Do you feel perpetually bad, broken or unlovable? These tools will help you relate to yourself in a fairer, gentler way
by Michaela B Swee & Susan Murray + BIO
After the Misdeed (1885-90) by Jean Béraud. Courtesy the National Gallery London
Shame is a painful and complex emotional experience, and one that most human beings have endured at some point in their lives. Along with the mental distress it entails, the experience of shame often involves the presence of unpleasant feelings in our bodies (such as a knot in the throat or chest, or hollowness in the stomach or abdomen) and negative, self-conscious thoughts and beliefs (such as: There is something wrong with me, or I’m messed up).
It’s common to experience temporary shame (or ‘state shame’) in response to specific situations – if, for example, someone thinks the people they are with have a cause to look down on them in some way or judge them negatively. However, many people struggle with shame in a more frequent and enduring way. Those with high levels of shame-proneness (or ‘trait shame’) experience shame across different situations, both in the presence of others and when alone. This is the kind of shame that tends to lead to prolonged suffering, and which we seek to focus on and help address in this Guide.
Shame that is particularly sticky and persistent can originate in numerous ways. Many people internalise shame from demeaning messages (either explicit or implicit) that they received from parents or caregivers early in life. For some, shame has its origins in physical, verbal or emotional abuse or neglect. Other people experience shame related to aspects of their identity that are rejected by others, or that they themselves reject. Lasting shame can also stem from other pivotal life experiences that cause someone to view themselves as ‘bad’ or ‘broken’ in some way.
For a fuller picture of shame, consider the example of Alexia, whose story is based loosely on those of real individuals. Alexia experiences a pervasive sense that there is something wrong with her brain and with her personality at its core. This negative self-perception might stem partly from the abusive and neglectful environment in which she was raised, as well as from the chronic bullying she experienced for several years in school. Alexia tends to interact with the world in a way that reflects an underlying belief that if people could really see who she was on the inside, nobody would want anything to do with her. Given her fear about this, she usually keeps a distance in relationships and conceals many of her true thoughts and feelings. When she is home alone, she finds it hard to tolerate sitting with herself. She scrolls through social media endlessly, engages in emotional eating and excessive sleeping, and distracts herself with mindless reality TV to avoid what thoughts and feelings might surface in silence.
Shame is similar to certain other kinds of difficult emotional experiences, but distinct in important ways. Guilt, like shame, involves a sense of wrongness or badness. However, the source of perceived wrongness or badness differs between shame and guilt. When the focus is on one’s specific act or behaviour, that’s guilt. If the focus is on one’s self being wrong or bad, that’s more in the territory of shame. Sometimes people experience both guilt and shame at the same time. Some argue that shame tends to be the more painful of the two, and studies suggest that shame is more strongly linked to mental health problems than guilt is. Embarrassment, another of the so-called ‘self-conscious emotions’, is typically more situational and fleeting than shame, which tends to encompass more deep-seated negative beliefs about the self.
You can learn to identify and respond to shame
Shame is rooted in how we view ourselves in relation to others and how we think others might perceive us. From an evolutionary perspective, survival (shelter, food, reproduction) has long depended on one’s ability to remain a part of the group. Although the nature of human existence has changed quite a bit over the past few hundred thousand years, our brains are still wired for connection and belonging, and our wellbeing is largely dependent on relationships and community. Even in the modern world, the experience of shame (for example, after one says something offensive that is ill-received) can help to guide us as we navigate social norms and seek to behave in ways that ensure continued belonging rather than isolation.
However, a chronic and pervasive pattern of feeling that there is something wrong with you, or feeling as though you do not deserve the care and love that other people deserve, can lead to significant suffering. Shame is strongly associated with a host of psychological disorders, including depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, personality disorders and trauma- and stressor-related disorders. Even if you do not meet the diagnostic criteria for a psychological disorder, pronounced and pervasive shame can contribute to distress, low self-esteem and a sense of isolation that can strongly impact important domains of life, including close relationships, work and school. Although shame is a common human experience, it can lead to serious negative consequences when left unquestioned and unchecked.
