We don’t often talk about it, but we all experience feelings of shame at one point or another – times when we feel deficient, faulty or unworthy. When we feel ashamed, our inclination is to want to hide these feelings from others; we sometimes even want to hide them from ourselves, as shame is a particularly uncomfortable feeling state. However, as psychologist and researcher Brené Brown (who is known for her years of research on the topics of shame and vulnerability) explains, not talking about shame can actually make our feelings of shame worse over time: “No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it, the more you have it.” Although we don’t often discuss shame, there are several strategies that you can use in order to cope with feelings of shame—and even to use these feelings as an opportunity for growth. In today’s post, I’ll talk about what shame is, how it affects us, and how we can work to overcome feelings of shame—so that we can feel greater ease in who we are and how we experience the world around us.
Shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection? – Brene Brown
What is shame? Everyone experiences the emotion of shame from time to time: as Brown explains, “It’s universal; we all have it.” However, even though we all have the experience of feeling ashamed, it can sometimes be hard to tell how shame differs from related emotions, such as guilt. According to psychologist June Tangney, we experience guilt when we believe we have done something wrong. On the other hand, when we experience shame, we internalize this experience and feel bad about ourselves, as opposed to feeling bad about a specific thing we’ve done. People who feel ashamed often report feeling small and powerless. When we feel shame, we imagine how others would judge us, even if other people aren’t actually present. As Brown explains, shame involves worrying about being negatively evaluated or rejected by others: “Shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?”
Guilt and shame also differ in how they affect our behaviors. When people feel guilty, they typically respond by trying to apologize, change their behavior, or make things right. On the other hand, when people feel ashamed, they typically want to hide what they have done, sometimes even by withdrawing from social interactions. For example, someone feeling guilty about forgetting a close friend’s birthday might think, “I forgot something important” and take steps such as planning a belated birthday celebration. On the other hand, someone who felt ashamed about this same event might think, “I’m a bad friend” and avoid their friend in order to try to forget about what happened.
Where does shame come from? Shame can result from a variety of factors, from the family environment that one grows up in to the cultural messages that we are exposed to. The psychologist Richard Lazarus writes that we experience shame as a result of internalizing ideals from our parents: when we believe we have failed to live up to these ideals, we experience shame. Psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach writes that experiences of shame can also result from broader cultural messages, which often give us a set of impossibly high standards to live up to: “We were told to be special, to look a certain way, to act a certain way, to work harder, to win, to succeed, to make a difference, and not to be too demanding, shy or loud.” Because no one can succeed at all of these things all of the time, feeling shame is a common response. In particular, because of Western society’s focus on individualism, Brach points out that people in Western societies often feel ashamed when they need help from others.
How does shame affect us? Shame is a powerful and painful emotion, capable of shaping our subsequent behavior in numerous ways. When people feel ashamed, they often experience a variety of negative outcomes beyond the uncomfortable feelings. Over time, people who are “shame prone” (that is, they tend to feel shame more readily over a wide range of situations) can face problems in relationships and experience lower well-being. They may even be at risk for developing physical health problems.
- Difficulties in relationships. People experiencing shame often worry about social rejection and will sometimes take steps to avoid others when they feel this way. For example, researchers have found that participants who have to complete stressful tasks in the research lab prefer to wait with someone else—when you’re facing stress, you typically like having someone to keep you company. However, when people were anticipating an embarrassing task in the lab, they preferred to wait alone—presumably due to the shame that they anticipated feeling. Contrary to what we might expect, researchers have also found that people who are feeling shame can sometimes act in ways that are more self-focused, less empathetic, more hostile, and more likely to blame others—all tendencies that can have negative consequences for our interactions with others. Researchers have found that people who are prone to experiencing guilt are actually better at taking the perspective of others, which is an important component of empathy. However, people who are prone to shame tend to experience increased distress, which researchers hypothesize may interfere with perspective-taking. In other words, even though shame comes from people’s concerns about being rejected, shame can actually cause people to behave in ways that undermine their relationships.
- Lower well-being. Researchers have found that experiencing higher levels of shame is linked to lower well-being. People who are prone to shame report higher levels of depression and anxiety, have lower self-esteem, and are at greater risk for post-traumatic stress disorder and eating disorders.
- Consequences for health. People who experience shame may also be at greater risk for developing certain health problems. In one study, participants completed a series of difficult and stressful tasks in the research lab (such as doing mental math under a time limit). Half of the participants completed these tasks alone, while half completed the tasks while several panelists watched and evaluated them. Although both groups of participants found the task stressful, only those who completed the task with an audience also experienced increases in feelings of shame. Additionally, along with shame, this latter group also experienced increases in levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Because having chronically high levels of cortisol has been linked to a variety of medical conditions, it is possible that experiencing shame over longer periods of time could potentially increase the risk of experiencing health problems. Researchers have also found that experiencing shame is related to having higher levels of a particular component of the immune system called proinflammatory cytokines. At typical levels, proinflammatory cytokines are an important part of the immune system, but having higher levels of cytokines can predispose individuals to a variety of chronic health conditions.
