Shame Psychology: Understanding the Impact of Shame on Mental Health

Shame is a complex and often misunderstood emotion that affects many individuals. A feeling of humiliation or disgrace arises when one perceives themselves as flawed or inadequate. Various factors, including social stigma, personal failures, and trauma, can trigger shame.

While shame may seem like a negative emotion, it serves an essential purpose. It can motivate us to improve ourselves and learn from our mistakes. However, when shame becomes chronic or overwhelming, it can seriously affect our mental health. It can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem and even contribute to developing eating disorders and substance abuse problems.

Understanding the nature of shame and learning how to cope with it can be an essential step towards improving our mental health and well-being. In this article, we will explore the definition and types of shame, its effects on our mental health, and ways to cope with it. By better understanding this complex emotion, we can learn to overcome its adverse effects and live happier, healthier lives.

Shame Psychology

Understanding Shame

Shame is a complex emotion that can be difficult to understand. This section will explore the definition of shame and the difference between shame and guilt.

Definition of Shame

Shame is a feeling of embarrassment or humiliation that arises from the perception of having done something dishonorable, immoral, or improper. People who experience shame usually try to hide what they feel ashamed of. When shame is chronic, it can involve the feeling that we are fundamentally flawed.

Shame can be triggered by various experiences, including making mistakes, failing to meet our or others’ expectations, or being rejected or criticized. Shame can also be internalized, meaning we feel ashamed of ourselves rather than just something we have done.

Difference Between Shame and Guilt

While shame and guilt are often interchangeable, they are two distinct emotions. Guilt is a feeling of remorse or regret that arises from having done something wrong or harmful to others. Guilt is focused on the behavior we regret and is often accompanied by a desire to make amends or repair the damage.

Shame is focused on the self and our sense of worthiness. When we feel shame, we believe we are bad or flawed in some way rather than just doing something wrong. Shame can be more challenging to overcome than guilt because it is tied to our sense of identity and can lead to feelings of isolation and disconnection from others.

Causes of Shame

Shame is a complex emotion that various factors can cause. This section will explore some of the common causes of shame.

Personal Failures

One of the most common causes of shame is personal failure. When we fall short of our expectations or the expectations of others, we can feel a sense of shame. This can include anything from failing to meet a deadline at work to struggling with addiction.

In some cases, our sense of shame may be warranted. For example, if we have hurt someone we care about, it is natural to feel ashamed of our actions. However, it is essential to remember that everyone makes mistakes and that we can learn from them and grow as individuals.

Social Rejection

Another common cause of shame is social rejection. When we feel rejected by others, we may begin to question our worth and value. This can lead to feelings of shame and self-doubt.

Social rejection can take many forms, from being excluded from a social group to experiencing discrimination or prejudice. It is important to remember that our worth as individuals is not determined by the opinions of others. We are all valuable and deserving of love and respect.


Trauma can also be a significant cause of shame. When we experience trauma, we may feel a sense of shame or guilt about what happened to us. We may blame ourselves for the trauma or feel we deserved it.

It is important to remember that trauma is never the survivor’s fault. It is a natural response to a traumatic event to feel a sense of shame or guilt, but it is essential to work through these feelings with the help of a trained professional. With time and support, healing from trauma and moving forward healthily is possible.

Effects of Shame

Shame is a complex emotion that can significantly impact our mental health and social behavior. In this section, we will explore the effects of shame in more detail.

Impact on Mental Health

Shame can have a profound effect on our mental health. It can lead to feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem, and depression. When we experience shame, we may feel like we are not good enough or that we do not deserve love or respect from others.

These negative thoughts and feelings can be challenging to shake off, and they can impact our mental health. In severe cases, shame can even lead to suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

Influence on Social Behavior

Shame can also affect our social behavior. When we feel ashamed, we may withdraw from social situations, avoid eye contact, or become defensive. We may also need to hide our true selves from others, which can lead to isolation and loneliness.

