Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant, Speaker and Writer

How to Get Over Shame


Your cheeks burn and your body tingles.

There’s a drunken butterfly performing cartwheels in your stomach.

You did something which in your head, looms so large, so awful, so terrible, that the shame is all-encompassing.

You’re convinced that if anyone ever found out, the mortification and disgrace would be too much for you to bear.

Because they’d finally know the truth about you.

What Is Shame?

Shame is a horrible emotion: painful and debilitating. The social scientist and author Dr. Brene Brown believes that “shame is epidemic in our culture:” a universal and primitive emotion which is highly correlated with broken behaviour such as suicide, bullying, depression and anxiety.

Many people equate it with guilt, but in fact these two emotions are very different.

Guilt is an emotion where you believe your behaviour or your actions have not met an idealised standard.

“I’m sorry, I made a mistake.”

Shame is an emotion where you believe your self’s being has not met an idealised standard.

“I’m sorry, I am a mistake.”

This is a critical distinction. In guilt, we can separate our actions from the core of ourselves. Guilt is negatively correlated with the broken behaviours described above.

But with shame, it’s who we are, our core identity, that is ‘wrong’ – and ultimately unloveable.

Why Do We Feel Shame?

Triggers of shame seem to be different for men and women. For women, there are a multitude of ways shame is triggered, everything from slut-shaming (criticising a woman for violating traditional ideas about expectations of sexual behaviours) to mom-shaming (where we don’t live up to being a perfect mother). Society’s double standards around women mean they’re supposed to be sexual and not-sexual: a great parent and also a great employee; and slender and beautiful whilst also not seeming to care about their appearance.

For men, Brown suggests there is one core shame trigger, and that is feeling weak – not being tough enough, wealthy enough or smart enough.

Either way, we can feel shame in any area of our life, from relationships to work, and shame is triggered by this comparison of who we think we are, with who we think we ought to be.

When we feel shame, thinking about it is like pressing on a bruise. We shy away from it because it’s agonising to even remember. What would others think if they found out? If they realise how worthless we are? The very idea that others might realise who we really are makes us feel anxious and agitated, our stomach in knots and our chest tight.

Nurturing Shame

Shame is a difficult thing to handle because one of its biggest features is that you don’t want to tell anyone.

It’s your biggest, darkest secret – the one you never want to come to light.

It’s the thing you know about yourself that reveals your true, terrible, useless, worst self, and if everyone finally finds out about it, or understands who you really are, they’ll judge you as harshly as you judge yourself.

In a world where we value connection and acceptance, the consequences of revealing our shame – ostracisation and social rejection – could be catastrophic.

But Brown says that its these very characteristics – secrecy, silence and judgement – which are exactly what cause shame to thrive.

So what can we do to reduce our shame?

Overcoming Shame

Shame is so pervasive that it can be hard to eradicate. Understanding how to get over shame isn’t easy.

Strategies that you can use include:

Brown talks about ‘shame resilience’, noting that complete ‘resistance’ isn’t possible. In her book Daring Greatly, she says:

We all have shame. We all have good and bad, dark and light, inside of us. But if we don’t come to terms with our shame, our struggles, we start believing that there’s something wrong with us – that we’re bad, flawed, not good enough – and even worse, we start acting on those beliefs. If we want to be fully engaged, to be connected, we have to be vulnerable. In order to be vulnerable, we need to develop resilience to shame.

Brown describes shame-resilience as the ability to say:

This hurts. This is disappointing, maybe even devastating. But success and recognition and approval are not the values that drive me. My value is courage and I was just courageous. You can move on, shame.

Brown suggests three techniques for dealing with shame when it arises.

1. Practise courage and reach out.

Rather than withdrawing, being aggressive or even trying to appease others involved, focus on connection. Share your experience with someone who has earned the right to hear it – someone who loves you, not despite your vulnerabilities, but because of them.

2. Talk to yourself the way you would talk to someone you really love.

Be your own best friend and talk to yourself with love and respect. “It’s ok. It happens to everyone. You’re human.”

3. Own the story.

Don’t bury it and let it fester or define you. Be accountable for what is true, but reality-check the messages and expectations in the story you’re telling yourself. Take action and choose what happens next.

Brown believes that when we reach out, we find the antidote to shame: empathy. When we speak to others who treat us with empathy, shame disappears as we realise we’re not alone, and that our experience is just another part of what makes us human.

