Everyone feels shamed or ashamed sometimes. No one wants to talk about it though! So we don’t really know what these feelings mean and what we can do about them. I have been studying shame for over two decades now, working with people’s shame as a social worker for over 15 years, and researching shame as an academic for over a decade. In this article, I will detail what shame is, what feeling shamed and ashamed means, and what you can do about them to feel better and become a more confident and better person.
Shame is a painful feeling that there is something inherently wrong with you. Feeling shamed comes from someone else making you feel this, while feeling ashamed comes from something you have done, said, thought, or felt, which makes you feel there is something wrong with you. Both, feeling shamed and ashamed, relates to how you think and feel about yourself AND how you think and feel about your relationships. Shame is not only that you feel inadequate, bad, and wrong, but that you feel these things in relation to others. Feeling shame can erode your self-esteem and sense of worthiness. To be able to turn shame from a toxic experience into an opportunity for personal development we need self-awareness and emotional honesty, social acceptance and support, and healthy boundaries and a commitment to growth.
What shame is
Shame is a painful emotional experience. I say an emotional experience, rather than an emotion, because it is a complex experience that includes your own bodily sensations, your thoughts about yourself and others, how you see yourself in the moment, your thoughts and feelings about your past experiences of shame, your ideas about your social position, your ideas about how others see you in that moment, your ideas about how others will see you in the future, your ideas about how you want to be seen now and in the future, your ideas about how you believe you should be perceived by others now and in the future, and so on.
Shame is the experience of the whole range of these complex thoughts, feelings, and actions all coming together at the same time to feel that there is something wrong with you at that moment.
When we feel ashamed we are focused on something that we have said, done, thought, or felt that has brought all of these things together to make us feel like there is something wrong with who we are. Other people may be involved but the main focus is on how stupid, foolish, and pathetic we feel because of something about ourselves.
When we feel shamed we are focused on something that someone else has said or done that has made us feel inadequate. We may feel, in that moment, that there is something wrong with us, but it stems from the interaction with another person.
Both feeling shamed and feeling ashamed stem from the first main component of shame: Exposure.
Exposure and shame
We are not feeling shame all the time – thankfully! So to feel shame, either through being shamed or feeling ashamed, is to expose a flaw in who we are.
This exposure can be unexpected, in that we hadn’t realised until just that moment that we do, in fact, have a fundamental flaw.
But it can also be an exposure of an underlying fundamental belief about the self. If we have experienced trauma, abuse, neglect, or other significant events that left us with a sense of inadequacy or unworthiness then that belief can be exposed in almost any situation.
Shame is most painful when we believe that that exposure of inadequacy and/or inferiority is valid and that we deserve to be looked down on and treated as less than human.
This leads us to the second component of the experience of shame: Rejection.
Rejection and shame
Rejection is not the same as shame but it is linked.
Rejection is a painful emotional experience of being excluded by a person or a group of other people.
Shame can feel even worse when it is accompanied by rejection.
Feeling shamed is often accompanied by a feeling of rejection because we feel the other person treats us badly because there is something wrong with us.
Feeling ashamed can be accompanied by a feeling of rejection because we believe there is a reason that others should or would reject us.
There are few experiences as painful as feeling that we are flawed and that other people don’t want us because of that flaw.
Which leads us to a third component of shame; the two types of shame: Healthy shame and toxic shame.
There is debate in the literature about whether shame can be healthy or not.
It is undeniable though that shame plays a big role in our own evaluation of all aspects of ourselves. It is possible, and indeed there is research to support the idea, that we can use that evaluation to develop, grow and improve as a person.
You have probably experienced this yourself. We have all felt shame and we have all done things to try and not feel like that again. One of the ways of avoiding shame is to improve on our flaws and weaknesses so that they do not induce shame when exposed.
Maybe we stole something as a child. Maybe we said mean and nasty things to our partner or children. Maybe we physically hurt someone. All of these things may make us feel ashamed and so we didn’t steal again, or we worked at being a better partner or parent, or we improved the way we deal with our anger.
So feeling ashamed may feel bad but it is not all bad! It can in fact help us work out what kind of person we want to be.
Toxic shame is a term used mainly in self-help books to relate to that feeling that there is something inherently wrong with us and that instead of this spurring us onto improving ourselves in some way, actually erodes the very foundations of the self.
When shame is overwhelming because it is just too much to take and/or we do not have the skills or resources to deal with the issues we are facing, shame can become toxic.
Being abused, neglected, or traumatised, for example, often leave us facing questions about how worthy we are, how loveable we are, or how moral we are.
No one should expect a person to be able to deal with these issues well, let alone deal with them on their own. Those cruel words and actions and our inability to combat them only lead to self-doubt, self-judgement, and self-criticism leaving no ability to build a sense of self on the foundations of confidence, worthiness, and autonomy.
Circumstances can make shame toxic too. If we are feeling emotionally exhausted we may not be able to deal with feeling shamed or ashamed as well as we might when we aren’t. If we live in poverty and have to face the challenges of getting by with little money and support in a deprived neighbourhood we might not be able to deal with feeling shame as well as someone with more money in a more affluent area. It doesn’t take long before we start to blame ourselves for not being able to do things better, to provide for our children, for taking action that we had to to provide for our children, for hiding aspects of our lives for fear of judgement, etc.