In some cases, shame can even lead to aggressive or violent behavior. When we feel like our sense of self-worth is threatened, we may lash out at others to protect ourselves.

It is essential to recognize shame’s impact on our mental health and social behavior. By understanding the effects of shame, we can learn to recognize when we are experiencing shame and take steps to cope with these feelings healthily.

Coping with Shame

Shame is a challenging emotion, but it is possible to cope with it. Here are two ways to cope with shame:

Acknowledging Feelings

The first step in coping with shame is acknowledging our feelings. We need to be aware of what we are feeling and why we are feeling it. Once we have acknowledged our feelings, we can begin to work through them.

One way to acknowledge our feelings is to talk about them with someone we trust. It could be a friend, family member, or a therapist. Talking about our feelings can help us process them and gain a new perspective.

Another way to acknowledge our feelings is to write them down. Journaling can be a helpful tool in coping with shame. Writing down our thoughts and feelings can help us identify patterns and gain insight into our emotions.

Seeking Professional Help

If we struggle to cope with shame alone, seeking professional help can be beneficial. A therapist can help us work through our feelings and develop coping strategies.

Different types of therapy can help cope with shame. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that focuses on changing negative thought patterns. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a type of therapy that focuses on developing skills to regulate emotions.

Finding a therapist who is a good fit for us is essential. We should look for someone who specializes in shame and has experience working with clients struggling with it.

Shame Resilience Theory

Shame is an emotion that affects all of us at some point in our lives. It can be a debilitating feeling that causes us to doubt our worth and ability to connect with others. Shame Resilience Theory (SRT) is a framework developed by Brené Brown to help individuals build resilience to shame and cultivate a sense of self-worth.

Concept and Origin

BrenĂ© Brown first introduced SRT in her book, “I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t).” The theory is based on Brown’s research on shame and vulnerability, and it aims to help individuals develop the skills and strategies needed to overcome shame and build resilience.

According to SRT, shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and, therefore, unworthy of love, belonging, and connection. Shame is a universal experience, and it can be triggered by various situations, such as making a mistake, being rejected, or feeling like we don’t measure up to others’ expectations.

Key Principles

SRT is based on four fundamental principles that help individuals build resilience to shame:

  1. Recognizing Shame: The first step in building resilience to shame is recognizing when we are experiencing shame. This involves being aware of the physical, emotional, and behavioral signs of shame, such as feeling a tightness in the chest, withdrawing from others, or engaging in self-criticism.
  2. Practicing Critical Awareness: Critical awareness involves questioning the messages and beliefs that fuel shame. This involves examining our internalized messages about worthiness and challenging the cultural norms perpetuating shame.
  3. Reaching Out: Shame thrives in isolation, so one of the most effective ways to build resilience to shame is to reach out to others for support and connection. This involves cultivating relationships that are grounded in empathy and vulnerability.
  4. Speaking Shame: Speaking shame involves sharing our shame stories with others in a way grounded in empathy and vulnerability. This involves being honest about our experiences of shame and connecting with others who have similar experiences.

By practicing these four principles, individuals can build resilience to shame and cultivate a sense of self-worth. SRT is a powerful framework that can help individuals overcome shame and live more fulfilling lives.

Role of Shame in Different Cultures

Shame is a universal emotion that people of all cultures experience. However, how shame is perceived and expressed can vary significantly across cultures. In some cultures, shame is viewed as a positive force that promotes social harmony and conformity, while in others, it is seen as a negative emotion that should be avoided at all costs.

In collectivistic cultures such as those in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, shame is often used to maintain social order and preserve group harmony. In these cultures, the individual is seen as part of a larger whole, and the group’s needs and goals take precedence over those of the individual. Therefore, shame enforces social norms and ensures that individuals behave consistently with the group’s expectations.

For example, in Japan, “honne” and “tatemae” are used to describe the difference between one’s true feelings and the behavior that is expected in a given situation. Individuals are expected to suppress their true feelings to maintain social harmony and avoid causing shame to themselves or others.

