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Shame is an emotion that involves negative self-evaluation—believing that something is wrong with you as a person. You may believe that you haven’t lived up to certain standards and feel unworthy or inadequate as a result. Shame often operates outside of conscious awareness, making it challenging to identify and overcome—but healing and growth are always possible.

What Is Shame?
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Shame involves negatively judging yourself when you believe you’ve failed to live up to your own standards or the standards of others. The feeling of shame evokes intense discomfort, and sometimes a desire to hide; people may describe feeling worthless, stupid, foolish, inadequate, or “less than.” Shame can paralyze people, forming the lens for all self-evaluation. Everyone experiences shame occasionally—but some, unfortunately, are ruled by it, and therefore need to address it.

What’s the difference between shame and guilt?

Shame and guilt are distinct emotions. Guilt arises as a result of an action someone does or doesn’t take. For instance, they may feel regret over having done something bad, which can motivate them to change their behavior in the future. On the other hand, shame arises as a result of negative evaluations from others, even if an individual has nothing to feel guilty about. The result is that the individual doesn’t feel bad about a particular action but about themselves as a whole.

What’s the difference between shame and embarrassment?

Embarrassment results from trivial social transgressions, like tripping or stumbling over one’s words, where the person may be embarrassed in front of particular people but doesn’t feel that such events involve their entire self. Shame, by contrast, involves the whole self, the core identity

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How to Overcome Shame
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Consistent shame can have insidious consequences, but it’s possible to overcome this difficult feeling.

The first step is to identify shame. Given that it can be largely unconscious, identifying, labeling, and monitoring shame are critical steps in resolving it. You can explore feelings of shame with a therapist, a friend, or in a journal for yourself—although it might hurt to acknowledge at first.

Resolving shame often involves the practice of self-compassion. Self-compassion can improve the way we see ourselves and quiet our inner critic. Exercises may include writing a compassionate letter to yourself, which research shows can lower shame, self-criticism, and anxiety, or writing a compassionate letter to yourself from the point of view of someone in a position of power over you since shame involves feeling like others are evaluating you negatively. Another tool is a loving kindness meditation, in which you imagine loving yourself and others, and imagine being open to receiving love. Yet another approach is learning to forgive yourself, in the past and present.

Can therapy help with shame?

A therapist can help people resolve shame and build self-esteem. With the help of a mental health professional, people might explore their past and identify key events at the root of their shame. They may work on developing self-compassion and taming their inner critic. They may explore their strengths and weaknesses to develop a realistic portrait of who they are and what they’re capable of. They may assess different domains of life to find what may be contributing to shame in the present and how those factors can be mitigated and monitor that progress over time. 

Can setting boundaries help with shame?

Experiences of shame early on can undermine one's natural self-protective impulses and the development of healthy boundaries. To address a sense of shame, people need to protect themselves from further shaming, which involves setting boundaries in one form or another. Setting boundaries might take the form of, say, refusing to abide by someone else’s orders, or naming abuse in a relationship and making a plan to leave.

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