Shame as an underlying issue in many psychological and mental health problems has not been well recognised. Even in the area of psychotherapy it has largely been ignored until relatively recently. Problems originating from the emotion of shame are, however, widespread.

Shame is a hard wired affect that is present in all of us. Shame often gets confused with guilt. It is different from guilt in the extent and intensity of the negative evaluation of the self, which leads to wanting to hide or to lash out and shame others. Feeling shameful is to feel bad, weak, insignificant and not good enough to exist.

Shame is an innate emotion that everybody experiences and often it does not become problematical. However, when the experiences that trigger shame are major and/or repetitive, and they are not noticed and repaired, shame can become debilitating.

There are many areas of the self that trigger shame. Concerns about physical appearance, issues around abilities, strength and size, a sense of helplessness or neediness, feeling defective or different, being seen or exposed and issues around closeness are common triggers. When one feels shame one feels exposed, humiliated or mortified. It is so painful considerable measures are taken to not feel that way again.

Shameful feelings were commonly felt in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquakes when so many struggled to seek help or to even talk about how hard things were. This was usually accompanied by notions such as “why can’t I cope”, “how can I feel like that” and “how can I complain when others are experiencing so much more or worse.” A myriad of shameful responses about the self are often at play in these scenarios, like “I’m weak”, “I’m needy”, “I’m defective”, “I’m incompetent” or “I’m bad”.

Shame can develop into a problem when events during the developing years damage ones ability to trust others, which is followed by a devaluing of the self. This devaluing of the self is a painful and difficult experience to live with. It creates a sense of being different or defective and sets one apart from others. It is not something that is easy to talk about (in fact to talk about it often triggers more shame) which often leads to the events not being talked about. In these cases the whole or parts of the experience are frequently forgotten or are well hidden, hidden from others and often also hidden from the self. Over time the link between the two is often lost and the precipitating events gone from conscious memory.

Shame and Abuse

Shameful feelings frequently become pervasive when a child is subject to sexual, emotional or physical abuse. If disclosure and reparation do not take place trust is broken and a devaluation of the self follows. To survive necessitates the child adapting and creating protective measures as a shield to shame and other painful feelings and memories. These adaptations may help initially, but over time and into adulthood they create more complex issues for the individual to manage, including various forms of distancing from others.

Shame is linked to low self esteem in that when a healthy self esteem is not achieved one is left with a depleted sense of self and a struggle with shame.

When shame becomes problematic it can have wide reaching effects; how one feels about and treats oneself and how one interacts with and treats others. It is paralysing and isolating, affecting ones ability to interact with others and take part in ordinary day to day activities. Shame is frequently behind other more known or obvious presenting issues such as depression, anger, relationship difficulties and substance abuse, which is one of the reasons why shame is often referred to as a hidden emotion.

Psychotherapy and counselling focus on recognising shame and other feelings, as well as how we try to avoid these distressing feelings and thoughts. There are often recurring themes and patterns that can be identified and worked through and this may mean talking about the past and how that might impact currently.

The psychotherapists at Talking Therapy are experienced in this work and in the way it is delivered, always valuing the client and what they wish to work through and carefully matching the pace and intensity with the individual.

If you would like to make an enquiry or a counselling appointment please call Talking Therapy on 027 722 5522 or email

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