Skills for dealing with shame

out of eden

ABOVE: Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise by a sword-bearing Angel. LITHOGRAPH BY CONSONI AFTER RAPHAEL, WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

by Warren Heggarty

Researcher Dr Brené Brown describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” The last thing we’d be inclined to do is talk about it. Yet, ironically, according to Brown in her book Daring Greatly (Brown, 2012),“The less we talk about shame, the more power it has over our lives…If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.” (Sack, 2015)

Note that there is an important distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt means “I did something bad.” Shame means “I am bad.”  

If you did something bad, you can do something else to correct the error, or make up for what you have done wrong. Someone who DOES bad can chose to do good, but if you believe you ARE bad, you see yourself as being incapable of changing. 

Humiliation and embarrassment are sometimes confused with shame. However, like guilt, these two painful emotions are usually attached to particular events, not to your whole being like shame is.  

What is shame actually FOR? We all feel it at some time, so one would expect that it to serve some positive purpose. According to  psychotherapist Joseph Burgo, shame is an emotion that protects us from social devaluation. It deters us from doing things which could lead to isolation, which is dangerous for humans. Shame can potentially be a great teacher, but not if it leads to “catastrophic and ruminative thinking” that prevents us form making necessary changes to our lives. (Mahonen, 2018)

Overcoming shame, according to Sack, involves “unhitching what you DO from what you ARE.” All people make mistakes, but all people are capable of change, too.


Shame attacks us where we are most vulnerable. Research suggests that women who feel shame report it most commonly in connection with their physical appearance, while men report it in connection with “weakness.”

Everyone is different, so recognising what particular things trigger your feelings of shame will help you become conscious of what is happening. 

Jessica Van Vliet says shame is ultimately a fear of disconnection for being judged “not good enough.” So does counteracting shame involve making connections with other people? 

“People start to realize that it’s not just them. Other people do things that are as bad or even worse sometimes so they’re not the worst person on the planet. They start to say to themselves, ‘This is human; I am human; others are human.’” (Sack, 2015)

Self respect must be earned

According to Burgo’s book SHAME (Burgo, 2018), shame is a family of emotions with four members: exclusion, unwanted exposure, disappointed expectation, and unrequited love.  

Burgo eschews the “unconditional self love and positive affirmation” approach that used to be fashionable. He says that moving from shame to justifiable pride is a slow process that is a constant part of living. “Self respect must be earned… it is an achievement rather than an entitlement.” (Mahonen, 2018)

According to Burgo, the main skills for dealing with shame are gaining self-awareness (about how our thoughts create our feelings), accepting what causes those feelings, preventing the constant focus on our self-image, acknowledging responsibility for the consequences of our actions, and being kinder to ourselves. (Mahonen, 2018)

Brene Brown has recorded a number of TED talks on you tube about shame which you might find useful. 

References and Further Reading

Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead. New York USA: Penguin.

Burgo, J. (2018). Shame: Free yourself, find joy, and build true self-esteem. Pan Macmillan.

Mahonen, S. (2018, November 23). Break the shame. The Australian.

Sack, D. (2015, January 13). 5 Ways to silence shame. Retrieved from Psychology Today:

“The less we talk about shame, the more power it has over our lives.”

-Brene Brown


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