How to shift the shame

“Where shame is, there is also fear.” ~ John Milton

Shame is one of the most powerful and prevalent human emotions. It dictates our feelings, self-image, state of mind and state of being. It can completely call the shots on our choices, attitudes and behaviours.

Like an actor in a lead role, shame appears on stage and screen in most of our daily lives, yet we’re often blind to its presence. When it appears, we often call it another name. We refer to it as “nerves” when we’re giving a speech, or “disappointment” that we didn’t get the job, or “shyness” when we can’t bring ourselves to get up and perform a karaoke song. Yet at the heart of all these situations is the fear of feeling the shameful sting of not being successful, popular, accomplished or strong.

Shame is not the same as guilt. While guilt whispers in your ear, “You did a foolish thing”, shame shouts, “You are a fool!” Shame is the reason you lie awake in bed worrying that you talked too much at the party, feel teary when your boss criticises you, or dread the coming of summer if you’ve gained a few kilos.

Left unchecked, this overpowering emotion can fill your head with an endless barrage of self-criticism and self-limiting beliefs. These will plague you with doubt, distress and needless anxiety.

Silence your harshest critic

“Shame is fear of one’s inferior status in the estimation of others.” ~ Lao Tzu

How often does shame appear as the little voice in your head? Brené Brown is a globally renowned expert on shame and vulnerability who lectures in social work at the University of Houston. In her much-viewed TED lectures, Listening to Shame and The Power of Vulnerability, she refers to shame as “the ever-present critic”.

When you are poised to try something creative or new or courageous, or out of your comfort zone, Brown says shame asks, “Who do you think you are?” It’s the gremlin that says you are not good enough, you’re not pretty enough or smart enough or talented enough.

At the heart of shame’s character assassination of you is the deep-seated fear that somehow you don’t measure up and that other people will see your failings and think less of you. “Shame is the fear of disconnection,” says Brown. “The fear that says there’s something about me that, if other people know it or see it, will make me less worthy of connection. We all have this fear. And the less you talk about it, the more you have it.

Reveal your feelings and self

“You may think you can hide your shame by not talking about it, but in reality it’s your shame that is hiding you.” ~ Adam Appleson

When a wave of shame rises up and overwhelms you, your first response can be to try to outrun the tide of feeling. So you withdraw from social connections and pull further back into yourself, overwhelmed by your sense of humiliation or hurt or failure. Mistakenly, you think that speaking about and making visible these emotional branches of the tree of your shame will make it so much worse.

But the more you are silent, the more shame takes power over you and starts to dictate the terms and conditions of your life. Meanwhile, it completely hinders your ability to be intimate, present and involved. That’s why, according to Brown, it is important for us to be open and present to our shame. “If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we cut if off at the knee,” Brown explains in her book Daring Greatly (UBD, AU$29.99).  “If we speak shame, it begins to wither.”

Connecting with people who are not ruled by shame can teach us a great deal about how to put this unhelpful emotion back in its box. Authenticity is key. In her longstanding research on this issue Brown has observed that people are bothered less by shame if they are trying to live authentic lives, so being both compassionate and courageous, and open about who you are, seems to offer substantial protection.

In this regard, it’s important to make sure that your work suits your moral worldview, that you are taking steps towards your personal and spiritual goals and that you can be yourself in front of those closest to you. “Authenticity allows people to let go of who they think they should be in order to be who they are, which you absolutely have to do in order to make real connections,” Brown observes.

Overcome perfectionism

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” ~ Anna Quindlen

Shame not only limits your ability to grow and be present to the moment, it also bullies you into silence. “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable,” says Brown. “That’s why it loves perfectionists — it’s so easy to keep us quiet.”

To overcome this perfectionism, recognise how often the word “should” appears in your self-talk or expectations. This can set up unrealistic beliefs that the world should be perfect and that you should be perfect within it. “Shoulds” only set you up to feel you’re letting yourself and others down.

A more helpful approach is to listen to, and trust in, your own intuition. Ask yourself what you know will serve you best and act on that instinct rather than simply blindly following society’s prescriptions and expectations, which often teach unhelpful messages — in particular that speaking out about feelings or showing them is a sign of weakness.

Kindness and respect — to yourself and others — are powerful protectors against shame. To employ them, you first need to stop trying to be perfect and change the self-talk in your head so it transforms into the kind of nurturing, warm and giving conversation you offer to friends when they are in need. “To grow in a Petri dish, shame needs secrecy, silence and judgment,” says Brown. “Empathy is the antidote to shame. If you put the same amount of shame in that dish and douse it with empathy it can’t survive. ‘Me too’ are the two most powerful words when we are in struggle.”

