What Is The Psychology Of Shame? Breaking Free From Shame

What Does It Mean to Have Shame?

Shame is a powerful emotion that arises when one feels embarrassed or humiliated due to having done something dishonorable, immoral, or improper.

Individuals who experience shame tend to conceal what they feel ashamed of. In chronic cases, shame can result in a belief that one is flawed at a fundamental level. Identifying shame within oneself can be challenging.

What Does It Mean to Have Shame?

Although shame is commonly viewed as a negative emotion, it has played a significant role in our survival as a species. Not feeling shame may result in disregarding cultural norms, laws, and social behavior.

Shame is an evolutionary tool that helps keep us all in line, as our desire for acceptance motivates us to conform to societal expectations.

When Does Shame Become Harmful?

Feeling ashamed can cause issues when it becomes internalized and leads to a harsh self-evaluation as a complete individual. This internal critic may convince you you are a terrible, worthless person with no value. However, the shame you experience is often unrelated to your worth or actions.

Other common concepts that overlap with shame include embarrassment, humiliation, and guilt. However, these different terms have nuances in meaning that are important to know to understand shame better.

What Are the Symptoms of Shame?

Are you wondering whether you might be experiencing shame? Below is a list of self-defeating shame reactions according to psychiatrist Peter Breggin in his book Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety.

  • Feeling sensitive or being worried about what others think of you
  • Feeling unappreciated, used, or like others take advantage of you.
  • Feeling rejected, regretful, inadequate, or like you have little impact
  • Uncontrollable blushing or being afraid to look inappropriate or stupid
  • Worrying that you aren’t treated with respect or wanting to have the last word
  • Feeling that you can’t be your true self, losing your identity, or not sharing your thoughts or feelings because you are afraid to be embarrassed
  • Being more worried about failure than doing something immoral or dishonorable, being a perfectionist,
  • Feeling like an outsider, that you are different or left out, or feeling suspicious and like you can’t trust others
  • Being a wallflower or shrinking violet, wanting to shut people out or withdraw, trying to hide or be inconspicuous, or not wanting to be the center of attention

The behaviors below are examples of things that people do when they feel shame:

  • Looking down instead of looking people in the eye
  • Keeping their head hung low or slumping their shoulders instead of standing up straight
  • Feeling frozen or unable to move
  • Not being able to act spontaneously
  • Stuttering when trying to speak or talking in an overly soft voice
  • Hiding their self from others
  • Crying if they feel shame or embarrassment

Four Categories of Shame Behavior

In the academic book Shame, published by Oxford University Press, the authors identified four categories of shame behaviors:

  1. The Hot Response
  2. Behaviors to Cope With or Conceal Shame
  3. Safety Behaviors to Avoid Shame or Being Discovered
  4. Behaviors to Repair Shame

The Hot Response

You do these things when you feel ashamed and defensive, such as lashing out in anger or attacking others to deflect attention from yourself. The hot response is usually an impulsive reaction.

Behaviors to Cope With or Conceal Shame

These behaviors include doing things to make yourself feel small, avoiding being the center of attention, or not sharing your thoughts or feelings. Concealing yourself is a method of self-protection.

Safety Behaviors to Avoid Shame or Being Discovered

This category of shame behaviors might include apologizing, crying, or avoiding conflict. People who tend towards being emotional or avoiding conflict may be more likely to engage in safety behaviors.

Behaviors to Repair Shame

These include doing things to soothe yourself or apologizing to others. For example, if you forgot an important anniversary, you might tell yourself that you had a lot on your mind or engage in gestures to show that you are sorry.

Types of Shame

In addition to the four broad categories of shame identified, there are also many different types. Below are some to consider.

Transient Shame

Transient shame refers to that fleeting feeling you get when you make a mistake, perhaps in a social setting. It usually passes quickly and doesn’t create problems in your life. Transient shame may even be beneficial by causing you to pay more attention to feedback received from others.

Chronic Shame

Chronic shame is always with you and makes you feel you are not good enough. This type of shame can impair your functioning and mental health.


Humiliation is one of the most intense forms of shame and comes about when we are critically embarrassed about something. Often, this is felt when something happens in front of other people.