As psychotherapists who regularly deal with shame in the work we do with our clients, our purpose in this Guide is to provide some hope and helpful food for thought to the many individuals out there who struggle with chronic shame. We’ll first examine how to identify and name shame when it arises, and then take some intentional steps toward practising self-compassion to alleviate shame. This is important, as self-compassion – defined as a sensitivity to one’s suffering with a deep commitment to try to alleviate it – has long been recognised as an antidote for shame. We believe that shame often signals that there is an underlying need for understanding and soothing, either by oneself or others. Self-compassion is about tuning in to that need, to become aware of the pain that is present (many people tend to avoid or suppress pain rather than confront it) and acquiring the wisdom to know how to soothe it.
What often emerges through the practice of turning toward rather than away from shame is the realisation that shame is, in fact, often understandable in light of one’s experiences and history, and that what is needed is a different, more helpful way to respond to and cope with it. Over time, if you can learn to interact more curiously and sensitively with the shame you experience (through, for example, some of the practices we outline below), the intensity of that shame can diminish, as can its negative impact on your life.
Recognise shame as it arises in your life
When any element of your experience is pervasive and longstanding, it can be challenging to identify its presence at all, let alone to question it. Generally speaking, the first step to changing anything is cultivating your awareness of it.
How can you recognise shame in your life if it’s become as familiar as the air you breathe? By paying close attention. One intervention used in cognitive behavioural therapy is self-monitoring: keeping a running log of your thoughts, emotions and/or actions. Simply put, this can mean listing thoughts that arise in various situations, either in a journal or in the notes section of your phone if that’s easier. See if you can try this experiment for at least about a week or so. Whenever you have what seems like a shame-related thought – anything that casts you, as a person, as bad, broken or defective – simply catch it, identify it as such, and write it down. When therapists work with clients who struggle with shame, we help them grow new (metaphorical) antennae to detect critical or negative beliefs about themselves that might have previously passed by as unquestioned truths or assumptions.
So, try and take a beat next time you hear yourself automatically say something like Ugh, I’m such a screw-up! after making a mistake, or when you catch yourself thinking What’s wrong with me? in response to experiencing an emotion such as sadness or fear. Maybe your mind tends to go to the thought that It’s all my fault I’m like this when you start getting critical about a habit that you engage in. Though it might sound like a daunting and unappealing journey to set out on, learning how shame and self-criticism manifest for you in real time can help illuminate opportunities for change in the language that you use and the ways you relate to yourself.
Through this process of paying close attention, many people come to realise just how often and how harshly they judge themselves, and in ways they would never judge someone else. This newfound level of awareness can, in and of itself, invite a more compassionate stance toward yourself.
Understand the origins of your shame
In addition to learning to spot shame as it arises, it can be helpful to spend time reflecting on your upbringing, relationships with your early caregivers, experiences in school or other social and community contexts (for example, church) or other pivotal life experiences to understand the origins of shame. For many people, although certainly not all, shame has its roots fairly early in life. Often, the circumstances that contributed heavily to shame are not things one had control over (eg, struggles with poverty, racism, homophobia, social stigma surrounding one’s identity or appearance, emotional or physical abuse, neglect, etc). If you can begin to recognise and accept that you are not responsible for the fact that these circumstances existed (or perhaps still exist), this can help you begin to shed some self-blame and unwarranted responsibility.
Considering possible sources of shame from earlier in your life can provide a valuable opportunity to offer compassion to the younger version of yourself. This can begin with a simple but powerful and validating recognition, such as: I couldn’t have done anything differently as a nine-year-old; that wasn’t her fault; she is not to blame for what happened to her. It might also be important to acknowledge that other people would likely feel very similar to the way you do if they had been in the same situation. This is a matter of recognising our common humanity – that we’re all a part of the human club. Being in this club means that we will all experience pain in our lives and the essence of this pain is shared and familiar.
Even if you were a more active agent when you were younger, in one or more situations that you now perceive as shameful, it’s all too easy to discount the fact that your decisions were made by a more naive, less developed brain and version of you. Sometimes we have the tendency to project what we know now onto earlier and less capable versions of ourselves. Part of what leads to the consolidation of shame during childhood may be the lack of complexity with which we typically think about morality during this developmental period. As a result, if someone thinks, does or simply becomes associated with something that’s considered bad in any way, the self-perception I’m bad can become engrained, rather than the focus remaining on the circumstances and context that might have contributed to a given outcome.
