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An Evidence-Based Way of Overcoming Shame

New research shows writing self-compassionate letters may reduce shame.

Key points

  • Shame is the painful experience of perceiving the self as inferior or flawed.
  • Self-compassion entails being more understanding, kind, and supportive toward oneself.
  • Writing self-compassionate letters reduces self-criticism and shame in individuals with high shame.
Source: Jupilu/Pixabay

Shame is a very painful experience and may co-occur with other negative emotions (e.g., anger, self-disgust). It is associated with perceiving the core self as inferior or flawed and vulnerable to criticism and rejection. Not surprisingly, when feeling ashamed, people often have a strong urge to hide or run away.

Shame is associated with mental health problems. These include social anxiety, depression, eating disorders, borderline personality disorder, somatic health complaints, addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal ideation.

The antidote to shame, some research suggests, is self-compassion.

Self-compassion refers to the capacity to empathically comprehend the nature [and causes] of another's pain. And the desire to ease and soothe that suffering.

Indeed, a recent study by M. B. Swee of Harvard Medical School and collaborators suggested that the regular practice of writing self-compassionate letters significantly reduces anxiety, self-criticism, and shame. This research, published in Mindfulness, is the subject of the present article.

Investigating shame and self-compassion

Sample: Sixty-eight college students (55 females) with high shame; the average age of 20; 59 percent Caucasian.

Methods: Participants were assigned to either a waitlist condition or a “self-compassionate letter-writing” condition.

Individuals in the treatment group first watched a short video about self-compassion. Subsequently, they listened to guidance on written and imaginal exercises for cultivating compassion for others.

Researchers asked participants to set aside half an hour daily for the letter-writing exercise. Self-compassionate letter-writing began in the second session and continued for the rest of the study.

Measures: The measures (plus sample items) are listed below. The participants were instructed to complete baseline and post-assessment measures (16 days and one month later).

  • Experience of Shame Scale (ESS): “Have you felt ashamed of your body or any part of it?”
  • The Other as Shamer Scale-2 (OAS-2): “I feel insecure about others’ opinions of me.”
  • Forms of Self-Criticizing/Attacking and Self-Reassuring Scale (FSCRS): “I am easily disappointed with myself.”
  • Self-Compassion Scale-Short Form (SCS-SF): “When I’m going through a very hard time, I give myself the caring and tenderness I need.”
  • Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9): “Thoughts that you would be better off dead or of hurting yourself.”
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder 7-item Scale (GAD-7): “Not being able to stop or control worrying.”


The current study examined the effects of a self-compassionate letter-writing task in reducing shame in students with high shame.

Results showed “practicing self-compassionate letter writing was associated with significant decreases in both global and external shame [medium to large effect sizes].”

It was, furthermore, “associated with significantly greater reductions in self-criticism [medium effect sizes].” Remarkably, these “gains were maintained during the one-month follow-up period, suggesting improvements in shame and self-criticism were sustained.”

Source: huynhthientu/Pixabay

Writing a self-compassionate letter

Guidance on how to do the above exercise begins with bringing to mind a shaming episode and taking a few minutes to write about it (e.g., what happened, how you felt, what you did at the time, and afterward).

Then use these three writing prompts to reflect on and reframe the shaming experience.

  1. Common humanity. Describe the various ways that other people may also experience similar shame-inducing episodes. This can include situations where they may feel, for example, bad, incompetent, defective, unlovable, or immoral.
  2. Self-kindness. What would you say to (or do for) a best friend or loved one who had experienced similar shame-inducing events? Now extend the same understanding, care, kindness, acceptance, and unconditional love to yourself.
  3. Mindfulness. Recall the shame-inducing event from a more detached and objective perspective. Do not exaggerate the feelings or over-identify with them. Observe them as if they were leaves on a stream. Describe the situation, thoughts, and emotions experienced from this point of view.

Practice this exercise regularly. Think of self-compassion as a healing response to shame. The more shame you felt then (or now feel), the more self-compassion you may need.

Self-compassionate letter writing may be one way of developing a supportive than critical and shaming self-dialogue.

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