Feeling shame, whether that is shamed or ashamed, in many circumstances is indeed toxic. But it is usually most toxic when we feel shame a lot.
Which leads us to the fourth component of experiencing shame: how shame influences who we are and what we do.
How shame influences who we are and what we do
Because shame is inherently about our self and our belief that we are less than others, feeling shame erodes our confidence to do things and our perception of ourselves. We can start to cover up our perceived failings for fear that others would look down on us if they really knew about us. We can present a particular version of ourselves to others in the hope that they will like what they see. But none of this leaves us feeling really known and loved because we don’t allow people to know and love us for who we really are.
Because we are very self-conscious in an experience of shame, it makes us do things differently. We may not want to take a risk that could actually result in a huge improvement in our lives for fear of being seen to be inferior. We may not ask that person we really like out on a date. We may not apply for that job that excites us. We may not have that conversation with the person we love that may deepen and strengthen our relationship.
Shame can keep us small, stop us from doing what we really want in life, stop us from entering relationships or making our relationships what we really want, and it leaves us feeling that there is something missing in life.
We can now consider the fifth component of experiencing shame: shame-proneness.
Being prone to feeling shame
Shame-proneness is a term used in psychology to mean how likely a person is to feel shame. A person can be more likely to feel shame in a situation than others, termed highly shame-prone people, or less likely.
It is possible that some people are just born with a greater sensitivity to feeling shame, but most of the time a person is highly shame-prone because of their own personal experiences.
If we experience shame a lot, we end up being more likely to feel shame in the future.
If we experience shame a lot as a child, we are much more likely to feel shame in childhood and adulthood.
What the research shows is that these following things are highly correlated with being prone to feeling shame (meaning they are linked):
- Poor interpersonal skills
- Increased feelings of anger and hostility
- Maladaptive strategies for managing anger
- Eating disorders
- Sub-clinical sociopathy (this refers to individuals who exhibit many of the characteristics of psychopathy, except for some of the more severe antisocial behaviours)
- Low self-esteem
- Substance use
In adulthood, being prone to feeling shame is correlated with:
- Dysfunctional family environments
- Co-dependent relationships
- Parental put-downs
- Parental protection (over control)
- Lack of parental care (towards children)
- Harsh and inconsistent parenting
- Parentification of children (the process whereby a child is obliged to act as a parent to their own parent or sibling)
- Emotional abusiveness
- Domestic violence (perpetrators of DV particularly shame-prone)
- Borderline Personality Disorder
- Self-Inflicted Injury
What all of these things have in common is an underlying belief of being somehow less than others, mainly because they have been made to feel this way in their formative years so now they carry with them a sense that they are less than human.
In the research the ‘gold-standard’ test for identifying how shame-prone a person is, is called the Test of Self-Conscious Affect version 3 (or TOSCA-3 for short) (it also tests for things other than just shame-proneness). It is available for free in the back of June Tangney and Ronda Dearing’s book.
In understanding our experiences of shame and being able to turn them from toxic experiences into opportunities to become a more confident person, we have to understand the sixth component of experiencing shame: power.
Shame and power
Power is the ability to do something or act in particular ways. Power does not, by definition, have to affect or influence others but it is most commonly associated with that because that is where it is really felt. We know someone has power when they use it around or against us.
To feel shame we have to perceive ourselves as somehow inferior in the eyes of others and believe it. For this to happen we either do something ourselves, and feel ashamed, or someone else does something which changes how we perceive ourselves in that situation, and feel shamed. Being shamed is an act of power.
Someone can try to shame us by saying or doing something but it does not always mean we will feel shamed. It is when they have the power to change how we see things that we are shamed.
Shame is a very effective tool to get people to do things in an attempt to avoid feeling it, which is why it is used by politicians, journalists, newspaper editors, and brand marketing campaigns so extensively. All of these people have been given power in some way to influence and shape the story about a situation.
We can’t help but feel shamed if we read in the news that lots of people are looking down on us for some reason – like being overweight, unhealthy, for smoking, for example. You may think that we should shame people for these things, but by stripping these attributes out of their context we risk abusing power as more often than not these attributes are linked to other issues like class, race, gender, poverty, sexuality, and disability.
This brings us to the relationship between shame and humiliation.
Shame and humiliation
Humiliation is not the same thing as shame, although they are similar in some ways.
Humiliation is hostile rejection without justification. By this I mean that if a person excludes us in an unfair manner and that we do not feel that there is justification for that exclusion we will feel humiliated.
If we did believe there was a reason for the exclusion, such as they had said we were fat and ugly and we believed that to be true, then we would feel shamed and probably ashamed. If we did not, then we are more likely to label that experience as humiliation. Usually, however, it is both shame and humiliation because we feel bad and feel the action was hostile and extreme.
Shame and embarrassment
Equally, embarrassment is not the same thing as shame, although they are similar in some ways.
Embarrassment is unwanted social exposure. By this I mean that when we have attention focused on us when we do not want it, we will feel embarrassed.