Children, and adults for that matter, are too rarely asked to appreciate the moral complexity that exists within each of us, and this likely contributes to a great deal of shame, suffering, self-judgment and isolation. In his book Living a Life That Matters (2001), the prominent rabbi and author Harold Kushner wrote:
I see every human being as having good and bad tendencies, impulses to charity and impulses to selfishness, the desire to be truthful and the desire to lie. These tendencies are in constant tension within us.
Adopting this more nuanced, compassionate conceptualisation of what it is to be human can help you relax any harsh self-judgments and reduce the tendency to make sweeping, negative (and probably untrue) generalisations about yourself. While we can and ought to take responsibility for mistakes we have made, we can do so while granting ourselves grace and understanding.
Check in with yourself to build self-compassion
At its core, self-compassion is about embodying courage and wisdom: the courage to lean toward that which is painful (for example, shame) and the wisdom to know how to alleviate that pain to the best of your ability.
Russell Kolts, a psychologist and expert in compassion-focused therapy, encourages people who are experiencing suffering to ask themselves questions such as: Given my history and what I know about myself, does it make sense that I would feel this way? and Given this, what would be helpful for me right now? This entails a reorientation toward the self with understanding and compassion. You might conclude: My feelings right now do make sense given my history. Maybe giving myself some time and space to write about what I’m feeling right now would be helpful. This reorientation toward yourself explicitly includes a commitment to act in a way that will allow you to support yourself in that moment.
What might be helpful for you will vary depending on who you are, what sorts of coping strategies are generally useful for you, and what the current situation is. If you are in a shame-triggering situation – for example, something is said in a conversation, or maybe you read or watch something and it activates negative beliefs you hold about yourself – it might be helpful to take a few minutes to go for a walk, calm down and gain some perspective. Maybe you take a moment to ask yourself: Are there other ways to think about this? Am I making any sweeping generalisations about myself right now? Am I labelling myself in one specific, overly simplistic way? If you are in a situation where shame-rooted beliefs arise (eg, There’s something wrong with me) and you are with a close friend, partner or family member, maybe you’re able to acknowledge that I could use a hug right now from someone who I know cares about me, or It could be helpful to tell them how I’m feeling and what’s on my mind.
There are numerous ways to practise self-compassion, and we encourage you to experiment with what feels accessible and helpful for you. By taking care of yourself in this way, you begin to learn that you don’t have to believe everything your mind offers up, and that you can find ways to calm your mind that work for you in the moment. When evaluating whether something is helpful for you, pay attention to how it affects both your body (eg, tension you might be holding, your heart rate or breathing) as well as your mind (eg, afterwards, are you freer to consider some alternative perspectives?)
Another effective practice is to slow down throughout the day and simply ask yourself at various points: What do I need right now? This can be particularly helpful when you find yourself reaching for unhealthy coping strategies such as emotional eating, drinking or even speaking badly about others. By taking a moment to pause and reflect about what need might underlie this urge (eg, a need to escape or redirect your attention, a need for soothing, a need for connection, a need to recognise any frustration, anger or jealousy that might be coming up), you can consider other healthy and sustainable ways to meet your needs that may leave you feeling better about yourself in the long run.
In experimenting with self-compassion, people with high shame commonly face a strong belief that they are not worthy of kindness or care from themselves or others. Connecting with the origins of shame and with our common humanity can be helpful in overcoming this obstacle. Like every other person, you are worthy of love and kindness (there is nothing exceptional about you in this respect, which may sound harsh, but is also true). Sometimes we first have to act like we deserve kindness and love, and just see what happens, instead of waiting to feel ready or deserving of it. Although it may feel foreign, it won’t hurt to at least experiment with this new orientation towards yourself.