We might feel shame when experiencing failure or defeat. For example, if you lose a sporting match you were expecting to win, you may feel shame. Or you might feel shame when you didn’t get a job promotion.

Shame Around Strangers

Shame around strangers reflects a feeling that they will discover something is wrong with you. This type of shame is familiar with social anxiety, with some studies finding that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) reduces social anxiety symptoms by lowering one’s proneness to shame.

In Front of Others

Shame in front of others refers to the type of shame experienced when one feels embarrassed. This form of guilt is linked to the feeling of humiliation.

Performance Shame

Feeling self-conscious about one’s performance is another type of shame. This tends to show up during public speaking and musical and athletic performances. Some argue that performance shame is a transformational force, impacting the “performer” and others at the event.

Shame About the Self

Feeling as though you are an inferior person can lead to shame about yourself. This is a chronic type of shame with long-lasting effects.

Unrequited Love

Shame that results from unrequited love is another type of shame. This is a feeling of not being good enough for another person.

Unwanted Exposure

Public humiliation involves unwanted exposure and makes up another type of shame. An example would be making a mistake in public and having someone point it out.

Disappointment or Failure

If your expectations are unmet or you fail at something, you may experience shame related to failure or disappointment. This is closely linked to a scandal about defeat.


If you feel you are being excluded from a group, not liked by the group, or don’t belong, you might experience shame about being left out. This type is also common in social anxiety.

Exclusion and shame often co-occur in people with obesity due to social stigma and weight bias.

Internalized Shame

Internalized shame refers to shame that has been turned inward. For example, those who experience childhood abuse may experience a feeling of being unworthy or guilt related to their abuse.

Toxic Shame

Toxic shame is similar to internalized shame in that it involves the notion that something is inherently wrong with you on the inside. Toxic shame is part of your core identity rather than a transient state. People who experience toxic shame may try to present a perfect outer self to hide how they feel on the inside.

Healthy Shame

Finally, healthy shame can also exist. Guilt can be healthy when it causes you to have humility, allows you to laugh at yourself, makes you humble, or teaches you about boundaries. Without at least a bit of shame, people would have trouble measuring the effects of their behaviors on other people.

Causes of Shame

Are you wondering about what causes shame? There are a variety of potential causes of the different types of stains, some that are transient and others that might have originated in childhood. In addition, mental health concerns can sometimes create embarrassment in and of themselves.

Let’s take a look at some of the potential causes of shame:

  • Childhood trauma or neglect
  • Any mental health disorder that involves self-criticism or judgment (e.g., social anxiety disorder)
  • Not living up to overly high standards that you set for yourself
  • Feeling as though your flaws or inadequacies will be revealed
  • Being the victim of bullying
  • Expectations not being met or experiencing failure
  • Rejection from others or the weakening of a relationship

It’s important to note that infants experience shame naturally without ever learning this feeling. In this way, the shame response is normal and natural. However, when it becomes extreme, it becomes a problem.

Impact of Shame

If you’ve experienced shame, you probably know it can hurt your life. Below are some of the potential negative impacts you might experience because of shame:

  • Makes you feel like you are flawed or something is wrong with you.
  • This can lead to social withdrawal, especially when it is a result of public stigma.
  • Can lead to addictions (e.g., alcohol, drugs, spending, sex)
  • This may cause you to become defensive and shame others in return.
  • This may lead you to bully others if you have been bullied yourself.
  • This may cause you to inflate your ego to hide the belief that you don’t have value (narcissistic personality)
  • This may lead to physical health problems.
  • It can be related to depression and sadness.
  • It may leave you feeling empty, lonely, or worn out.
  • This may lead to lowered self-esteem.
  • It could be difficult for you to have faith in others.
  • It may be harder for you to continue therapy or stop feeling judged.
  • This may lead to perfectionism or overachievement to try and counteract your feelings of shame.
  • It may cause you to engage in people-pleasing
  •  You may avoid talking out of fear of saying the wrong thing. 
  • It may cause compulsive or excessive behaviors like strict dieting, overworking, excessive cleaning, or having too high of standards in general.

As you can see, most of the impacts of shame lead to behaviors that create a vicious cycle. You feel shame, which causes you to engage in behaviors that can lead to more feelings of shame. These behaviors can also be detrimental in and of themselves, creating potential physical or mental health problems.

