Recover from shame | University of Illinois Counseling Center (2023)

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Recover from shame | University of Illinois Counseling Center (1)

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What is shame?

Most of us have probably heard the phrase "You should be ashamed of yourself!" someday. But what does it mean to be ashamed? How can you tell if you're feeling shame and where it's coming from? Can you feel too much or too little shame? How is it different from guilt? Can you overcome feelings of shame? These are all very good questions, but they are not easy to answer because the experience of shame is so complicated.

At a basic level, shame is the underlying, pervasive belief that someone is somehow flawed or unacceptable. Exactly how a person believes they are unacceptable can be very unique. It could be that they think they are "too much" in some way: too talkative, too shy, unattractive, or too emotional. It could be that they think they're "not enough" in some way: they're not smart enough, not funny enough, not skinny enough, or not nice enough. Typically, if a person is struggling with excess shame, they believe they are flawed in many ways. They feel unworthy, unpleasant or "bad".

People who feel ashamed want to hide from others or keep the things they are ashamed of secret. The anxiety they feel is related to the fear of being found out or exposed. Sometimes a physical sensation such as flushing may arise as a result of the belief that they have been "seen" and are being judged.

Shame is a necessary human emotion that helps us develop a moral compass, but it can become destructive in our lives. This can lead us to believe that we have to be perfect or else we are no good. It can lead us to distance ourselves from others. This can lead us to become defensive and distant. This can lead us to feel depressed and anxious. This can lead us to be overly responsible and seek excessive approval. It is often the underlying experience of addiction, infidelity, perfectionism, eating disorders, overconfidence in relationships, and so many other problematic behaviors.

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Just as the experience of shame differs between individuals and families, it can also differ between cultures and religions. In many groups, there are prescribed behaviors that make you feel embarrassed. This can be healthy as it allows people to understand what behaviors are expected, but shame can become

Where does the shame come from?

The sources of shame are varied. Some people feel ashamed of having critical parents who told them, directly or subtly, that somehow they weren't good enough. Even the most loving parents can sometimes have expectations that leave a child feeling they can't live up to them. Generally, parents who are highly critical, verbally or emotionally abusive, and/or neglectful will raise children who feel they are not right in some fundamental way.

Other people may develop shame due to interactions with their peers or interactions in their places of worship. Others seem to absorb it through shameful aspects of their culture or in relationships with a shameful partner. Finally, many individuals have the capacity to be quite harsh and self-critical, and this fosters a strong and enduring sense of self as flawed. There is some evidence that there is even a biological predisposition to shame.

How is shame different from guilt?

Shame and guilt can be very similar, but there is a difference. Guilt is usually the feeling that you did something wrong, that you went against your moral code in some way. Shame is more a feeling that who you are is somehow wrong. Sometimes a person may experience shame and guilt, either simultaneously or in sequence.

How do I heal from shame?

You can cure yourself of excessive shame. While you don't want to completely eliminate shame from your life, if it's causing you problems, you can take steps to feel less shame. Reducing the shame in your life will help you feel more confident and genuine.

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The first step to overcoming shame is to start acknowledging it in your life. Notice when others embarrass you, but also notice the ways in which you embarrass yourself. You say things to yourself like:

  • "That was stupid! I can't believe you said that!"
  • "Who would want to talk to you?"
  • "You look awful today!"
  • "You will never be as good as the other students in this class."

These are shameful statements. It's important to be able to recognize when someone is embarrassing you, but it's also important to recognize that YOU may be the person who embarrasses you the most. One way to think of it is that you should "turn up the volume" on the embarrassing statements in your life so that you can hear them more clearly and be able to change them, not listen more closely.

It is also good to understand the origins of our shame. Where did your shame originate? How did it start? How do you perpetuate it? Are you trying to stay close to someone who embarrasses you, letting them continue to embarrass you? These are examples of questions we must ask ourselves to understand where shame comes from.