Try writing yourself a self-compassionate letter
Self-compassionate letter-writing is one accessible tool that can help you identify shame and direct kind, gentle and soothing care toward yourself. Through this exercise, you can begin to learn a different way to speak to yourself internally, modifying not only the content of what you say but also the tone with which you speak to yourself. You can give the exercise a try once to see what your experience is like. Perhaps you will decide to make it a brief daily practice, or turn to it when you notice shame-related beliefs arising and the tendency to respond with self-criticism or self-blame.
Before you start writing, think for a moment about something you have been feeling ashamed of or self-critical about. Now, imagine that a close loved one or a person in your life you care for came to you and shared that they were struggling with the exact same issue. If you were to write a letter to them, how would you validate their struggle? How would you meet them right where they are, not attempting to ‘fix’ their experience, but demonstrating warmth and your understanding and willingness to accompany them through it? What would you want them to hear, feel and take away from this letter?
When you are ready, you can begin writing your letter to this person. See what happens if you give yourself about 10-15 minutes to write and express whatever comes to mind. The length of the letter is the less important part. What is most important is that you slow down and take some time to inhabit this wise, courageous, compassionate version of yourself who knows how to meet another person who is struggling.
After writing the letter, change the name at the beginning to your own name. Read the letter – this time as a letter to you, from you – slowly to yourself in a gentle and compassionate tone of voice, either silently or out loud.
Notice any reactions you have in response. Often, when people first engage in this exercise, self-judgment and self-criticism bubble up: That was hard; this feels corny and awkward; I don’t believe myself. These thoughts are perfectly normal, and we encourage folks to make room for them and try to engage in the exercise again later or the next day. Others feel powerfully impacted by this exercise the first time they try it. Sometimes, it makes the writer realise how harshly they treat themselves, and they are able to feel self-compassion as they acknowledge the sadness in that. Some also have the experience, reading their letter back, that it is almost as if a wiser, gentler, more caring part of their self, which they believed was inaccessible, is in fact present – and that can be deeply motivating.
Acknowledge the different parts of yourself that are present
Another way to turn toward and alleviate shame is to make room for different parts of yourself that might be experiencing conflicted reactions to a situation. For example, in a situation where challenging emotions arise, you might take out a piece of paper and jot down any core emotions that are present (eg, anxiety, shame, anger, etc). For each emotion, see if you can identify a thought that is automatically arising along with that emotion. For example: My anxious self is saying I can’t handle this, or My ashamed self is saying there’s something wrong with me for feeling this way, or My angry self is saying that I deserve to be punished.
Once you have been able to identify some of these thoughts, see if you can tap into the compassionate self we have been talking about, and respond (either in your mind or on paper) to each of these statements with understanding and care. What would your compassionate self say to your anxious self? Perhaps something like: It’s understandable you’re afraid you won’t be able to get through this. You’ve had this fear before and you’ve been able to get through it in the end. What about your ashamed self? It makes sense you are feeling this way right now, and I know that many others would feel this way if they were in your shoes. Angry self? Maybe there is something other than self-punishment we could think about doing to help ride out these tough feelings.
This can be a helpful way to give yourself space for different reactions in complex situations and practise shifting the message and tone with which you typically relate to yourself. This strategy can be both shame-alleviating and empowering once you realise that: 1) it’s OK to experience different, strong emotions; and 2) you’ve helped yourself through a challenging moment in a more self-supportive way than you are accustomed to.
Share in the context of safe relationships
People who struggle with shame commonly believe that, if others knew about what they felt ashamed of, they would not be accepted and, even worse, might be outright rejected. It is easy to see how shame can perpetuate a cycle of aloneness. Shame thrives on silence and isolation – but it fades with exposure and connection. As the US author Ann Voskamp put it: ‘Shame dies when stories are told in safe places.’ Sharing about our shame can help us realise that others will accept us despite self-perceived flaws. Further, sharing often provides a space where others open up and actually relate to our experiences, which decreases the sense of aloneness and can increase our trust in opening up to others.
Key to this process of connection is identifying trusted people with whom to share your experiences or concerns. Over time, you might experiment with sharing aspects of yourself that vary in the weight they hold for you, starting with self-disclosures that feel less risky (eg, I’ve struggled a fair bit with anxiety) and gauging the response to determine whether it would seem helpful and supporting if you made further disclosures (eg, I experienced some really tough things growing up…) You might consider sharing with someone close to you who has reliably demonstrated love and care for you.