In contrast, in individualistic cultures such as those in North America and Western Europe, shame is often viewed as a negative emotion that should be avoided. In these cultures, the individual is seen as autonomous and independent, with a greater emphasis on individual needs and desires.

For example, in the United States, individuals are encouraged to express their emotions and be true to themselves, even if it means going against social norms or expectations. The concept of “self-esteem” is highly valued, and individuals are encouraged to develop a positive self-image and avoid feelings of shame or self-doubt.

Shame in Psychotherapy

Shame is a complex and painful emotion that can significantly impact an individual’s mental health and well-being. As such, it is an essential topic in psychotherapy. In this section, we will explore the use of shame in therapy and the therapeutic approaches to shame.

Use of Shame in Therapy

Shame can be a valuable tool in therapy when used appropriately. It can help individuals explore and understand their emotions and behaviors and can be a catalyst for change. However, using shame carefully and sensitively is essential, as it can also be damaging and counterproductive.

Therapists must be aware of their clients’ shame triggers and avoid shaming them. Instead, therapists can help clients understand their shame and develop strategies to manage and overcome it. This can involve exploring the origins of shame, challenging negative self-talk, and building self-compassion.

Therapeutic Approaches to Shame

Several therapeutic approaches to shame can be effective in helping individuals to manage and overcome it. These include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT is a form of therapy that focuses on changing negative thought patterns and behaviors. In the case of shame, CBT can help individuals to challenge negative self-talk and develop more positive and realistic beliefs about themselves.
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT is a form of therapy that focuses on accepting difficult emotions and acting in line with one’s values. In the case of shame, ACT can help individuals accept their shame and live a meaningful life despite it.
  • Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT): CFT is a form of therapy that focuses on developing self-compassion and compassion for others. In the case of shame, CFT can help individuals develop a more compassionate and accepting attitude towards themselves, which can help to reduce shame.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can shame impact mental health?

Shame can have a significant impact on mental health. It can lead to feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem, and even depression. Shame can make it challenging to form meaningful connections and lead to social isolation. It can also cause anxiety and stress, further exacerbating mental health issues.

What are some common coping mechanisms for dealing with shame?

There are several ways to cope with shame. One way is to practice self-compassion and self-forgiveness. This involves treating yourself with kindness and understanding rather than harshly judging yourself for your mistakes. Another way is to talk to a trusted friend or therapist about your feelings of shame. This can help you gain perspective and feel less alone in your struggles. Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation and deep breathing, can also help manage feelings of shame.

What are the long-term effects of toxic shame?

Toxic shame can affect a person’s mental health and well-being. It can lead to chronic feelings of low self-worth and self-esteem, impacting relationships and overall quality of life. It can also lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. In some cases, toxic shame can lead to self-destructive behaviors, such as substance abuse or self-harm.

How can shame affect relationships?

Shame can impact relationships in several ways. It can make it challenging to form close connections with others, as shame can lead to feelings of unworthiness and isolation. It can also lead to a lack of trust in others, as shame can cause individuals to feel like they are not deserving of love and affection. Shame can also lead to feelings of anger and resentment towards others, as individuals may feel like they are being judged or criticized.

What is the difference between shame and guilt?

Shame and guilt are often used interchangeably, but they are actually two different emotions. Guilt is a feeling of remorse or regret for something that we have done wrong. It is focused on the behavior or action, rather than the person. Shame, on the other hand, is a feeling of inadequacy or unworthiness as a person. It is focused on the self, rather than the behavior.

What are some common causes of shame?

Shame can be caused by a variety of factors, including childhood experiences, cultural and societal expectations, and personal beliefs and values. Childhood experiences, such as abuse or neglect, can lead to feelings of shame later in life. Cultural and societal expectations, such as gender roles or body image standards, can also contribute to feelings of shame. Personal beliefs and values, such as perfectionism or high expectations, can also lead to feelings of shame when these expectations are not met.


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