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Unmasking Shame

Is shame stopping you from achieving your professional goals?

Unmask it.

Building a successful career or business is challenging. Uncontrollable factors – like a lackluster job market or a poor economy – can hinder career and business success. Emotional issues – like shame – can also prevent goal achievement.

Consider the experiences of Sara, Patrick, and Vern as they went about their daily lives.

Why did Sara, Patrick, and Vern judge themselves so harshly and spiral into destructive thought patterns after their encounters? After all, Sara had no idea how the fellow student stayed so thin. She could have had an eating disorder or exercised eight times a week. Patrick encountered a hostile customer who acted out because of her own problems and not because of anything he did. And Vern could have been sitting next to a man who used a hair loss medication to maintain his full head of hair.

What they experienced had nothing to do with the appearances or behaviors of the other people. It had to do with how they feel about and view themselves.

Shame Defined

Can you see yourself in Sara's, Patrick's, and Vern's experiences? Do encounters like these trigger deep feelings of badness and inadequacy within you? If so, you could be experiencing internalized shame.

Shame is one of the most demoralizing and damaging emotions. It is the experience of feeling bad about oneself or some aspect of one's self. There is a difference between having a shameful moment and living a shame-filled life. When we misstate the facts about something, we may feel embarrassed about our lack of knowledge. If we hurt a friend's feelings, we may feel horrified at our insensitivity. When we lose a competition, we may feel disgraced. For people who feel good about themselves, feelings of shame pass rather quickly.

However, people who have low self-esteem or lack self-love may suffer from a deeply rooted sense of badness. They live in inner worlds – in their hearts and minds – of shame and self-loathing. They find a way – like Patrick – to blame themselves for things that are not their responsibility. They compare themselves – like Sara and Vern – to others and almost always come up short. They may be talented, gifted, smart, charming, and have many other positive qualities; yet they truly believe they are bad people. As a result, they constantly beat up on themselves about every flaw, mistake, negative interaction, misstep, or failure and rarely give themselves credit for their strengths and achievements.

This kind of internalized shame is the fundamental belief that one is unworthy, defective, unlovable, and undeserving. It creates an ugliness and a poisonous self-contempt that creep into every part of the person's being. Shame runs deep into the core of a person's psyche and defines who they are and how they view the world.

In his book, Shame: The Power of Caring, Gershan Kaufman (1992) described shame as follows:

"To feel shame is to feel seen in a painfully diminished sense….Contained in the experience of shame is the piercing awareness of ourselves as fundamentally deficient in some vital way as a human being. To live with shame is to experience the very essence or heart of the self as wanting" (p. 8-9).

Shame has many detrimental effects on people including the following:

Origins of Shame

All of us have shaming experiences because – sadly – we live in a difficult and sometimes brutal world. Punitive rules as well as rewards and punishments that are distributed indiscriminately cause people to feel insecure and unwanted. Furthermore, our capitalistic society glorifies money, power, and materialism and assesses people's worth by these criteria.

From the time we are children, we receive messages from a myriad of sources that we are lacking in some way. Television, movies, magazines, and other media tell us that we are not pretty, handsome, rich, smart, or talented enough. Societal norms, values, and laws convey that we are simply not good enough if we do not live in a particular area, socialize with the right people, attend the best schools, choose high-powered professions, or adopt prescribed lifestyles.

These societal messages are intensified in the hearts and minds of people who are raised in shame-based families where dysfunction is a part of daily life. These children often deal with a number of dehumanizing and shaming stressors such as the following:

They receive constant messages from their parents and other family members that they are (a) unimportant; (b) lacking in some fundamental way; and (c) not entitled to their bodies, minds, and lives. This extreme lack of love and respect causes children to believe that there is something terribly wrong with them; otherwise their love ones would care about them. This mistaken belief causes a deep sense of shame to take root. In reality, there was nothing they could have done or said to change their parents' or caretakers' cruel behavior or their families' dysfunction.

