What is shame? Examples, causes, and how to heal
Reviewed by Theresa Fry, LPC, NCC, CTP-CE
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 08/15/2023
Feelings of guilt are a normal part of the wide range of human emotions. When you do something wrong or bad, feeling guilty helps encourage you to right your wrongs and avoid the behavior again. However, people sometimes surpass guilt and find themselves engulfed in a sense of shame.
What Is Shame?
Shame is when you equate a negative thing you’ve done with who you are as a person. Feelings of shame aren’t productive and have a negative impact on your mental health and well-being.
People who experience shame often can’t tell the difference between guilt and shame. To them, they are the same thing. This isn’t true. There are distinct differences between guilty feelings and shameful feelings.
Shame vs. Guilt: What’s the Difference?
When you feel guilty, you are recognizing that you have done something bad. Guilt doesn’t change the way you think about yourself. You simply feel bad for having done something unhelpful or harmful, and you know that it’s not a reflection of who you are as a person.
On the other hand, feelings of shame are more complex. Shame affects your self-esteem in ways that guilt can’t. Instead of feeling bad about doing a bad thing, shame makes you feel unworthy or bad about yourself. In other words, shame makes you feel like a bad person instead of a person who has done a bad thing.
Where Does Shame Come From?
The reasons people experience shame are different. Studies show that people of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds feel shame. However, the reasons you experience shame may be influenced by your culture or community. There are several external factors that may trigger feelings of shame:
- Cultural norms: Cultural norms can cause feelings of shame if you don’t fit into the ideal of what is socially acceptable in your community. These norms include expectations based on your gender, race, ability, class, and sexuality.
- Religious conditioning: Religious conditioning can encourage feelings of shame for actions that violate your beliefs. Committing sins or participating in activities that aren’t accepted by your religion can trigger feelings of shame.
- Trauma and abuse: Trauma and abuse survivors are also more susceptible to feelings of shame. These feelings can carry well into adulthood, impacting the relationships that survivors have with other people. Shame is especially common among those who have been sexually assaulted.
- External reminders: External reminders of shortcomings and failures can stir up feelings of shame. For example, the sight of your wedding band may trigger feelings of shame after you cheated on your spouse.
- Internal factors: If you suffer from a mental health disorder, you are more likely to feel shame than someone who doesn’t. Sometimes, this shame is a direct result of experiencing the stigma associated with mental illness. In other cases, your altered state of mind causes you to feel shame because your mood is already low.
Examples of Shame
Feelings of shame come from external sources. This is typically intentional in nature, although unintentional shaming can be just as devastating. There are many different ways shame is used by others and by oneself.
Shame as Influence
Sometimes, people use shame in the hopes of influencing others toward change. However, research shows that shame is not an effective motivator.
Believing you are inherently bad, like shame teaches, actually makes it harder to envision yourself making better or healthier choices. One study showed that people who struggled with addiction were actually more likely to relapse when shamed for their addictive behaviors.1
Shame as Control
Often, people use shame as a method of control. You can see this at work in group settings that put an unhealthy emphasis on who is “in” and who is “out.” The fear of being ostracized and shamed for not living up to expectations is used to “keep people in line,” so to speak.
Whether in a workplace, church, political party, neighborhood, school, family, or friend group, using shame is not healthy or sustainable. Shame contributes to many societal ills, such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, classism, and ableism.
Shame as Stigma
Shame is at the root of stigma. Stigma designates some parts of life as taboo, shameful, or unacceptable.
Like shame that tries to influence or control, stigma has rules for what is “allowed” and what is not. However, what makes it different is that stigma’s primary power is silence. What is stigmatized is often left unspoken and unaddressed.
Mental health disorders often carry stigmas, despite extensive efforts to normalize and promote acceptance. This has real-world consequences. Because of mental health stigma, mental health education is lacking, and people who want mental health treatment may feel that it is too great of a risk to pursue.
Shame starts from external sources, but it can quickly become an internalized process. To protect yourself, your brain may use shame to make sure you don’t become ostracized from your family, friends, or community. This can cause you to suppress who you truly are in order to “belong,” leading to low self-esteem and other mental health issues.
Many people who struggle with anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders also struggle with internalized shame. The stigma of mental health disorders starts externally but quickly becomes a self-perpetuating, internal process. Likewise, people who identify as LGBTQIA+ may struggle with internalized homophobia, another form of self-inflicted shame.
Does Shame Work?
When people shame others, it’s usually because they are trying to make them change in some way. Even if shame causes short-term change as the target tries to stop the personal attack, it doesn’t produce long-lasting or healthy changes.
Dangers of Shame
Shame has a wide variety of negative outcomes. People who feel shame are at higher risk for:
Shame can prevent people from seeking help through therapy or other support because they feel judged or worthless. Without help, people who have been shamed may turn to shame as a tool to influence or control others. As a result, the consequences of shame can compound into larger issues.
How to Heal from Shame
Shame Resilience Theory
The shame resilience theory, developed by Brené Brown, PhD, helps people who suffer from feelings of shame to cultivate positive feelings.2 There are four steps to developing shame resilience:
- Identify and understand your shame triggers.
- Recognize the external elements that cause your feelings of shame.
- Develop relationships with people who can empathize with you.
- Talk to other people about your shame.
These steps will help you build relationships based on vulnerability and empathy. Positive feelings like these can help you overcome your feelings of shame, while also allowing you to help others cope with their feelings of shame.
How to Deal with Shame in the Moment
Dealing with shame can feel next to impossible in the moment. When shame does strike, take a moment to recognize your triggers. Your shame may be an escalation from feelings of embarrassment or humiliation. Identifying the underlying emotion can help you reduce your shame while you reconcile it.
You can also seek out evidence contrary to your feelings of shame. Recalling the good things you’ve done can help you clarify that you’re not a bad person. Then, you’ll be able to remember that the cause of your shame doesn’t define who you are.
Talking to someone is an excellent way to confront and eventually resolve your feelings of shame. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), family therapy, couples therapy, acceptance & commitment therapy (ACT), and other types of talk therapy can help you get started.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.