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9 Things You Need to Know About Shame

Shame is one of the most painful emotions we can experience.

Key points

  • Shame and guilt are different emotions.
  • Shame can begin in childhood.
  • Shame has warning signs.
  • There is a cure for shame.
BigStock/Nicoleta Ionescu
Source: BigStock/Nicoleta Ionescu

Our natural go-to response to painful feelings is to stuff them out of sight. If your mind were like a tunnel and unwanted feelings could slip out harmlessly, this might work. Instead, your mind is more like the magical expanding bag in Harry Potter. The bag will keep growing forever, and you will keep carrying it with you until you examine your emotions, retrieve their message, and let them go. Since shame is one of the most painful emotions we can experience, it is one of the hardest to dig out from the bottom of the bag and relieve yourself of.

Here are nine things you need to know about shame and some tips for how to feel less of it.

1. Shame and guilt are different emotions.

You feel guilty when you think you’ve done something wrong, but you feel shame when you believe that you are wrong. While guilt arises when you have made a mistake and can fix it, shame develops when you see yourself as the mistake. The critic inside your head tells you that you are a bad person, wrong, worthless, or that you have no value.

2. Shame has an evolutionary origin.

We can see evidence of shame in human babies and close relatives of humans, such as apes. This may be because shame plays a part in the long-term survival of our and other species. It makes us behave in ways that allow us to co-exist with others, and it makes us adhere to cultural norms and follow laws. In that way, shame isn’t always a bad thing. Shame can make us humble and give us humility, and it can teach us about boundaries. Without healthy shame, we would have no way to understand how our behavior affects others and manage it.

3. Shame can begin in childhood.

The harmful form of shame can begin when we’re very young. Children are less adept at separating feelings from self-image—so when you experience bad feelings as a child, you may come to believe that you are bad, feeling shame about the way you feel, and shame about your insecurity and confusion over how to express it.

4. Shame has warning signs.

There are many signs that you are experiencing shame. For example, when someone brings up something you feel ashamed about, you may look down and avoid eye contact, talk in a soft voice, and suddenly feel like you can’t move. You may hate doing things spontaneously and like to plan and prepare, sometimes to the point that you do nothing at all. You are afraid of looking stupid or saying the wrong thing, so you don’t try new things and don’t speak up. You avoid being the center of attention and wish you could shrink into the walls. Shame makes you feel like you can’t be your true self and that your true self is inadequate.

5. There are many types of shame.

There are many types of shame, including shame when you fail at something you think you should be good at, shame when you make a mistake in front of others, shame when you feel left out of a group you want to be in, and internalized shame after abuse or other trauma.

6. Shame can lead to other negative emotions.

Shame can be a major source of anger, depression, and anxiety. When you harbor shame, you may tend to react defensively when anyone criticizes you or gives you the mildest feedback. Your anger is an attempt to cover up your shame and divert attention away from your painful buried feelings. Shame can make you feel worthless, hyper-sensitive, and give you social anxiety. Shame can lead you to feel empty and lonely.

7. Shame can negatively affect your relationships.

The hallmarks of shame are hiding and secrecy, two things that are terrible for relationships. If you're in a romantic relationship, you may feel easily judged by your partner, and you might lash out in anger or express your anger through passive-aggressive behaviors. Shame can make it harder for you to trust your partner, or it may make you not want to go out and meet a potential partner at all.

8. Shame can harm your physical health.

Shame can lead to high blood pressure, stomach problems, insomnia, alcohol or narcotics addiction, and eating disorders. One study determined that external shame—the fear that others are judging us negatively—is associated with anorexia, while internal shame—our negative self-evaluation and self-generated criticism—is associated with bulimia. [1]

9. There is a cure for shame.

When you have a caring person to share your shameful and otherwise painful stories with, you will be able to fully express yourself and finally release the old, stored, toxic feelings that have been weighing you down. Free of those, you can shift your beliefs about yourself and stop seeing yourself as bad or wrong. The change you will feel is profound.

Shame can create a vicious cycle. You behave in a way, or something happens, that makes you feel ashamed, then you do things to cover up your feelings, which leads you to feel even more ashamed. You shove your shame deep into your bottomless bag of emotions, and you pile on top depression, anxiety, anger, and more shame.

Your psyche knows how to heal your emotional wounds the same way that your body knows how to heal your physical wounds after you cut yourself shaving or skin your knee when you trip. However, that healing process cannot begin when you stuff shame away in your bag of unwanted emotions. Your shame will continue to emerge and cause you pain—trying to get your attention—until you resolve it. Shame may be a natural and sometimes helpful emotion, but it doesn’t have to rule—or ruin—your life.


[1] Troop, N. A., Allan, S., Serpell, L., & Treasure, J. L. (2008). Shame in women with a history of eating disorders. European Eating Disorders Review, 16(6), 480–488.

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