The experience of shame—a feeling of being unworthy, bad, or wrong—can be extremely uncomfortable. Shame has the potential to change the way we see ourselves and may lead to long-lasting social, professional, and sexual difficulties and also affect other areas of life.
The word “shame” may mean different things to different people, and shame is different from guilt and embarrassment: Guilt is usually understood to involve negative feelings about an act one has committed, while embarrassment deals with a societal reaction. Shame, on the other hand, involves negative feelings about oneself, and although an individual can be shamed by peers or society in general, shame can also be experienced secretly.
Shame that does not resolve, that cannot seem to be diminished or altered, can become a cause for clinical concern, and individuals experiencing severe shame regarding a particular issue may find benefit in speaking to a therapist.
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Shame may serve a social function, especially in shame cultures such as Japan, by encouraging negative emotions as a consequence of certain behaviors, such as breaking sexual taboos, insulting a group member, or disobeying a traffic law. In a shame culture, an individual's fear of being shamed by society may prevent him or her from transgressing, as only time can repair the individual's offense. This differs from guilt cultures, in which an individual can generally atone for their wrongdoing with some form of penance.
Chronic shame usually originates in childhood, and uncovering the experiences that led to shame can help relieve it, as can engaging in new experiences that foster a sense of goodness and worth. Shame is sometimes rooted in experiences of a sexual nature that were, in the child’s perception or understanding, not accepted by or acceptable to adults. In other words, children who engage in sexual activities at a young age or who were abused sexually may develop a sense of shame about their role in these acts, especially if adults shame them on purpose or do not take steps to reassure them of their blamelessness in these acts and their innocence in the abuse.
Some level of shame often reveals itself in people engaged in therapy, and becoming aware of shame is generally the first step towards working through it.
Shame may last a brief time, or it may be a core experience of the self. For some people, feelings of shame may begin in childhood and continue well into adulthood. These individuals may be conscious of such feelings, and they may also experience depression or some form of anxiety as a result. They might also be unconscious of the shame and hide it under a mask of narcissism or extreme behaviors, such as addictions or episodes of anger. Shame can also lead to the development of self-harming behaviors and eating disorders.
Living with shame can be painful and difficult, as it can prevent people from meeting core needs, such as the maintenance of self-esteem, hope for the future, friendship and intimacy, productivity, and love.
Therapy can help people overcome feelings of shame by providing a healthy and objective perspective of the situation that causes them to feel shameful. People who have been abused, victimized, or harassed often feel shame to a significant degree. Life circumstances such as job loss, infidelity, divorce or even problematic children can cause someone to struggle with intense feelings of shame. Regardless of whether the shame is self-induced or the result of someone else’s actions, overwhelming shame can affect every area of a person’s life. Getting help for those feelings can provide freedom from shame.
Therapists can help people learn how to accept responsibility for their actions and put their shame and guilt into perspective. Additionally, therapists who work with survivors of abuse or those who feel ashamed of another's wrongdoing can help these individuals understand that they did not cause the trauma. This fundamental release of blame can help individuals to reach a point where they can liberate themselves from any negative effects shame, and conditions such as anxiety or depression that can result from it, might have on their lives.
- Shame after an affair: Trudy, 47, enters therapy due to anxiety and problems with her husband, to whom she has been married more than 20 years. Talking with the therapist, she is tearful, and soon begins to disclose that she had an affair very early in her marriage. The affair resulted in her becoming pregnant and having an abortion, and she has kept this secret for years and feels deeply ashamed. Therapy helps her achieve emotional release and move past her shame into remorse and self-forgiveness. She then resolves to disclose the secret to her husband. When she does so, he is hurt. This retriggers Trudy’s shame, but their relationship survives, and Trudy is eventually able to feel a sense of peace.
- Adult shame after childhood molestation: Pablo, 21, is starting to date seriously and finds himself very anxious and ashamed about sexual matters. After a few sessions with a therapist, he is able to disclose that he was a victim of sexual molestation 10 years earlier. Pablo feels very ashamed of this event, though he is not exactly sure why. The shame interferes with his ability to be relaxed with a partner. The therapist helps Pablo uncover and examine the beliefs that reinforce his shame, and he attempts to discard the beliefs that are untrue and unhelpful and develop new beliefs that more accurately reflect reality and lead to a stronger sense of self and hope.
- Bromberg, P. (2013, October 27). Reflections on Shame, Dissociation, and Eating Disorders. Retrieved March 20, 2015, from http://www.cgjungpage.org/learn/articles/analytical-psychology/778-reflections-on-shame-dissociation-and-eating-disorders.
- Sacks, J. (2014, November 4). The Difference Between Shame and Guilt Cultures. Retrieved from http://www.rabbisacks.org/difference-shame-guilt-cultures-thought-day.
- Sociopathic Personality Disorder. (n.d.). Retrieved March 20, 2015, from http://depressiond.org/sociopath-sociopathic-personality-disorder.
Last updated: 07-03-2015