Deep, unhealthy shame is the internal feeling that we are useless or dirty or flawed as a person; that we are just not good enough. Shame can often result in low self-esteem. People living with underlying shame may believe these feelings are normal, and may think other people feel the same way. While these feelings may be quite common, they are not the norm, and can impede fulfilling our happiness.

Like other human emotions we may perceive as “all bad”, there certainly is a positive aspect of shame. In a positive setting, shame is the feeling message that let’s us know we aren’t acting within our morals and values .However chronic feelings of shame eat away at all aspects of our being and often lead us to unhealthy behaviours and attitudes. Healthy shame tells me I made a mistake; unhealthy shame tells me I am a mistake.

There are so many non-helpful messages we pick up throughout our lives that can become internal, automatic messages. We can unconsciously repeat these messages in our mind over and over again. We usually pick up, or formulate these non-helpful messages when we’re forming our self-image (how we see ourselves and how we believe others see us). The consequence of feeling this kind of shame is devastating and always painful.

Non-helpful shame may sound like:

  • “I’m a failure”
  • “Nobody could possibly love me”
  • “I’m not a good mother/father, son/daughter, student/worker”
  •  “I can’t relate to other people

Some non-helpful ways of coping with shame may include:

Self Abuse: self abuse either through your thoughts or with your body.

Chronic Victimization: difficulties setting limitations with other people, and don’t believe they have the right to say “No”. Not taking care of their own needs, often not recognizing they have needs. Difficulty taking responsibility for their own life and the consequences of their behaviour; usually blaming others for what is happening in their life (society, parents, boss).

Abuse of Others: taking out unresolved hurt and anger on others who are more helpless (like kicking a pet, or yelling at a younger sibling).
Depression: being weighed down by feelings (hopelessness, powerlessness, and overwhelmed).

Rage: unleashing rage is a way to keep other people away. “People can’t see my inner self if I keep them away.” Unable to feel in control of your life: anger is a way of maintaining control through intimidating others.

Control: to control feels powerful. When a person has power they feel less vulnerable to being shamed again. It involves controlling their feelings, thoughts, and actions as well as manipulating others.

Perfectionism: Being taught to have unrealistic expectations, fear of being abandoned if we’re not good, right, perfect, constantly push to do our best.

Addictions and other Compulsions: shame is at the heart of all addictions/compulsions. Shame sets a person up for psychological dependency which can lead to physical dependency.

  • Compulsive relationships – look for others to fill us up.
  • Enmeshed relationships – primary goal is passions and excitement.
  • Apathetic relationships – primary goal is avoiding vulnerability and pain. Each person walks down a parallel track with physical, emotional and sometimes social distance between them.

Suicide/attempts: the ultimate act of shame. I am hopeless, unworthy and don’t deserve or want to live.