So embarrassment can be a painful experience, such as saying or doing something silly that other people laugh at. We may blush and feel hot, but we do not think there is something wrong with us because of it and others aren’t rejecting us because of it.
But embarrassment can be a strange sense of uncomfortable connection too. For example, you could have done well at something you tried really hard at and someone gives you lots of praise. The attention makes you feel closer to someone or a group and can make you feel good about yourself, but you can still feel uncomfortable about the attention.
While there are similarities and differences to shame and humiliation and embarrassment, we do display some common ways of defending against these experiences.
Which brings us to the seventh component of experiences of shame: Defenses against shame.
Defenses against shame
You may not even know you feel shamed or ashamed.
The American sociologist, Thomas Scheff, argues that shame is a taboo in our culture. We do not like to talk about it because the very act of admitting you feel shame can result in feeling ashamed. The result, according to Kaufman, an American psychologist, is that we develop defenses against feeling shame to insulate the self, create a protective cover, and keep others away.
These defenses are designed to predict and control scenes of shame:
- Striving for perfection
- Striving for power
- Transfer of blame
- Internal withdrawal
- Denial / forgetting
I personally like Linda Hartling and colleagues’ work on defenses against shame and humiliation. They argue that there are three forms of defenses:
- Moving Away: These are withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves and secret-keeping
- Moving Toward: These are attempting to earn connection by appeasing and pleasing
- Moving Against: These are trying to gain power over others, using shame to fight shame and aggression
Putting all of these together you can see that you may feel shame but not really know it because your defenses against it just mean it is covered up in some way. You can address the presenting issue but it won’t resolve the problem because that isn’t the problem!
This leads us to the question of how do we address the problem?
What you can do about feeling shamed and/or ashamed
If we want to know ourselves and be known by others. If we want to truly love and be loved by others. And if we want to make the most of our lives and develop fulfilling relationships, then we need to face our shame.
This can be done with the following three attributes:
Self-awareness and emotional honesty
All personal development starts with self-awareness. We need to know about ourselves to understand our experiences and be able to use them as a source of knowledge and wisdom, to find our passion and strength, and to develop satisfying and fulfilling relationships.
Emotional honesty is the awareness to know how we feel and the courage to talk about it. We need to be honest about feeling shame if we want to stop it from influencing our lives and relationships.
By learning about ourselves, processing our experiences, and facing our shame, we can know what is our responsibility, what we need to apologise for, what we need to improve in ourselves, and what is not ours, who we need to hold to account, and what we need to fight for.
Shame is often the result of someone trying to assert or impose their own version of reality on to others and if we have not explored who we really are and faced our own shame we run the risk of accepting others’ reality as our own – at our own detriment.
Social acceptance and support
We cannot face our shame alone, certainly not the toxic form of shame that is not ours.
If you feel that there is something wrong with you, then it is hard to tell others about it, let alone those who you rely on and need.
We need to have others accept us for who we are and all of our experiences to really get that we are worthy and loveable. We need to take the first step of emotional honesty with those who we can trust. And we need those others to take a step towards us to show us we can trust them to take the next step. This process eventually leads to discovering more about who we are and developing confidence and courage to be ourselves, unburdened by the shame that has been eroding our self-belief.
Healthy boundaries and a commitment to growth.
Shame can teach us is that we are human and that some people can treat others in inhumane ways.
Because we are human, we will experience that sense of inferiority and inadequacy at different points in our lives. It may be painful but it does not mean we are unworthy and unlovable.
Because we are human, other people will try to impose their ideas and opinions on us and try to get us to bend to their will. Sometimes this ends up being abusive; sometimes this is unintentional but sometimes it is intentional.
In knowing who we are and having the support of a close group of people we can know when we are uncomfortable with how someone else is treating us. With self-awareness and emotional honesty we can communicate to others how we feel. But we also need to develop the ability to defend our boundaries to stay true to who we are and hold others to account for their behaviour where it becomes unacceptable or inappropriate.
By developing these healthy boundaries and being able to say what we want and need and by using our anger in healthy ways to defend our boundaries we can feel ashamed but not be overcome by it, we can be shamed but not be reduced by it, we can know shame and come to know ourselves in a much deeper, stronger, and more meaningful way.
To Sum Up
Shame may not be the most talked about emotion but it is possibly the most influential emotion of all. Because it is painful it can make us do things that aren’t good for us or our relationships.
If we do nothing about feeling ashamed or being shamed, the consequences can be that we end up feeling worthless and unlovable. We can take on the ideas and opinions of others. We can be made to feel things are our fault when they are not. Or we try to hide our mistakes rather than make amends when they are.
Feeling shame does not have to result in such outcomes. It does not have to end up feeling so heavy, devastating, and painful. In fact, doing something about our shame can set us free.
By this I mean that we do not have to carry the burden of shame because we can do something about it. We can speak up and speak out. We can own our mistakes and repair relationships. We can let go of toxic ideas and beliefs about ourselves. We can learn who we are and discover how to build deeper and more meaningful relationships through our shame.
We just have to be brave enough to take the first step.