How to Stop Feeling Shame and Liberate Yourself from Its Burden
When we look at our lives, we see it in close-up. We carry the burden of our past, we engage in negative self-talk, we see ourselves from a certain fixed perspective. We let our perceptions and emotions rule our days and define our judgments. One of the most important aspects of reaching for external help — be it the help of a friend, a coach or a therapist — is that we voluntarily give up our single-aspect views of our lives and let an external observer help us see what we can’t.
When I was working with coaching clients, their main praise usually was that I was able to point out patterns and recurring frustrations easily from what they chose to disclose with me. It was easy. I was just listening, taking notes and noticed the repeating patterns in their speech. They were making it easy for me — the human mind circles around what is bugging it, trying to find a way to crack it — without even noticing the effort.
When it comes to my own life, I am doing the same. I am circling back to topics and frustrations; I am repeating my observations about emotions and impressions — without noticing how much they bother me.
At my last therapy session, my therapist made an observation and phrased it as a question: Have you felt shame a lot in your life? My expression blanked. I never thought of it before, but apparently whatever I was saying was carrying a hint of shame — about myself, about my childhood, about my current situation and my decisions that led here.
I nodded and admitted that shame is a recurring feeling for me — it has always been one.
“This is where we’ll start.” My therapist told me before closing the session. Digging into the feeling of shame.
Shame is a painful emotion. Difficult to handle and even more difficult to recognise — for we strive to find an explanation for its debilitating weight. We look for a reason, we look for factors that justify it because admitting that we are feeling shame is hard. It is a feeling that we are forcing on ourselves to explain the hurt and pain that we were subject to and more often than not, we find this reason lies within ourselves.
Shame hides in the dark corners of your mind, outside of the conscious awareness — yet it guides you and defines how you treat yourself, how you treat others, how you handle your relationships. It is behind your self-esteem, your inner critique, your feelings of being undeserving and unworthy.
It is often confused with embarrassment or guilt. But it’s deeper than those.
Embarrassment is the fleeting feeling when the outside world doesn’t see us as we want it. When we accidentally trip and almost fall on our face; when we wave to a stranger and then try to hide it; when we have toilet paper stuck to our shoes; when we mix up two words and we momentarily become ridiculous. Cheeks burning, stuttering, looking away and escaping the uncomfortable situation. It is temporary and as soon as the situation is over, we let it go. It has nothing to with our character or our abilities. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s not a big deal.
Guilt arises when we believe that our behaviour or actions don’t match with a societal, communal, personal or moral code. We feel guilty when we lie to our friends instead of telling them the real reason why we don’t want to go out. We feel guilty when we skip the morning exercise or when we hit the snooze button one too many time. Or when we yell at our kids, unlike other good parents. It can feel terrible for a long time, but it can go away when we come clean about it, when we change the behaviour or when we allow ourselves to rewrite the perceived rule.
Shame is a more permanent feeling — and there is no coming clean about it. It arises when we feel that we are wrong. Not the situation, not the behaviour versus code, but the problem is with us.
Shame might root from childhood, for children can’t tell the difference between their self-image and their feelings, so when they experience bad feelings they can come to the conclusion that they are bad. If parents are unloving or absent or they fail to validate the emotions of their children, they will come to believe that when anything bad happens to them is their fault.
If a child is continuously exposed to feeling embarrassed for their circumstances or their parents, the embarrassment turns into shame — linking the feeling to their own behaviour. This is why children of divorced parents can believe that the divorce was their fault. That’s why daughters of unloving parents will fall into a pattern of abusive relationships — for the lack of love feels as if they deserved it for whatever they have done.
You can carry shame with you for decades without even realising the root causes or even its existence.
Shame can also come from comparing yourself to others — and failing to show similar accomplishments. Even if we know that social media is a curated library of human experiences, the flood of happy, positive and successful images make us feel inept — for we see that our own lives are far from being perfect. Knowing how fake social media is doesn’t help the development of inept feelings.
The superficial values that our society values can also cause a breach in what we want and what we have — causing shame and making us feel less worthy. Think about small talk in any situation. It is about work and accomplishments and relationships and kids. If a woman in her mid-thirties is childfree the question will surely come up: Don’t you want kids? In any conversation there will be a hint to your relationship status: Are you seeing anyone? If you don’t work in a conventional 9–5 setup, someone will suggest you should get a proper job.
All rooted in beliefs and societal codes, that you permanently fail to meet — they can cause embarrassment at first, that can turn into shame if you get flooded with the same suggestions and disbelieving head shakes. When you come to internalise the feeling and when you believe that the problem lies with you — that’s when shame starts. And instead of dealing with it, we usually try to hide it. We mask it, we pretend that we don’t care, that we aren’t affected by it, that we are better than being dragged down by something unimportant.
