What is shame?

Humantold August 23, 2022

Shame is perhaps the most powerful emotion we feel, and, as a result, can be one of the hardest feelings to own out loud. It’s much easier to say, “I’m sad,” or “I’m mad,” than to say, “I feel a lot of shame about what I did.” So why is that?

Shame is hard to understand, but something we do know is that it’s closely related to mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety disorders. Here, we’ll explore some of the reasons why shame is difficult, and lift the veil on this challenging emotion.

What is shame?

At its root, shame is a response we feel when we break a social norm. It can be best described as a feeling of deep embarrassment that arises when we do something we feel—or is socially defined as—unacceptable, immoral, or wrong. 

There are distinctions between temporary and chronic shame. Temporary shame might happen when we briefly feel embarrassed in response to making a mistake, like forgetting a work task or calling someone by the wrong name. Chronic shame is a deeper feeling that can become internalized. This becomes problematic when internalized shame causes a person to be a harsh critic of themselves. 

What does shame feel like?

There’s a long list of “symptoms” that could accompany shame. Below is a list from psychiatrist Peter Breggin, as published in his book Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety:

  • Feeling sensitive
  • Feeling unappreciated
  • Feeling used
  • Feeling rejected 
  • Feeling like you have little impact 
  • Being worried what others think about you 
  • Feeling like others take advantage of you 
  • Being afraid to look inappropriate or stupid 
  • Losing your identity
  • Feeling inadequate 
  • Feelings of regret

What causes shame?

While breaking a social or personal norm can cause shame, shame can also have deeper roots. Here are a few potential causes of shame:

  • Childhood trauma or neglect
  • A mental health disorder that involves self-criticism
  • Not living up to overly high standards
  • Being the victim of bullying
  • Rejection from others or weakening of a relationship 

Why is shame so difficult?

Shame is deeply personal, and, as listed above, can have deep roots. Shame stemming from a feeling of inadequacy can have greater impacts on your life than a simple moment of embarrassment. The impacts of shame can also be quite serious, such as social withdrawal, depression, anxiety, lowered self esteem, and difficulty trusting other people. 

However, nearly everyone feels shame at one point or another—there’s even evidence to suggest that babies feel shame before they ever learn about social or personal norms. Try to avoid hiding from or burying shame. There are a few healthy ways to cope with feelings of shame that may make this intense feeling less difficult. 

How do I cope with shame?

First, it’s good to understand where your shame is coming from. Did you do something you regret, or are you harshly judging yourself over an anodyne situation? Try to establish how you feel normally, and then try to identify what triggers shame. How do you react or feel when shame arises? Explore the feelings in an effort to understand them.

Then acknowledge that everyone feels shame, and while it may feel natural to put up barriers or defenses, it’s healthier to embrace your shame in a safe and loving environment. Talk about the fact that you feel shame, and why. If you’re uncomfortable doing so around friends and loved ones, a therapist can always help you untangle the messy roots of shame. 

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