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Letting Go of Shame

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We’ve all done things we’re ashamed of, but shame doesn’t have to be bad. Social psychologists believe that a healthy dose of it—when rightfully felt—is crucial to our survival. It encourages behaving in socially appropriate ways. As a result, we can maintain our relationships and repair them when necessary.

While shame can be productive, chronic and unnecessary feelings of self-directed shame can be exhausting and paralyzing. This type of shame is often rooted in feelings of inferiority, inadequacy and defectiveness and do not match reality. Shame can cause withdrawal and feelings of loneliness and rejection, and parents with these feelings tend to pass them on to their children.

It’s crucial to distinguish between feelings of shame and guilt. The latter relates to doing something wrong. Shame involves feeling fundamentally bad or defective about one’s self, regardless of the circumstance.

Overcoming shame and rebuilding self-esteem takes time and patience. Here are three strategies to get you started:

  1. Practice self-compassion. We’re more likely to be self-critical when we feel shame. Harsh self-talk intensifies these feelings. Practice self-compassion daily by treating yourself as you would a cherished friend, with a focus on developing an inner dialogue that is kind, caring and loving.
  2. Avoid shame triggers. Identify situations where you feel shame—and, when possible, avoid them. Certain people may reinforce or trigger our feelings of shame. This is usually a warning sign of a dysfunctional relationship. Seek marital or family counseling, and learn ways of fostering love, respect and compassion.
  3. Give yourself permission to feel shame when you feel it. When we accept our feelings, we stop fighting them. Grant yourself emotional space to begin understanding and addressing the underlying causes.

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