Let go of your past

“In the process of letting go you will lose many things from the past but you will find yourself.” ~ Deepak Chopra

Healing the past and putting it behind you is one of the most nourishing things you can do for your wellbeing. It helps you cleanse your thoughts of the shame from childhood experiences, roads not able to be travelled, fractured relationships or behaviour you regret. Letting go of these smarting memories allows you to loosen shame’s hold over you.

Once you put a hurtful event in perspective, without denying or underplaying its impact, you reduce its power to dominate or limit you. This helps you feel liberated and gives you strength. If your shame was related to something you once did or didn’t do — but would greatly like to change — you can acknowledge the lessons you have learned and channel them to live more consciously.

If your shame originated from being bullied as a child or feeling demoralised during a relationship breakup or some other life-confronting experience, you can stop seeing yourself as a victim. You can realise that, sometimes in life, events are not a reflection of you or your worth but a reflection of the nature, needs and actions of others around you.

To substantially break free from past shame, it is important to get in touch with the reasons why you find it hard to let go, such as embarrassment, feeling used, having your trust abused or suffering because you feel you were made to look or feel like a fool. Once you recognise the emotions that fuel your shame, strategies such as seeking counselling, asking advice from wise friends who have helpful life experiences or reading self-help books can help you deal with these emotions individually.

To assist the process, you can also engage in some kind of ritual to symbolically represent the letting go. Try writing a letter to yourself outlining the many ways in which the hurtful event upset you and why you are moving on, and then bury it below a new plant to signify that this event is in the past and you are putting it behind you. Other helpful rituals include a smudging ceremony to heal the energy in your home, or finding a meaningful poem that represents your move forward, lighting a candle, then reading the poem and blowing the candle out.

If you have been badly hurt in your past, try not to focus on forgiving the act that hurt you but rather on forgiving the person for being too insensitive or self-interested. This very process will help you let go of that event and, in turn, release you from some of that shame.

Be vulnerable and courageous

“It’s better to walk in dignity than to ride in shame.” ~ Jesse Jackson

Our default position to feel shame and hide from it can usually be traced to powerful experiences in childhood and school. Red-faced experiences like being taunted by other children, stood up in class for passing a note, or marched back in to a shop by your mother to return the gum you stole teach us powerful lessons about shame and humiliation and trying to avoid it at all costs.

As we grow, we are also taught by adults to associate shame with playfulness and abandon – so we become more serious and comply with pressure from parents, friends and partners to “act your age”, “keep the noise down” or “be sensible, not silly”. This creates a fear that we’ll be judged as bad or stupid if we are seen expressing emotions or joy. Then, often the only way we feel comfortable achieving these states is after we’ve downed a tall glass of chardonnay to anaesthetise our fears of shame.

It’s hardly surprising then that the fear of shame becomes a major player in our lives. “As children we find ways to protect ourselves from vulnerability, from being hurt, diminished and disappointed,” Brown observes. “We put on armour; we use our thoughts, emotions and behaviours as weapons: and we learn to make ourselves scarce, even to disappear.” But, once we reach adulthood, this protective emotional chainmail starts to feel heavy and weigh us down.

“It gets in the way of us leading connected lives and also really facing and addressing what we are feeling,” Brown explains. “As adults we realise that to live with courage, purpose and connection — to be the person whom we long to be — we must again be vulnerable. We must take off the armour, put down the weapons, show up and let ourselves be seen.”

If we don’t push through this emotional barrier, shame can stifle our inner truth, suppress us from identifying what feeds our soul and become the ultimate roadblock to intimacy, creativity and personal growth. If you are afraid of shame, you are less likely to take risks, be honest and open with people close to you and less likely to pursue anything new, whether painting a landscape or embarking on a new relationship, in case you fail or don’t show your true potential. “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change,” agrees Brown.

To steal shame’s thunder, we need to learn to be vulnerable. At the heart of this is honesty: not blurting out every single thought and feeling unedited but knowing when and how to reach out and share your experience with people to support them and to have that mirrored back to you when you need it, too. “When you see vulnerability, it is pure courage,” says Brown. “To be vulnerable is to let ourselves be seen. Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

In Brown’s research about how shame can stifle our lives, she has spent over a decade exploring the impact of shame and, more recently, looked at what qualities are different in people who seem to be less afflicted by shame — the group she says are able because of this to live “whole-heartedly”. What she found was that they did not shy away or run from being vulnerable. On the contrary, they openly embraced it.

Says Brown: “They did not see being vulnerable as a sign of weakness, just a fact of life. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. This was not comfortable or excruciating — just necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, ‘I love you’ first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees.”


Stephanie Osfield is an award-winning freelance health journalist published in Australia and overseas. She is an advocate of nutritional medicine and specialises in all aspects of health, from exercise and disease prevention to stress, depression and women’s health issues. You can follow her blog Savvy at

Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield is an award-winning freelance health journalist. She is an advocate of nutritional medicine and specialises in all aspects of health, from exercise and disease prevention to stress, depression and women’s health issues.

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