Shaming societal and familial experiences feed off of each other, creating a vicious cycle that causes the shame to deepen as children grow and mature. The belief in their badness runs so deep that they come to believe they were born bad, unworthy, or inadequate. They walk around shaming themselves for every mistake, flaw, failure, disappointment, difficult situation, bad relationship, or any other imperfection in their lives. They believe that every insult or negative interaction is evidence of their badness. Unfortunately, they may project their shame into others – particularly those closest to them – by shaming, blaming, and degrading them, which creates even more shame and misery.

Shame-filled people cannot see that their deep sense of shame is a distortion and not an accurate reflection of who they really are.

Hiding Shame

Shame contributes to a wide range of emotional problems such as anger, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. The pain of shame coupled with the resulting emotional problems drive people to develop a myriad of coping strategies – both conscious and unconscious – to numb the pain including the following:

They are often unable (despite their strengths) to effectively deal with life's many challenges, disappointments, and uncontrollable situations. They may also experience overwhelming feelings of sadness, fear, and loneliness. These external difficulties and emotional problems cause constant mental anguish.

This is simply no way to live.

Healing From Shame

If you are dealing with shame, the steps listed below can help you start healing and creating a happier life.

Thus, the first step to healing from deeply entrenched shame is to become aware of it. Shame must be unmasked because it cannot be properly addressed until it is exposed.

Truly facing our problems is scary and utterly painful. But is it any more painful than living in denial and emotional turmoil? Once you expose the shame and all the pain that it has caused throughout your life, you will probably begin to feel some relief.  

We do not choose our parents, ethnicities, social and economic statuses, or countries of origin. We are simply born into this world, and we have to take what we get no matter how bad it might be. If you developed a sense of badness as a child, it is because you did not get the love, respect, and nurturing you needed from those you depended on. As a result, you did not develop the strong self-esteem and powerful sense of self needed to create a healthy, thriving life.

Fortunately, you now have the opportunity to build trusting relationships with people who will value, respect, appreciate, and care about you. But you have to feel worthy and be emotionally healthy enough to attract these people and build mutually respectful and caring relationships with them.

Revealing the deepest, darkest, and most painful parts of yourself to someone who will embrace and accept who you are and where you have been can help you begin to accept yourself. The therapeutic relationship is so powerful because the therapist is focused solely on you and your needs. He or she will reflect back to you the caring and respect that you are not yet able to give yourself. In time, you will start to internalize (adopt) the therapist's positive beliefs about you.

Working with a therapist is not a sign of weakness. It is the mark of strength, intelligence, resilience, and courage. Think about it this way:

If you slipped on some ice and broke your leg, you would go to the emergency room immediately. You would not put a splint on it and take aspirin to heal the injury.

If you are feeling a profound sense of shame, you are no doubt experiencing a sense of brokenness – a broken heart, a crushed spirit, a traumatized mind, a shattered sense of self, or some combination of these awful states of being. Just like a physician can help you heal your broken leg, a skilled and compassionate therapist can help you heal from an unrelenting shame that deprives you of joy, peace, health, and success.

A Path to Success

Life is truly too short to spend it living with debilitating shame. It will continue to rob you of self-worth, make you feel powerless, and hinder your ability to excel in your career (and life).

So, if shame is holding you back, then take steps to overcome it and create a path to success.


Caldwell, R. D. Healing Shame: Understanding How Shame Binds Us and How to Begin to Free Ourselves. http://www.psychsight.com/ar-shame.html.

Kaufman, K. (1992). Shame: The Power of Caring, 3rd ed. Rochester, Vermont: Schenkman Books, Inc.

Salters-Pedneault, Ph.D., K. What is Shame? About.com. http://bpd.about.com/od/glossary/g/shame.htm.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice.  Always consult a physician or mental health care professional regarding physical and mental health issues.

Copyright © 2013. Revised 2014.  Katherine Williams. All rights reserved. This article, or parts thereof, may not be reprinted or reproduced without written permission from the author.

© 2014 Katherine Williams. All rights reserved.

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