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Embarrassment

Is Your Anger a Cover for Shame?

If you have a quick temper, your problem may not actually be your anger.

If you have a quick temper, if you shout, if you slam doors, your problem may not actually be your anger. The real emotion that may be hurting you is what's lurking behind your anger: shame. For many of us, anger is a cover for shame.

Shame isn't an emotion that's talked about a lot in our society. There are no shame management classes, it's often confused with guilt, and it's not an emotion we actively choose to feel. We watch comedies because we enjoy laughing and dramas because crying feels cathartic, but has anyone ever said, "Tonight I'm in the mood to watch something that makes me feel ashamed"?

Shame is "a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior" (oxforddictionaries.com). The difference between shame and guilt is summed up perfectly by one of my favorite authors, John Bradshaw: "Guilt says I've done something wrong; shame says there is something wrong with me. Guilt says I've made a mistake; shame says I am a mistake. Guilt says what I did was not good; shame says I am no good."

Shame is also the only emotion that can bind with other emotions. You can feel joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger all while you simultaneously feel shame. Today we're going to talk specifically about the combination of shame and anger.

For many of us, we carry around secret feelings of shame for years. Something we did in our past—or something that was done to us—haunts us. Shame can be a major anger trigger because when we harbor shame, we tend to react defensively when we're criticized or given even mild feedback. We may then use anger to divert attention away from our painful, hidden feelings the way a magician uses misdirection when performing a card trick.

If this sounds like something you experience, there are three effective ways to deal with anger that's covering up deeper feelings of shame. These are three methods I've used for years as an anger management therapist:

1. Mindful breathing

When we use our anger to mask shame, it can be hard for us to not dump our anger on others. While shouting, throwing things, and slamming doors can make us feel like we've released our anger and successfully hidden shame, the release is temporary—and terrible for those around us. Mindful breathing—slow, deliberate breathing while staying present and focusing on bodily sensations—can help us sit with our feelings for long enough that we may begin the process of uncovering our hidden shame. What happened in the past that continues to hurt us needs to be healed, but it can't be healed if it's always covered by anger.

2. Self-forgiveness

If we don't work mindfully through our feelings and practice self-forgiveness, we can be trapped forever in our anger and shame. We expect the best of ourselves and want to be perfect in everything we do, which is why we feel ashamed when we do something that we know is wrong or foolish. Self-forgiveness requires adopting a new view—that life is for learning and that real perfection lies in self-improvement, not in avoiding mistakes. Punishing ourselves chains us to our pasts.

3. Telling your story

Many of us never discuss our painful experiences. Instead, we keep shame hidden as an ugly secret. When we finally find a caring person to share our story with—someone we feel safe with, who listens nonjudgmentally without trying to fix us—we can fully uncover and release shame. To tell your story you need to describe the details of what happened (who, what, where, when, why); how you felt then and how you feel now; what, if anything, you feel you did to contribute to what happened; and you need to talk about how the choices you made seemed to be serving you at the time. Finally, when you are finished sharing, your safe person should gently say to you the following statements:

  • Thank you for sharing your experience with me.
  • I'm sorry that you suffered that pain.
  • I love and accept you anyway.

When we use anger to cover shame, traditional "anger management" techniques won't work. Counting to 10 or hitting a pillow can't heal deep emotional wounds. The most effective way to "manage" anger that hides shame is to mindfully uncover the shame, practice self-forgiveness, and tell our stories.

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