“Fear of deficiency is a prison that prevents us from belonging to our world. Healing and freedom become possible as we include the shadow—the unwanted, unseen and unfelt parts of our being—in a wakeful and compassionate awareness.” – Tara Brach, Psychologist and Buddhist Teacher
How can we overcome shame?
Shame can be a response to worrying about rejection: when we are afraid of being rejected or judged, shame prevents us from letting others get close to us. And, if we let shame guide our actions, it can actually end up preventing us from living full lives and from forming close connections with others. As Brown explains, forming connections with others depends on being honest and vulnerable: “In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.” Shame, however, can prevent us from allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and can actually end up causing us to act in ways that undermine our relationships and well-being. Fortunately, however, there are several steps that you can take in order to overcome feelings of shame. It’s also important to remember that, if you feel ashamed from time to time, you’re not alone: everyone experiences it. If you’re looking to combat feelings of shame, consider trying the following steps:
- Embrace vulnerability. Sometimes, we may find ourselves holding others at a distance because we are afraid of being seen as vulnerable. However, as Brown explains, “Vulnerability is not weakness.” She points out the double-standard we set for ourselves, often worrying that we will be viewed as weak, while at the same time seeing others as courageous when they show the same vulnerability. For example, imagine that a friend confides in you that they’re facing an obstacle, such as health or relationship problems. In this situation, you’re unlikely to think of your friend as weak—you’re far more likely to think about how strong they are for trying to cope with this problem. In other words, we’re often far harsher on ourselves than we would be toward other people, and it’s important to remember that others are much less likely than we think to judge us for showing vulnerability. It can feel scary to show ourselves, but that this very act is what facilitates intimacy with others—the cornerstone to a grounded, meaningful, happy life.
- Focus on others. When we feel ashamed, we tend to focus on ourselves—we worry about how others view us and fear being rejected. This self-focus can cause us to be less empathetic because we are so focused on our own behavior. However, by taking some of the focus off of ourselves and extending empathy to others, we can work to overcome shame: as Brown explains, “Empathy’s the antidote to shame.” Research has found that, when we help others, we build stronger social relationships and feel a greater sense of meaning in life.
- Work to change how you think about events. Shame can result from that “inner voice” in our heads that interprets events that happen in our lives. Researchers have found that shame involves a particular appraisal processes. People who are prone to shame tend to make a specific set of attributions for negative events: they see these events as internal (something they did caused the event), stable (this type of outcome will happen again next time), and global (this outcome will occur for many types of events). For example, someone who is prone to shame and fails a test might blame themselves (an internal attribution), believe they will fail the next test as well (a stable attribution), and worry they won’t succeed at other tasks (a global attribution). However, cognitive behavioral therapy can work to change these inner thoughts and beliefs and to develop more beneficial ways of thinking about situations. For example, someone who is prone to shame might blame themselves for a failure or think, “I always fail at these types of things.” Through cognitive behavioral therapy, an individual could work to reframe this event (for example, by reminding themselves that even successful people still experience setbacks from time to time).
When you experience shame, it’s easy to feel alone—however, shame is an emotion that we all experience at times. Even though shame can have negative effects on us, there are several strategies that we can use in order to mitigate feelings of shame. By accepting and becoming more comfortable with vulnerability, focusing on showing empathy towards others (as opposed to trying to save face or prove ourselves), and changing how we interpret events, we can work to overcome shame and even find ways to grow from the experience.
- Brown, B (2010). The power of vulnerability. TEDxHouston: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability/
- Tangney, J. P., Wagner, P., & Gramzow, R. (1992). Proneness to shame, proneness to guilt, and psychopathology. Journal of abnormal psychology, 101(3), 469-478.
- Lazarus, R.S. (1991). Emotion and adaptation. Oxford University Press.
- Tangney, J.P., & Tracy, J. (2011). Self-conscious emotions. In M. Leary & J.P. Tangney, (Eds), Handbook of self and identity. New York: Guilford Press.
- Leith, K. P., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Empathy, shame, guilt, and narratives of interpersonal conflicts: guilt‐prone people are better at perspective taking. Journal of Personality, 66(1), 1-37.
- Gruenewald, T. L., Kemeny, M. E., Aziz, N., & Fahey, J. L. (2004). Acute threat to the social self: shame, social self-esteem, and cortisol activity. Psychosomatic medicine, 66(6), 915-924.
- Dickerson, S. S., Gable, S. L., Irwin, M. R., Aziz, N., & Kemeny, M. E. (2009). Social-Evaluative Threat and Proinflammatory Cytokine Regulation: An Experimental Laboratory Investigation. Psychological Science, 20(10), 1237–1244.
- Brown, B (2012). “Listening to shame.” TED: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame
- Brach, T. (2001). Awakening from the Trance of Unworthiness. https://www.tarabrach.com/articles-interviews/inquiring-trance/
About this Contributor: Elizabeth Hopper received her PhD in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she conducted research on positive psychology and gratitude. Prior to attending UCSB, she received her BA in Psychology and Peace & Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and worked in a research lab at UC San Francisco studying health psychology. Her research interests include gratitude, positive emotions, close relationships, and health. When she’s not writing about psychology, Elizabeth can often be found exploring the Bay Area and spending time with her dog, Luna.