Shame is perhaps one of the most uncomfortable emotions in the human repertoire. It’s also an emotion that we’re very familiar with, as most people regularly experience small instances of shame throughout their normal week. When shame becomes chronic or starts to impact how we go about our routines, it may be time to work with a therapist.

What is shame?

Shame describes a feeling of intense embarrassment, self-disappointment, or humiliation after someone believes that they did something wrong. Inherent in the definition of this emotion is a judgment of what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” – which, in many cases, is not black-and-white. People who feel shame may perceive that they did something wrong when in reality, they did not. Despite this inaccuracy, they still feel ashamed.

Shame is a powerful emotion. It comes from our human desire to be accepted into a social group. When we feel like we did something wrong, we may worry that other people won’t like us or accept us. This can lead to feeling bad about ourselves and our actions.

Shame can be an adaptive reaction to a situation. It’s what keeps many people from breaking laws or social norms. However, when someone feels shame frequently and this shame becomes unbearable, it is no longer a helpful reaction and can, in fact, be harmful.

Origin of shame

The development of shame is a topic that is studied by many researchers, psychologists, and therapists across the world. People are very interested in shame because it’s a universally intense emotion. Shame comes from many origins, including childhood or adult experiences and social or culture expectations.

Shame is a natural response and everyone experiences shame at some point. However, for some, shame is an overwhelming emotion that can lead to feelings of worthlessness. Many people’s difficult relationship with shame starts in childhood. People who grow up in environments that taught them how terrible it feels to be ashamed, especially environments that were punitive or hostile, often have issues with shame. They may feel shame for things that they did not do wrong, or disproportionate shame to the situation. This can be a learned response from childhood.

People also feel shame because of internalized social or cultural beliefs. Often starting in childhood, we hear messages about how people should look, talk, and act. Depending on the culture, these messages can condem certain identities, traits, or behaviors. These messages, once internalized, become a reference point against which people measure themselves – and if they stray from the common path, they may feel ashamed of who they are, who they love, or what they do.

Symptoms of shame

When someone is feeling strong feelings of shame, they might have a physical reaction such as blushing, sweating, or  breathing heavily. Their heart rates might increase or blood pressure rises. Sometimes, people who are ashamed alter their body language so that they take up less physical space, including hunching over or folding their arms and legs into their body.

Internally, shame causes harsh self-judgements or criticisms. It’s common for people who are ashamed to engage in negative self-talk that can have a damaging impact on mood. People might feel inadequate, incompetent, and begin to doubt themselves. In extreme cases, feeling ashamed can cause identity confusion or identity loss. It can also heavily impact relationships, leading to conflict with friends, family, and loved ones.

Therapy for shame

Therapists who specialize in shame have experience in recognizing instances of shame in behaviors, words, and feelings. Sometimes, clients who are feeling intense shame come to therapy because they know they’re having challenges with their mental health, but don’t realize that their challenges stem from deep feelings of shame. Therapists teach clients how to identify shame and how to reflect on the origins of the shame.

Therapists also teach clients techniques for the growth of self-compassion. They empower clients to feel good about who they are and what they do, despite what society tells them or how they grew up. Speaking with a therapist about shame is a great way to unpack past experiences and strengthen resilience.