want to change, but also practicing redirecting your thoughts to a more constructive place. Remember, your thoughts affect how you feel and in turn your behavior. For example, take this thought, “I feel so ashamed that I acted in such a childish and impulsive way and everyone must think that I am a stupid person…” Instead, you might want to try saying, “I feel ashamed that I behaved in such a way, but I am human and next time I am going to give more thoughts to my behavior…”

Tip 5: Learn mindfulness skills.

Being able to focus on one thing at a time with attention and intention can help you move away from feeling shame and focus on something else, such as your breath, to calm yourself down and not allow the shame to prevent you from achieving your goals. Mindfulness can help you slow down and stop that shame from automatically coming up in the moment. This gives you space to experience guilt instead of shame (if there is anything to even be guilty about!).

Tip 6: Identify where in your body you feel the shame?

Shame creates a stress response and stress creates a cortisol release. If you are a highly sensitive person, you are likely already in fight or flight mode more often than not, which means you are heading into if not already in an adrenaline deficit. Being ashamed of who you are because you are “different” from the majority of the population adds to the stress you already feel as a sensitive person. It can be a vicious cycle that is difficult to manage. Some of the bodily symptoms include the following: nausea, chest tightness, flushing skin, and lack of eye contact. Digestive issues can also be an expression of shame. How and where do you feel shame?

Tip 7: Know that releasing shame takes time.

It takes time to recognize it, and then it takes time to gently work it out of your body and your mindset. It won’t happen overnight because you have been living with it for years, so it is going to take some time to undo the doing. But it is possible. It might help you to think about creative ways to release shame and guilt. One of my favorite suggestions to my clients is to purchase a glass jar and when an unwanted feeling comes up that you identified and explored, you can write down the feeling or whatever it is that happened on a piece of paper and place it inside the jar. There are techniques that can help you release feelings that stem from your past that are not serving you well today. The third step in my KARMA Coaching Method, R = Releasing the past, can provide you with more important information. 

Tip 8: Practice compassion.

After identifying and understanding how the true source of shame exists and shows up in your life, it’s time to practice compassion for yourself. Treat yourself as you would someone you love. The true source of shame way back when was probably not your fault; tell yourself that.

Compassion, forgiveness, and love are important tools to use when moving from a place of shame into being your true self, unapologetically. Talking with someone who understands, listens, and has empathy can help you learn to love yourself. I tell my clients that the ultimate goal of being in therapy is to learn to have compassion toward themselves. Of course, some don’t believe me or don’t understand the importance of self compassion, but after over 15 years of working as a coach and as a licensed therapist, I know that this is the ultimate goal. 

Notice I said that these steps are possible with support and time. This work will be so much more effective if you don’t do it alone. This is where a licensed therapist can help guide you through this process and support you along the way. This will also take time—think how long it has taken for shame to be present in your life! This is not to discourage you, but to encourage you, that it is completely possible to overcome shame and to experience guilt if and when it’s appropriate.

If you are ready to release your shame and explore the possible source and triggers as well as learn more skills that can help you feel better, we are here to help! Schedule a free consultation today!

Love yourself shamelessly,


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