Shame, a Powerful, Painful and Potentially Dangerous Emotion

R. Skip Johnson

Unlike guilt, which is the feeling of doing something wrong, shame is the feeling of being something wrong.

Shame is increasingly being recognized as a powerful, painful and potentially dangerous emotion - especially for those who don’t understand its origins or know how to manage through it.  Shame plays an important role in social phobias, eating disorders, domestic violence, substance abuse, road rage, schoolyard and workplace rampages, sexual offenses and a host of other personal and social problems. It’s the root of dysfunctions in families.

Problems occur when shame or humiliation becomes an integral part of a person’s self-image or sense of self-worth. 

According to Marilyn J. Sorensen, Ph.D., author of Breaking the Chain of Low Self-Esteem "individuals develop an internalized view of themselves, early in life, as adequate or inadequate within the world. Children who are continually criticized, severely punished, neglected, abandoned, or in other ways mistreated get the message that they are inadequate, inferior or unworthy.”  These feelings of inferiority are the genesis of low self-esteem. When a person experiences shame, they feel that there is something basically wrong with them.

Shame is a common emotional response in adult children of alcoholic parents, as well as those who grew up with depressed parents, abuse, religious fanaticism, war, cultural oppression, or adult or sibling death.  All of these experiences cause an individual to feel vulnerable, helpless and shamed.

Dealing With Shame

Deep rooted emotions are not easy to change. Of course, neither is learning to play concert piano.  It takes work and time and there is no simple formula.  It is important to be a good advocate for yourself in your journey toward healing from shame.  

Most shame therapies follow a model that look something like this:

Discover the origins  It is important to discover the origins of our shame.  How did it start?  How do I perpetuate it? 

Forgive yourself  It is important to forgive yourself for your past so that you can move on. 

Accept yourself  Find ways to be loving toward you including accepting that you are human and that you have limitations.  When you act in ways that you don’t like, be curious about it rather than critical.  Instead of saying “Why did you do that?” in a critical way, try to ask the same question with an openness and a curiosity.  You will find out much more about yourself by observing and gathering information instead of criticizing. 

Take a stand against shame  Do not shame others. Do not shame yourself.  Make shaming a behavior that is simply unacceptable; forbidden.  Challenge yourself and challenge others when they are shaming. If we treat ourselves and others with respect, we develop more pride and self-esteem.

Act Like a Person Without Shame  Begin to act in ways that demonstrate that you are a person of worth and value - not someone shamed. Be who you deserve to be. Even if we feel like we are not good enough, push forward as a person of worth and value.  This essentially sends a message back to ourselves that counteracts the shame.    

Characteristics of Shame

Some characteristics of adults shamed in childhood from "Shame & Guilt: Masters of Disguise” by Jane Middelton-Moz.

  1. Adults shamed as children are afraid of vulnerability and fear of exposure of the self.
  1. Adults shamed as children may suffer extreme shyness, embarrassment and feelings of being inferior to others. They don't believe they make mistakes. Instead they believe they are mistakes.
  1. Adults shamed as children fear intimacy and tend to avoid real commitment in relationships. These adults frequently express the feeling that one foot is out of the door prepared to run.
  1. Adults shamed as children may appear either grandiose and self-centered or seem selfless.
  1. Adults shamed as children feel that, "No matter what I do, it won't make a difference; I am and always will be worthless and unlovable."
  1. Adults shamed as children frequently feel defensive when even a minor negative feedback is given. They suffer feelings of severe humiliation if forced to look at mistakes or imperfections.
  1. Adults shamed as children frequently blame others before they can be blamed.
  1. Adults shamed as children may suffer from debilitating guilt These individuals apologize constantly. They assume responsibility for the behavior of those around them.
  1. Adults shamed as children feel like outsiders. They feel a pervasive sense of loneliness throughout their lives, even when surrounded with those who love and care.
  1. Adults shamed as children project their beliefs about themselves onto others. They engage in mind-reading that is not in their favor, consistently feeling judged by others.
  1. Adults shamed as children often feel ugly, flawed and imperfect. These feelings regarding self may lead to focus on clothing and make-up in an attempt to hide flaws in personal appearance and self.
  1. Adults shamed as children often feel angry and judgmental towards the qualities in others that they feel ashamed of in themselves. This can lead to shaming others.
  1. Adults shamed as children often feel controlled from the outside as well as from within. Normal spontaneous expression is blocked.
  1. Adults shamed as children feel they must do things perfectly or not at all. This internalized belief frequently leads to performance anxiety and procrastination.
  1. Adults shamed as children experience depression.
  1. Adults shamed as children block their feelings of shame through compulsive behaviors like workaholis, eating disorders, shopping, substance abuse, list-making or gambling.
  1. Adults shamed as children lie to themselves and others.
  1. Adults shamed as children often have caseloads rather than friendships.
  1. Adults shamed as children often involve themselves in compulsive processing of past interactions and events and intellectualization as a defense against pain.
  1. Adults shamed as children have little sense of emotional boundaries. They feel constantly violated by others. They frequently build false boundaries through walls, rage, pleasing or isolation.
  1. Adults shamed as children are stuck in dependency or counter-dependency.

Last modified: 
October 06, 2018