What is shame?

Words such as trauma, abuse, anxiety, and conflict are frequently used by therapists or people seeking support. But it is far less common for people to use the word ‘shame’ when thinking about struggles with emotional well-being or mental health. However, it seems most of us feel a sense of shame to some or lesser degree in our lives and this can, for some, or at certain times, become quite paralysing.


The Oxford English dictionary defines shame as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour”. Shame can be at the root of hugely difficult feelings that can bring about a personality change or even physical signs on the body. It can be experienced in different ways: as humiliation, embarrassment, and even anger and provoke deep emotional pain that impacts individuals and their day-to-day functioning.

Shame differs from guilt, in that guilt is how you feel about an act or non-act that you feel responsible for, whereas shame relates to who you are as a person and a sense of your failure or badness. 

Some of the struggle around feelings of shame is a need to conceal it from others and this can include hiding it from oneself or burying it quite deeply, but carrying around feelings of inadequacy and inferiority and being unable to make sense of it.

Shame can often arise if there is difficulty in early relationships with parents and/or caregivers. If the child had been reassured or contained during ‘shameful’ incidents or at times of feeling foolish, inadequate or a failure, the individual is more likely to develop a bearable and forgiving attitude towards themselves and their identity. However, with a less solid emotional base, people can struggle with these feelings and emerge into adulthood with an overwhelming feeling of shame and humiliation, and self-punishment. 

In turn, these might be experienced as relationship problems (a fear of being seen or exposed), anger (feeling rage at the persecutor or themselves as punisher) or feeling that they don’t want people to get close to them so they can avoid being properly seen. This could mean that there is an avoidance of close relationships or cutting off if someone gets too close and is experienced as suffocating. 

There might be other less helpful ways of coping with these difficult feelings, including an over-exaggerated sense of it being superior to deal with feelings of inadequacy. Sometimes the shame might make someone continue to repeat ‘shameful’ acts or have poor boundaries as a way of managing or to feel in control of the shame. Inevitably, this can have a negative impact in the long term. This could appear as disinhibited behaviour or having an addiction to pornography or inappropriate sexual behaviour leading to risk-taking and poor sexual health. 

Shame is frequently connected to people struggling with substance misuse, to manage these deep and intense feelings. Imposter syndrome is something that most people contend with in the workplace, but this can be acute with people holding a lot of shame, feeling inadequate and bad about themselves and that they will be ‘found out’ – something that will be experienced not only in the workplace but in social and educational settings. 

With such hidden feelings, people hold back getting therapeutic help as they dread the sense of shame of being exposed and are conscious of being looked at. Counselling is viewed as a punishing and frightening experience, rather than a helpful one. Or clients might come to therapy about a related issue – difficulty in relationships, problems at work, but take a long time to be able to share the deep shame that they have carried for a long time. 

But a trusted relationship with a therapist, or a close person, can bring about acceptance and openness for the first time, starting a process of healing through being seen and tolerated rather than rejected.

One client struggled with immense feelings of inadequacy, linked to childhood sexual experiences. She was incredibly self-punishing and found it hard to have self-compassion over any mistake or humiliating experience. Over time, she was able to think about her shameful feelings as only part of herself and not her whole self. Rather than trying to get rid of them, she was able to reassure herself this was a ‘period of shame’, and it would pass and that it was not her whole being. Others find themselves being able to translate the acceptance felt in this setting and become less punishing, kinder, and then less angry about what has occurred.

It can take time: often feelings of shame run very deep, and they need to emerge and be handled sensitively. People need to feel safe and not have the traumatic shame reinforced but to experience acceptance and care. 

Ways to deal with shame

  1. Trying to find a way to reduce self-punishment and begin reassurance and understanding.
  2. Taking time to find a trusted other to share and be less hidden.
  3. Understand that the shame or struggles are not their whole selves.
  4. Some normalising and understanding of others’ similar experiences is helpful.
  5. Finding a safe therapeutic space to work through these feelings and understand the root of them.
  6. If you are having a ‘bad moment’ try to find a way to comfort yourself as you might have wanted to as a child or would reassure others if they came to you.

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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London, N2
Written by Sarah Aldridge, MBACP (Accred) BPC
London, N2

Sarah Aldridge is a Counsellor and Psychotherapist in the NHS and has a private practice in North London

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