Shame and Mental Health

Research has repeatedly connected “proneness to shame” and psychological issues. Mental health conditions associated with shame include:

Shame vs. Guilt

Before we discuss how to start feeling less shame, it’s essential to consider the difference between shame and guilt. While shame is often confused with guilt, they are two separate things.

  • Guilt: Guilt is generally about something that you have done. It refers to something you did wrong or a behavior that you feel bad about.
  • Shame refers to something about your character or who you are as a person that you believe is unacceptable. Guilt is not about doing something wrong. It is about a feeling you have when you perceive you are not good enough.

While guilt is about wrong actions, shame is about being bad.

In academic psychology, shame is associated with avoiding failure and its consequences; guilt is connected with forgiving, improving oneself, and making amendments. One of the first steps to feeling less shame is to separate your responsibility from your shame.

Coping With Shame

Are you wondering how to feel less shame? There are three main steps to healing your shame. The first is exploring your shame instead of avoiding it. The second is embracing your shame, and the third is achieving acceptance. Below, we examine each of these steps.

Explore Your Shame

The first step in removing your shame is understanding what it is all about. This is important because it will be impossible for you to heal from your embarrassment if you haven’t identified it for what it is.

Gaining perspective on your shame by understanding where it has come from and how it influences your current decisions (through emotional memories) can go a long way toward stopping shame from ruling your life.

One way to recognize your shame is to start paying attention to your emotions in different situations. When are your feelings of guilt triggered? And when you feel shame, how do you react or feel differently?

If you aren’t sure, try writing about your feelings of shame in a journal. In particular, you could write about events from your past in which you felt shame or that influence you today in your feelings of guilt. Write down your feelings or thoughts and how you reacted to that past situation.

Next, examine how past shame still influences you today regarding current scandals. What did past situations teach you about yourself? Bringing your shame into the light is a way to escape having it cast a shadow on your current self.

Embrace Your Shame

Now that you have identified and acknowledged your shame, it’s time to work on embracing it. While this might feel counterintuitive, it is necessary to bring those feelings out from your internal world and into the light of day to heal from your feelings of shame.

When doing this work, it’s natural to want to put up defenses and barriers. Therefore, it’s essential to show yourself love and acceptance and to surround yourself with people who will show you the same. You need a safe place to belong and a group that will shower you with unconditional love.

If you don’t already have that, seek it out from friends, family, or even a support group. When doing this:

  • Remember that your love for yourself must be unconditional (without any strings) when you feel shame.
  • Be honest with yourself and with other people.
  • Don’t avoid the shame that you are feeling. Instead, please talk about your feelings and share them in the safe space you have created.
  • Allow your suffering to be legitimized and normalized. This will help you gain some perspective on your shame.

Consider speaking to a psychotherapist if you feel uncomfortable doing these things alone.

Aim for Acceptance

As you go through this process, it’s important to reexamine your beliefs and attitudes about yourself. This is the time to start rejecting the old ideas that something is inherently wrong with you. Instead, accept your new reality that you are acceptable and lovable just as you are.

You will also accept that you may make mistakes, which is okay. You should find a mentor or accountability partner to help you set priorities and make decisions during this time.

Although your healing process is highly personal, going on the journey with another person who understands could be highly beneficial.

Overcoming Shame in the Long-Term

Shame is a complex human emotion with multiple causes or triggers that require attention and acceptance to overcome.

Depending on your type of shame, you may find it easier to speak to a professional about your feelings rather than trying to overcome shame alone. In addition, if you have other mental health concerns, a mental health professional can help you with those at the same time. 

Shame is not about who you are as a person (e.g., whether you are good or bad). Shame is an internalized experience about yourself, some aspect of your character, or how someone has treated you (and, in turn, how it made you feel about yourself).

Shame does not need to continue to be what determines how you view yourself. You can identify and embrace your stain, then move on from it. For example, if you were abandoned as a child, you may feel guilt that your parent did not want to stay. In that case, you should identify that shame, let it go, and then hold on.

By the same token, if you feel shame about some particular aspect of your character or something others have judged you for, you probably need a good dose of healthy self-love. You don’t need to change yourself or your character to be worthwhile. Once you accept yourself, you will feel less shame and be able to move forward.