My Confession

I have a very personal reason for writing this week’s post on shame.

Last week, something happened in my life which felt shameful enough that I didn’t want to talk about it to anyone. It created painful feelings in me and attacked my core beliefs about who I am and who I want to be. Even mentioning it here, without any detail, makes me feel hot inside.

But re-reading Brown’s book, and researching the topic and strategies that we can use to manage shame has been useful.

Journalling on it and talking about it to others immediately released a little of the pressure valve. It took a little of the heat out of it. Put it into some perspective.

(The person who proof-read this article for me, who knew about the ‘incident’, said the way I’ve described it above sounds like I robbed a bank (I didn’t!). She said to reassure you all it’s more like I accidentally walked out of a store without paying for a pint of milk, which I then immediately ran back in and paid for (I didn’t do that either!). But…inside me, it *feels* like the bank situation.)

It has reminded me that if we try at anything, if we put our heart and soul into our efforts, if we produce, or are creative, or stick our head above the parapet – or if we just live life – we will mess up sometimes.

There will be failures, mistakes, errors. We will get it wrong. This is all part of being human.

And if we bundle up who we are – as well as our self-esteem and self-worth – with these failures and mistakes, we’ll stop trying.

Stop showing up.

Stop living.

And that’s not the kind of person I want to be.

So I’ll practise what I preach, and use the strategies above to manage the shame I feel. I’m going to journal on it, talk to friends about it, and make an action plan to deal with it.

Because the only real way to fail?

To stop trying.

26 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • leadership skills March 15, 2016, 12:28 am

    Hi, Shame is the denial of truth and it hurts us in a very different way, but learning to deal with it and being accountable for our own actions will help us to move forward. Thanks for sharing all these very helpful techniques. Great Read.
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    • Ellen March 16, 2016, 3:33 pm

      Thanks so much for reading, and I agree, taking responsibility is a big part of it, as well as realising we often have it out of perspective.

  • Ele March 15, 2016, 12:17 pm

    I don’t think there’s anyone on the planet who hasn’t/doesn’t experience shame Ellen and it doesn’t really matter what the situation is that caused it…we have that sense of something being wrong with US and it’s awful.

    I’m so happy you have an abundance of tools to manage shame…something we’re all going to need sooner or later!!!
    Ele recently posted…4 Ways to Use Your Inner Magic and Get What You WantMy Profile

    • Ellen March 16, 2016, 3:32 pm

      Thanks Elle, it was a great article to write because it really gave me some practical ways of managing my own small hump in the road, and I hope that others realise there are plenty of ways forward for them on this too.

  • Laura J. Tong March 15, 2016, 5:55 pm

    Golly, you’ve summed up exactly how shame feels Ellen. It’s so painful, yet I’ve had so many conversations over the years where others have wanted to confess their shame and to my ears, knowing how wonderful a person they are, shame is never appropriate. It’s just our mean inner critic shouting too loudly. Whatever you did with an unpaid for pint of milk whilst robbing a bank Ellen, I know there would be a perfectly rational, logical and appropriate reason for it. Thank you for making me feel so much better about my shameful times.

    • Ellen March 16, 2016, 3:31 pm

      Thanks so much Laura! Yes, shame is a strange, pervasive and difficult emotion – and our inner critic is definitely part of the problem. I’m always working on my ‘nurturing parent’ dialogue instead. Appreciate your support!

  • Cathy Taughinbaugh March 16, 2016, 3:52 am

    Hi Ellen, Shame is such a below the surface taboo subject which makes it even more wonderful that you are openly talking about it. I’m in the process of reading Rising Strong and just finished Daring Greatly, so can relate to your lovely Brene Brown quotes and information about shame. I know I’ve experienced shame during my life and clearly the solution is to talk about it openly. Thank you!
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    • Ellen March 16, 2016, 1:59 pm

      It’s definitely a challenging one to even write about Cathy, but it certainly touches most of our lives, so I really hope it helps some people. And those books are fantastic – I’ve read Daring Greatly several times now, and I get something new out of it each time. Thanks for reading.

  • Eric March 21, 2016, 4:20 am

    The puritanical aspects of our society have encouraged the feelings of shame where it has only damaged people’s self concept. The sooner we root out this destructive emotion, the better will be for most folks.