The next step is to develop some compassion for yourself. Work to accept that you are human and that you have limitations. When you act in a way you don't like, be curious instead of critical. Instead of saying "Why did you do that?" critically try to ask the same question with openness and curiosity. You will discover much more about yourself by observing and gathering information rather than criticizing. Forgive yourself for your past so you can move forward. It is crucial to take a stand against shaming by not shaming others or yourself. Try to shame yourself for simply unacceptable behavior. It's forbidden. Challenge yourself and others when they embarrass you.

Another step towards healing is to start acting in ways that show you are a worthwhile and worthwhile person. Sometimes, even if we feel like we're not good enough, we can still operate in the world as if we have value. Basically, it sends a message to ourselves that counteracts shame. If we treat ourselves and others with respect, we develop more pride and self-esteem. It's important to be a good advocate for yourself on your journey to healing shame.

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Do you want to know more?

Bradshaw, J. (1988).Healing the shame that holds you back.Deerfield Beach, Flórida: Health Communications, Inc.

Brown, B. (2007).I thought it was just me (but I'm not): Moving on what will people think? for I Am Enough.Nova York, NY: Penguin Random House LLC.

Engel, B. (2006).Healing Your Emotional Self: A Powerful Program to Help You Boost Your Self-Esteem, Calm Your Inner Critic, and Overcome Your Shame.Hoboken, Nova Jersey: Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Neff, K. (2015).Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.Nova York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Smedes, L. (1993).Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don't Deserve.Nueva York: Harpercollins Publishers.

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Wilson, S. (2002).Freed from shame: moving beyond the pain of the past.Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Brown, B. (2012). Hear shame.


How do you heal from internal shame? ›

Find the cause of your shame in order to move forward.
  1. Become aware of how you talk to yourself. Try to observe your own thoughts but not react to them.
  2. Have compassion for yourself. Everyone has flaws and makes mistakes. ...
  3. Practice mindfulness. ...
  4. Recognize when you're feeling shame. ...
  5. ‌Seek support.
Oct 25, 2021

Does shame ever go away? ›

Like guilt, shame can promote behavior change, since disappointment with yourself can prevent you from making a similar mistake. But shame relates to your sense of self, and it can cut deeper, so these feelings can linger long after you've apologized or made amends.

How do you overcome the shame cycle? ›

Steps to Break the Shame Spiral
  1. Acknowledge Your Feelings. First, you have to recognize what you're feeling. ...
  2. Talk to Yourself Like a Friend. ...
  3. Get Grounded. ...
  4. Get Support from Someone You Trust. ...
  5. Take Action by Serving Someone Else. ...
  6. Be Kind to Yourself.
Dec 21, 2021

What is the first step towards recovering from shame? ›

The first step to moving past shame is to begin to recognize it in your life. Notice when others are shaming you but also notice the ways in which you shame yourself. Do you say things to yourself like: “That was stupid!

What mental illness is associated with shame? ›

Shame can be a contributing factor in depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

How do you overcome severe shame? ›

What to do
  1. Recognise shame as it arises in your life.
  2. Understand the origins of your shame.
  3. Check in with yourself to build self-compassion.
  4. Try writing yourself a self-compassionate letter.
  5. Acknowledge the different parts of yourself that are present.
  6. Share in the context of safe relationships.
Sep 7, 2022

What shame does to the brain? ›

When faced with shame, the brain reacts as if it were facing physical danger, and activates the sympathetic nervous system generating the flight/fight/freeze response. The flight response triggers the feeling of needing to disappear, and children who have this response will try to become invisible.

What does chronic shame feel like? ›

Chronic shame is with you all the time and makes you feel as though you are not good enough. This type of shame can impair your functioning and mental health.

Why is it so hard to overcome shame? ›

In essence, we tell ourselves, “I'm bad”. In contrast, guilt comes from a negative evaluation of our behaviour (“I have done something bad”). People who feel guilt are more likely to forgive themselves. As shame corrodes our very sense of self, it is that much more difficult to overcome.

