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Coping With Shame and Self-Criticism

Here’s what to do when self-criticism takes over your thoughts.

Key points

  • Feelings of shame may be provoked or maintained by self-critical thoughts.
  • Shame has played a role in human history by motivating us to follow societal norms and avoid isolation.
  • Unlike guilt, shame can result from circumstances in which no one was harmed.
  • There are various ways to cope with feelings of shame through self-help or a therapist's guidance.

Shame is a deeply painful emotion that can be tied to thoughts of being inadequate, defective, or unworthy of love. It may be felt in a social context or in an isolated context. While it’s similar to embarrassment, it often feels more intense and harder to shake off. It might follow from thoughts such as:

  • “Why didn’t I handle that situation better? What’s wrong with me?”
  • “They probably won’t like me. They’ll think I’m a loser.”
  • “Why can’t I figure this out? Am I stupid?”
  • “Am I a bad parent? I shouldn’t have shouted at my kids.”

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” —Brene Brown

Fear of Social Isolation

Social scientists suggest that shame may help maintain social relationships by discouraging bad behavior, as defined by a society's norms. It’s a basic human instinct to belong to a social group for the purpose of safety and pooling of resources. Throughout our human history, belonging to a group has often increased our chances of survival.

In the social context, we might feel shame when we feel we have lost the esteem of others. Losing this positive regard from others can signal rejection, which can trigger our deeper human fear of being isolated and at risk. Most of us tend to follow societal norms and expectations in hopes of avoiding this risk.

Shame might also be experienced in isolation, such as feeling bad because of the awareness that others might judge us for what we did or didn’t do. Often, shame follows from judging ourselves, in spite of the likelihood that we wouldn’t fault someone else for doing the same thing. If it were a friend, we might extend to them our understanding that everyone makes mistakes and no one is perfect.

Perfectionism and Shame

Individuals who are highly self-critical or perfectionistic tend to experience shame frequently (Brown, 2007). For these individuals, anything short of perfection is perceived as a threat to maintaining the positive regard of others. For example, a parent who is trying to be the ideal parent might feel shame if they lose their temper and raise their voice to their child. An employee with perfectionistic tendencies who is corrected publicly by a supervisor is prone to feeling shame.

All too often, shame is destructive to our well-being and our productivity. It can lead to rumination and self-doubt. In contrast to feelings of guilt, shame doesn’t lead us to a concrete plan about what we can do to make amends because, often, no one was actually harmed by the event that provoked the shame.

Coping Tips

Following are some tips for coping with self-critical thoughts, along with some examples of how they might be used.

  • Ask yourself if anyone was actually harmed by what happened.

Imagine that you tripped and fell while walking across a crowded room. You’re okay but embarrassed. Was anyone harmed? No. Sometimes, all that’s needed is to acknowledge that there is no victim. In the absence of guilt, feelings of shame might fade away as you let go of self-criticism.

At other times, both shame and guilt can be present together. Suppose you lost your temper and accused your friend of being selfish and annoying. You probably hurt their feelings. You might feel guilt for that consequence and shame for losing your temper. You have the option to ask for their forgiveness, forgive yourself for making the hurtful remark, and then move on.

  • Don’t believe the self-criticism.

Your friend has a bigger house, a better job, nicer vacations, etc. Your thoughts go to: “What’s wrong with me? I’m a loser.” Don’t listen to those thoughts. Each person has a different life experience with their own talents and their own struggles. There’s no benefit that comes from making comparisons to others. Consider your own strengths and what you’re grateful for in your life.

  • Practice letting the thoughts go instead of allowing yourself to dwell on them.

You might find yourself caught in a downward spiral of self-criticism and sadness. You realize that the thoughts aren’t true, but you just can’t shake them off. One way to let go of persistent negative thoughts is with mindfulness meditation. Guided meditation can be very effective in shifting your mindset from self-critical to self-accepting and peaceful.

Another option is to get physically active: walking, dancing, exercising, or any movement you can engage in will help reset your thoughts and shift focus.

  • Be your own best friend.

You shouted at your child for no good reason; they were just being a normal kid who didn’t want to go to school that day. Talk to your child calmly, tell them you’re sorry for shouting, and check in with how they’re feeling (Kennedy, 2022). Then, be understanding with yourself and consider what a kind friend would probably say to you, such as, “We all make mistakes, and no parent is perfect.”

  • Seek support from your family or friends.

Whatever the circumstances, you might have tried all of the above, and yet you’re still feeling intense shame. Talk with a trusted family member or friend and give them the opportunity to help you let go of your self-critical thoughts.

  • If all else fails, talk to a therapist.

Of course, this need not be the last resort. If you experience shame regularly or so intensely that it interferes with your daily life, talk with a therapist as soon as possible. There are many different forms of therapy, one of which is likely to suit you.

The Takeaway

While shame is a common human experience, it can be severe enough to interfere with life satisfaction and daily functioning. Shame is often provoked by self-critical thoughts which are untrue but nevertheless oppressive. There are a variety of ways to cope with feelings of shame so that it can be shaken off more quickly and effectively.


UC Santa Barbara (2018). The Current: The Universality of Shame. Retrieved from:

Brown, B. (2007). I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Making the Journey from "What Will People Think?" to "Am I Enough?" Avery Publishing. (2020). Thinking mindfully: How mindfulness relates to rumination and reflection in daily life. Retrieved from:

Kennedy, B. (2022). Good Inside: A Guide to Becoming the Parent You Want to Be. Harper Publishing.

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