    • Ellen March 22, 2016, 10:23 am

      Thanks for reading Eric, and hopefully this kind of article can give people tools to root out something tha is very deep seated indeed.

  • Iva March 22, 2016, 11:09 am

    Shame is such a hard emotion to deal with. Often disguised in layers and layers of pain, anger, blame… It can be completely consuming. It took me three reads of Brene’s book to finally get it. Getting to the bottom of understanding our emotions, the way they make us weak and strong is hard enough and still that’s just the beginning. It’s so important to talk about it! Thank you Ellen, what a great read.

    • Ellen March 22, 2016, 3:53 pm

      Thanks for your comments Iva. I think you’re right, shame is a very complex emotion, with a lot going on. Not an easy one to deal with, but so toxic that it’s totally worth it.

  • Psychic Nest March 26, 2016, 2:32 pm

    Hi Ellen,

    That was such a great read! We have all been there, feeling ashamed of something but defining the root of it can help us a lot. It is so unfortunate that social standards put so much pressure on us that we experience such traumatic emotions like shame. I will definitely agree with you that we need courage to overcome this. Standing on our own feet and acknowledge this emotion with no fear, it is crucial to overcome shame.

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    • Ellen March 28, 2016, 5:46 pm

      Thanks so much Zaria, really appreciate your comments. Here’s to courage for us all!

  • Suzie Cheel July 11, 2016, 6:07 am

    I have been doing some Emotion code work and shame has surface several time for me. I know that it can also paraylize one. thanks for a great article xx
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    • Ellen July 13, 2016, 12:20 am

      I think paralysis is a good way to describe it – we just get stuck in this horrible emotions. But there are ways out of it if we can focus, but it’s hard work. Thanks Suzie x

  • Evelyn Lim July 11, 2016, 6:33 am

    According to David Hawkin’s book Power vs Force, shame is at the lowest level on the Map of Consciousness. Yes, shame is pretty pervasive in our environment. It helps to be mindful when we are feeling shame. We need to learn to embrace our faults, mistakes and weaknesses. There is no shame in talking about shame with others. Thanks for being such an inspiration!
    Evelyn Lim recently posted…Your Doubt or Your Dream? Decide Which to FeedMy Profile

    • Ellen July 13, 2016, 12:14 am

      That’s interesting Evelyn, I’ll have to check out that resource. And as you say, the more we talk about shame, the more it dissipates.

  • Debbie L Hampton July 11, 2016, 4:06 pm

    Love the “Drunken butterfly turning cartwheels”analogy. :) Very helpful info. Shame is a hard one to overcome. Thanks for all of the useful strategies.
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    • Ellen July 13, 2016, 12:21 am

      Thanks Debbie, yes, I love that image because it just feels exactly like the feeling! Glad you found it useful

  • Sandra Pawula July 12, 2016, 5:13 am

    What a rich and powerful post, Ellen. Shame is an issue for me to. It’s the strangest inner feeling, isn’t it. It just grabs me sometimes. Thanks for this amazing resource.
    Sandra Pawula recently posted…Practical Wisdom on Money, Parenting, and Busyness {+ More}My Profile

    • Ellen July 13, 2016, 12:13 am

      Thanks Sandra, and yes, it can be such a strange – but horrible – gripping feeling. I hope this proves useful for you and those you know.

  • Zeenat Merchant Syal July 14, 2016, 11:30 am

    This is a brave brave post Ellen! Thank you for opening yourself up like this and sharing. I know it will help many.
    xoxo, Z~
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    • Ellen July 19, 2016, 5:12 am

      Thank you Zeenat <3

  • Vidya Sury July 17, 2016, 11:56 am

    The toughest thing about shame is the inability to reach out, Ellen. Things build up in our heads so much that they hurt unbearably. Then we imagine all kinds of dire outcomes, and start believing them because they consume us. Often, things that bother us are much smaller when they’re voiced rather than bottled. Great post with excellent strategies to overcome shame. Thank you for sharing your own story! Hugs!
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    • Ellen July 19, 2016, 5:14 am

      You’re so right. But overcoming the sharing hurdle can be huge, I’ve definitely felt trapped by something I’ve done, and terrified to share it. Remembering my friends will love me anyway is huge – and then we can definitely put things into a better perspective.

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