What are shame triggers? ›

Shame describes feelings of inadequacy created by internalized negative beliefs about oneself. Personal insecurities, secrets, mistakes, and perceived flaws can all trigger shame responses, causing people to become extremely self-conscious, self-critical, and embarrassed.

How do you let go of shame and regret? ›

How to Forgive Yourself and Let go of Regrets
  1. Acceptance. Acknowledge that you are a human, and know that every human makes mistakes. ...
  2. Learn from mistakes. Try to learn from your mistakes. ...
  3. Take risks. Be willing to take risks. ...
  4. Visualize the future. Picture yourself free from guilt, regret, and self-condemnation.

What are the four elements of shame resilience? ›

Brené Brown outlined four key elements:
  • Recognizing, naming, and understanding our shame triggers.
  • Identifying external factors that led to the feelings of shame.
  • Connecting with others to receive and offer empathy.
  • Speaking about our feelings of shame with others.
Feb 22, 2021

What does the Bible say about overcoming shame? ›

Isaiah 54:4

God doesn't remember your past shame. He chooses to let it go, and he wants you to do the same. Holding onto shame creates fear of punishment. But you can release your fears to God and trust Him to take care of you because He loves you and forgives you.

How does shame manifest in the body? ›

Shame brings with it a subjective sense of time slowing down which serves to magnify anything that occurs during a state of shame. It also is accompanied by intensified feedback from all perceptual modalities, particularly autonomic reactions such as blushing, sweating, and increased heart rate.

What is the shame rage cycle? ›

A shame-rage cycle describes feelings that can occur when an individual is shamed (by being made fun of, humiliated, embarrassed, etc) and the negative feelings associated cause aggressive behaviors. The rage or aggression occurs as a means of avoiding the negative feelings of shame.

Why does shame come from trauma? ›

Shame often emerges when you are at your most vulnerable state, and for those with PTSD, it could very well be the same triggers that cause you to relive your painful past. This is because insecurities are a prime component for people to default to shame.

How do I let go of shame? ›

The Process of Letting Go of Shame
  1. Identify the Source. ...
  2. Acceptance. ...
  3. Challenge Your Thought Patterns. ...
  4. Forgive Yourself. ...
  5. Discover Your Self-Worth. ...
  6. Obtain Professional Help.
Sep 24, 2021

What organ holds shame? ›

According to Gerald Fishkin, a California-based psychologist and author of The Science of Shame, the experience of shame is connected with the limbic system. That's the part of the brain that influences the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response.

Where is guilt stored in the body? ›

Body and Mind

The positive emotions of gratefulness and togetherness and the negative emotions of guilt and despair all looked remarkably similar, with feelings mapped primarily in the heart, followed by the head and stomach.

What organ does guilt affect? ›

Guilt, Fishkin says, is associated with activity in the prefrontal cortex, the logical-thinking part of the brain. Guilt can also trigger activity in the limbic system. (That's why it can feel so anxiety-provoking.)

What is internal shame? ›

Internal shame stems from our belief that there is something wrong with us, it is less dependent on public exposure. This subtype of shame reflects our self-critical thoughts of inadequacy and worthlessness. In other words, the main focus of internal shame is on our self-perception of defective, flawed self.

What is inner shame? ›

Topic: Healing the Wounds of Inner Shame

➢ Shame is a painful emotion that can cause you to have negative thoughts about. yourself. These thoughts can come from many sources and cause you to feel that you are flawed or less than. Sometimes shame comes from someone else's perception of what they think of you.

What does shame do to the brain? ›

When faced with shame, the brain reacts as if it were facing physical danger, and activates the sympathetic nervous system generating the flight/fight/freeze response. The flight response triggers the feeling of needing to disappear, and children who have this response will try to become invisible.

What are the signs of shame? ›

Here are some common symptoms of shame:
  • Wanting to Disappear. Most often, shame causes people to want to bury their heads and disappear — anything to pull out of connection with another person. ...
  • Anger. Another common way people react to shame is by feeling anger. ...
  • Self-Blame. ...
  • Addiction.
Nov 3, 2016


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