Empathy: The antidote to shame

Having recently attended a training course on anger, I became fascinated by the notion of shame as underlying anger/rage, personality disorders and our desperate use of defences in order to avoid it being felt.

Shame is the recognition and experiencing of oneself as an object of extreme (usually negative) judgement or criticism in the real or imagined world. Infants and non-human animals may experience ‘proto-shame’ or a precursor to shame; however, shame requires sustained self-awareness and higher-order consciousness in order to reflect on our symbolic self.

Parents can use this to socialise children, for example, to teach them that harming another is not acceptable; here a happy or neutral feeling, curiosity or activity is replaced by a stern voice, frown or even time out, accompanied by the uncomfortable internal experience. Feelings associated with their behaviour leads to guilt - feeling bad about what you did, having empathy for the other and a willingness to apologise or repair the situation.

However, if the feelings are associated with their developing self-concept, this leads to shame; feeling bad about who you are. Shame is threatening to our sense of significance and can unravel the meaning we hold for ourselves in the world, it can paralyse us and is toxic to ourselves and others. Therefore because it is extremely painful to experience shame, defences are unconsciously enlisted such as anxiety to distract from overwhelming shame, or anger as a means of keeping others away so that they cannot experience your true self and you are therefore not open to rejection. But these defences signal to counsellors and therapists the possibility of their client experiencing shame.

Becoming depressed can be an attack on oneself, which can happen if negative self-attributions are present but seemingly no shame - also known as ‘sham shame’.

Brene Brown notes that shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, bullying, eating disorders, aggression and suicide.

If we, on a conscious or unconscious level believe “I am a mistake” or “I am bad”, then it makes sense that we might want to escape our ‘reality’ through some of these means. However, if our experience is that “I made a mistake”, then we have a situation where what we have done is incongruent with who we want to be- which may be uncomfortable but it is at least adaptive. Furthermore, guilt is inversely correlated with addiction, depression, violence, bullying, eating disorders and suicide.

Attachment perspective

50% of the time, there is an adequate bond between the infant and primary caregiver, where the mother or father calmly/appropriately responds to a distressed infant withholding, soothing tone of voice and eye contact. This releases endogenous opiates (natural painkillers) and dopamine (a neurotransmitter associated with pleasurable sensations) in the neocortex. Neurons that activate together, strengthen together and form functional connections/networks. So, over time parents repeatedly and consistently manage to shift an infant from a state of chaotic emotion to a state of calm and equanimity which is reflected on a neurological level. This is the beginning of emotional regulation.

Emotional regulation is the ability to tolerate challenging emotions such as fear, sadness, anger without being incapacitated by the feeling or having to disconnect from it by being distracted, intellectualising or dissociating from the emotion.

When there is language involved as a toddler, the emotionally intelligent parent may ask a distressed child what is wrong, perhaps guessing what it is that is upsetting the child. When the mother gets it ‘right’, a label is put on the child’s subjective experience; “I’m upset because I can’t go out”. Someone else gets it and furthermore when they look into the eyes of the parent, they are aware that mother is feeling for the child and experiencing being felt allows the child to know their emotions matter to someone else. This creates a holding environment and a bond such that unbearable emotions can now be made bearable and crucially there is no shame attached to their emotions.

This nurturing experience becomes natural for the child and they will seek out the primary caregiver for emotional support. As adults, they can be vulnerable and express their feelings to others, without feeling diminished, while expecting that the other person will care and connect with them about it. These adults easily experience emotional closeness.

The other 50% of the time a child does not get a supportive reaction, they may be ignored, not comforted, hugged or soothed. They may be told “you don’t have anything to cry about”, dismissed or even chastised which links their emotions of vulnerability to shame and puts conditions on both their feelings and behaviour. This teaches the child that their feelings are not going to be attended to or received well, and they may be taught to internalise their emotions or learn to take a stoic attitude. Their parent may feel uncomfortable with their sadness or give the child a distraction such as to play outside.

This teaches the child to distract themselves from their feelings, to essentially regulate affect by avoiding it. When they reach adulthood, these individuals will tend to throw themselves into work, or achieving, avoid reaching out to others, they will be more isolated with their emotions and deal with emotional concerns on their own. Their partner may say (if securely attached), “you are not opening up to me, you’re distant”.

More subtly, if there is conflict in the family, tension in the environment from a sibling or parent. The child will sense this intuitively, they will (usually unconsciously) feel “I don’t want to create more problems” or diminish their own feelings. These children second-guess themselves, feel anxiety or shame around their feelings, tend to worry about things and are reluctant to bring up topics up as they don’t want to be a burden. As adults, these individuals may be very insecure and need a lot of reassurance.

These are roughly outlined emotional sketches of attachment styles that lead to ways of regulating emotions. It is not to blame our parents, but to acknowledge with empathy, our hurts and longing, to explain our own difficulties in being vulnerable in regulating emotions, including anger and shame. In order to have empathy for others, we must also have empathy for ourselves.

Shame is not just a product of our primary relationships but of the society we live in. Brene Brown observes that women hold unattainable and conflicting expectations of who they are supposed to be; in order for women to conform with female norms they have to be; nice, thin, modest and “use all available resources for parents”. In order to comply with males norms, men must have emotional control at all times, primacy of work, pursue status and be violent. As Brene eloquently puts it; these ideals are straight jackets.


Brad Peters – Cornerstone Psychological Services Attachment Theory and Emotion Regulation
Brad Peters – Cornerstone Psychological Services Emotions: Layers of Shame
Brene Brown - Listening to shame

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Lancing, West Sussex, BN15
Written by Zara Eadie, MSc, BSc (Hons), EMDR, PG level Dip, BACP accredited
Lancing, West Sussex, BN15

I am passionate about my work with young people and adults from a psychodynamic and person centered perspective. I have a background in psychology (MSc) as well as Human Biology (BSc) and also offer hypnotherapy. I worked with homeless young people, youth counselling services, people with addictions and am soon to specialise in rape/sexual assault.


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