If you’re struggling to begin such a conversation, you could start by saying something like: Hey, there’s been something on my mind that would be helpful to share with you when you have some time. During the conversation, if you start wondering whether the other person is perceiving you negatively, it’s OK to say: I’m curious about any reactions you might be having to my sharing this, or Can you relate to feeling this way at all? This gives the other person an opportunity to provide feedback that might alleviate any fear that they are thinking poorly of you.
It can also be helpful to consider finding a therapist in your community. A therapist can serve as that trusted other, and therapy may provide a useful space in which to explore what it feels like to talk about challenging emotions and experiences, including shame.
You can consider trying out a therapy group or a support group, too. These are groups designed to help individuals come together and discuss shared experiences such as shame. Two organisations in the US that offer both virtual and in-person support groups for people struggling with mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety, with which shame can co-occur, are the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. (If you live outside the US, you can search for similar organisations that offer services near you.) However, there are many different types of therapy and support groups out there that can benefit people struggling with shame. Some groups focus on specific issues (eg, marginalised identities, trauma, anxiety, depression, or loss and grief), while others are based on age group or may have a different focus or theme. Asking your therapist (if you have one), reaching out to a local therapy clinic to ask about groups they know of, or doing a web search for local therapy groups can help you find one that might be a good fit for you.
Is shame ever helpful?
While it is decidedly unhelpful to harbour strong, negative self-beliefs rooted in shame (eg, believing that you are essentially bad or unlovable), you may find yourself wondering whether shame can sometimes serve a productive function. For example, some people believe that shame helps motivate them to change or to achieve certain goals.
It is sometimes true that situation-specific shame can assist in reducing harmful behaviours and encouraging prosocial behaviours. Take the example of cigarette smoking. For many years, this was a socially acceptable behaviour; people smoked at work, in restaurants and on airplanes. After it was widely acknowledged that smoking is harmful to our health, it was discouraged, made illegal in many settings, and is now often a behaviour judged negatively by others. If you smoke regularly and are sensitive to this social stigma, just being associated with smoking might begin to make you feel as though you yourself are, in a way, wrong or bad (in contrast to feeling guilty that something you did was wrong or bad). This experience might be strong enough that you begin to hide your behaviour and might even take steps to quit smoking.
A process of shame-induced change can also impact other thoughts and beliefs we hold. You might experience shame for holding a particular political belief, for instance, which then encourages you to explore alternatives. Social shame, when internalised, can powerfully motivate change on an individual level – which, like many powerful influences, can have both positive and negative effects.
What is important to keep in mind is that shame is not the only (or even the best) motivator for change. It is particularly unlikely to be useful when it becomes chronic and pervasive. Take the metaphor of moving a donkey across town: you can get a donkey to move in the direction you want by beating it with a stick or by luring it with a carrot. For some reason, many of us have bought into the idea that in order to motivate ourselves to work toward a goal, we need a big, prickly stick, and we don’t have a lot of practice encouraging ourselves gently and lovingly, or using reward instead of punishment. The point here is not to debate which method is more effective. It is to recognise that we have choices about how we navigate change, and we can embrace the kind of motivator that serves us in a sustainable way.
Michaela B Swee and Susan Murray, co-authors of this guide, produce the Compassion Collective Podcast, which takes listeners on a deep dive into self-compassion and the ways we can work on overcoming shame and self-criticism in our lives.
Paul Gilbert, the developer of compassion-focused therapy, provides a wonderful repository of audio-guided exercises through the website of the Compassionate Mind Foundation. All are geared toward helping people who are struggling with high levels of shame and self-criticism.
The book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself (2011) by the psychologist and leading compassion researcher Kristen Neff is a great read on self-compassion and ways to manage shame. There is also an accompanying workbook, The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook (2018), by Neff and the clinical psychologist Christopher Germer. Neff shares a host of guided practices that can be helpful for working with shame through her website.
The clinical psychologist Chris Irons has a terrific book, The Compassionate Mind Approach to Difficult Emotions (2019), which is packed with valuable exercises for managing challenging emotions such as shame and sadness.