Yet it can eat you away from the inside. When you constantly feel that you can’t match the expectations of the world — whether it’s true or perceived — it starts to chip away your self-esteem and question your worth. Hiding it makes it even worse for its secretive manner justifies further self-shaming.
So, how can you move past your shame to free yourself?
1. Keep a shame diary for a few weeks
Jot down the feelings of ineptitude or feeling wrong whenever something comes up. Try to notice the patterns. What is it related to? To your personality? To your looks? To your persistence? Why do you feel shame mostly? How does it feel? What are the physical symptoms, what are the mental patterns?
Example: My shameful moments are coming from feeling unappreciated. I believe that in order to be worthy of other people’s attention and love, I need to be always there for them. And if I am not, they will abandon me. I link my worth to external validation. I feel ashamed if I say something wrong or if I am late, or if I don’t get a reply to my questions immediately.
2. Get ready to dig deep
If you identify a few territories where you constantly berate yourself for being wrong, dig deep and have a look at why this feeling might be there. Try to identify the narrative that you keep telling yourself about yourself. It is a story where you are not the hero, but the villain — but what is the story? Find it!
Example: My story is that I deserve to be abandoned, for I am not good enough to be around. I am not funny enough. Not smart enough. Not pretty enough. I am telling myself a story where only the perfect deserves love — and I look for evidence to prove my theory. And of course, I find it.
3. Change the way you talk to yourself
Once you get to your story, observe how you talk to yourself in it. Are you shrugging your own thoughts away, saying it’s unimportant? Are you stopping yourself from expressing your emotions, thinking no one would care? Are you telling yourself you are worthless or ugly or too much? How do you talk to yourself that keeps you in the feedback loop of shame?
Example: I keep telling myself the same sentences. It’s sarcastic self-talk that says: Of course, they don’t do this or that. What did you expect? It is important to see that my shame is rooted in how I think others see me, without having any evidence that they see me that way. I am projecting my thoughts on how people view me, based on how I view myself.
4. Identify the triggers
You need to understand what your triggers are. Is it something external? Is it someone? Is it a typical behaviour from someone? Or is it coming from you as a response? Try to identify what makes you feel ashamed. If you already identified the physical signs, look for them and check what makes you tick. Sometimes we realise only later that we started to feel shame in a certain situation, as our routine behaviour will help us get through anything, leaving us frustrated only later.
Example: My trigger is silence and no response. I start to get anxious first and then I start to overthink it. It’s the physical anxiety that comes first, not the mental response of worrying.
5. Identify your fear
What does your trigger mean to you? What kind of fear can it suggest? Fear and shame often go hand in hand — understanding the underlying fear can help to give a different meaning to the trigger as well.
Example: My fear is being abandoned and ridiculed. I felt abandoned in lots of human relationships and I have trust issues. I need to make peace with silence and the lack of response, as it has nothing to do with my worth and it is entirely about someone else’s choice of reaction.
6. Allow yourself to be imperfect
When we feel ashamed it usually means that we fail to live up to some kind of perceived image of ourselves — be it coming from within ourselves or from outside. We internalise the failure and we beat ourselves up for not being good or perfect. The first step towards curing shame is to let go of the internalised distorted expectation. We need to allow ourselves to be human and thus imperfect. Settling for making the best out of a situation, finding a good enough solution, doing one small step should be enough to make us feel good about ourselves without the weight of unattainable perfection.
Example: My distorted perfect image is the picture of someone who is always appreciated by others, who is always surrounded by loving and caring individuals. When I fail to get the right amount of external validation, it undermines my self-esteem and makes me question my overall worth.
7. Be very honest but kind with yourself
The distorted image that we fail to accomplish is usually based on a superficial value or a deep-rooted trauma. It is important to examine our real values and filter out the useless ones. Popularity, wealth, sexual gratification are not real values to follow — they are merely a by-product of our lives if we are doing what’s right. Integrity, honesty, creativity are long-standing real values to measure us against. We need to be very honest when trying to figure out if we pursue the right things in life.
Example: My value of not being abandoned is not a real value. My so-called popularity has nothing to do with my worth as a person — it is but a vanity metric that became way too popular. I need to focus on my integrity and choose myself a lot more to be able to live without shaming myself and berating myself for not meeting impossible standards.
For our knee-jerk reaction is to suppress our shame to make our lives seemingly easier, the crucial point in getting rid of it is to recognise when we are ashamed and then to try to understand why we feel that way. It’s not all downhill from there, but the most difficult part is going to be over. Self-reflection will help you figure it out and you can get to the depths of it.
If your shame is rooted in trauma, I’d strongly suggest seeking professional help — for it might be too big for you to process it alone.