What Is Shame and How Does It Show Up in Your Life and Work?
How shame and guilt in childhood impact your self-worth, relationships and work.
Posted February 11, 2021
We all have shame. And “the less you talk about it,” according to Brené Brown, “the more you have it.”
So let’s talk about it a little more, so that we might experience it a little bit less.
What is shame?
Shame is a deeply distressing, uncomfortable emotion, which typically arises when we feel we’ve made a mistake. Shame, in contrast to guilt (which we’ll get to in a minute), involves feelings of inadequacy, negative self-evaluation, and self-consciousness in response to our (perceived) error.
Brené Brown describes shame as
the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.
In other words, having done sometime wrong, we feel that we ourselves – not just our actions – are flawed. Shame is underlined by a nagging belief or suspicion that we are inadequate or unlovable.
The difference between shame and guilt
Guilt and shame are closely related, in that each occurs after having made a mistake of some kind. We may feel remorseful in either case; however, guilt is a feeling about our actions, whereas shame is a feeling about ourselves.
Brené Brown differentiates the two as follows:
Shame is, I am bad. Guilt is, I did something bad.
In other words, guilt is about something we’ve done. Shame is about who we are.
Another difference is that the remorse brought about by guilt can actually be constructive. If we know our actions have hurt someone, for example, we can allow our guilt to inform how we fix our error; we may apologize, make amends, or act differently next time.
Shame, on the other hand, is not constructive. Carl Jung described it as “a soul-eating emotion.”
Not only does shame lead to a host of emotional and interpersonal problems, but we are also more likely to disconnect from both ourselves and others when we feel shame.
Where does shame come from?
Shame is most often caused by our upbringing – which may include a combination of how our caregivers treated us and the cultural norms we were exposed to.
The environment and culture we grow up in greatly shape our idea of who we are meant to be. Religious conditioning or outdated Western ideas of toxic masculinity, for example, might inform a child’s idea of the “right” way of behaving or how one is “meant” to act or think.
There is also a highly contagious element to shame, which is often inherited from our parents or caretakers.
If we grew up in a household where we were not accepted, loved, or told we were perfect just the way we were, we may internalize a message that we are inferior, inadequate, or unworthy in some way. When the people who are meant to love and care for us instead make us feel flawed, it's no wonder that we might feel unlovable and inherently defective as adults.
If you were shamed for crying or expressing certain emotions as a child, for example, you may find yourself in shame when these come up as an adult. (You may also try to avoid them at all costs.)
Many adults who grew up in abusive or dysfunctional families, or felt consistent disapproval, neglect, or emotional abandonment from their caregivers internalize the idea that if they were treated that way, something must be deeply wrong with them. This is the breeding ground for carrying shame into your life as an adult.
How shame impacts you as an adult
Shame is a self-perpetuating phenomenon. When we are in shame, it is hard to extract ourselves from it, both in the moment, and within a larger, lifelong pattern of feeling unlovable, unworthy, or defective.
When we experience shame as adults, we may deal with it internally or attempt to discharge it externally. In other words, the shame we feel either gets projected onto others (externally) or turned inward, towards ourselves.
Typically, we do a bit of both.
Some examples of external shame include:
- Shaming others
- Control of others
We’re probably more intimately familiar, however, with the ways our shame gets turned inward.
Some examples of shame directed inward include:
Chronic shame can have a profound impact on our mental health, including increased risk of depression, anxiety, and suicide. It can also show up in our lives in other, more innocuous ways, including at work, in our relationships, and when we least expect it.
Work is one of the most unwelcome places shame can rear its ugly head. Many people who experience shame on a regular basis also experience imposter syndrome, which is the inability to recognize and believe in one’s own expertise or accomplishments. Women, especially accomplished women, are particularly susceptible to imposter syndrome.
Shame in the workplace manifests in many ways. We may defer to others, even if we disagree; not share our thinking or ideas for fear of being wrong or making a mistake; not ask questions; or not put ourselves forward for positions or raises for which we are qualified.
Shame also impacts our sensitivity to criticism, which is often felt like an attack, making it difficult to give and receive constructive feedback, which is an essential task in many roles.
The dysfunctional relationships that often cause shame in the first place are sometimes replicated in our adult lives. We may find ourselves in similar situations to those in which we were raised – replacing controlling or critical parents with controlling or critical partners, for example. Or we might become people-pleasers in order to avoid making mistakes for which we might be blamed or criticized.
Healthy relationships, ironically, can also present problems. When we find ourselves in loving, positive relationships, we might experience some level of cognitive dissonance (“This person is good to me, but I am bad; I don’t deserve this relationship”), and instead distrust the relationship or self-sabotage. In general, those with high levels of shame find it harder to trust others, making relationships across the board more difficult.
When we least expect it
For those who experience moderate and high levels of shame, self-doubt and self-sabotage can strike at any time.
Ironically, one of the most prevalent times our shame is heightened is when things are going well. Having internalized a belief that we don’t deserve good things, we may find happy experiences or positive situations unaligned with our beliefs about what we deserve in our lives.
Perhaps the most universal experience of shame, however, is the phenomenon of negative self-talk. This internal mark of shame takes of the form of constant self-criticism, which, depending on the day or situation, may sound like “I’m ugly,” “I’m stupid,” I’m ridiculous,” “I can’t do anything right,” “I hate myself,” “I’m a bad person,” “I don’t deserve this,” or any number of similar self-negating statements.
We all have an inner critic, but the constant hum of self-sabotaging, self-limiting ideas establishes a pervasive negative inner monologue that can impact us in profoundly harmful ways.
How to tame shame
Thankfully, there are many ways to help us silence shame. Whether you’re working on the manifestation of shame in your relationships or at work, or just trying to quiet your inner-critic, here are five tried-and-true recipes to combat shame:
- Reparent yourself with compassion and empathy, and respond to yourself in a healthy, loving, positive way that you wish your parents had when you were growing up.
- Revisit your childhood or experiences of trauma that you think may have led to shame-responses. (Therapy is a wonderful, safe place to do this.)
- Know your triggers and what your sources of shame are (being wrong/making a mistake, asking for help, speaking up, being rejected, being vulnerable). If a specific person routinely makes you feel shame, consider changing your relationship with them and focus on cultivating healthy relationships instead.
- Turn your inner critic into a trusted coach. Challenge your self-talk and self-limiting beliefs. When you catch yourself saying or thinking self-defeating ideas, ask yourself if the statement is actually true; if not, replace it with a more positive and accurate belief based on facts you know about yourself.
- Make small, positive changes. Read affirmations every day. Be vulnerable with others when you experience shame (this increases connection, which is the antidote to shame). Explore shame when you feel it, shine a light on it (shame grows in darkness). Practice mindfulness or guided meditations on releasing shame. Accept acts of kindness and compassion, from yourself and others.