Shame: The Painfully Elusive Key

You know those moments when you feel terrible, but you’re not really sure what’s happening, and why? You’re disconnected from your body. You feel anxious when people look at you. You walk into a room with your gaze down, shoulders bowed. You keep to the corner because you are certain if you were seen, others would know you were different. They’d know there’s something wrong with you. You ruminate after every interaction, try to please everyone, aim for perfection, and feel like an imposter. Unseen and misunderstood. Lonely and disconnected. Anxious and sad.

This is a manifestation of shame.


Shame is an elusive sneaky little thing. Is it an emotion? Is it a mechanism protecting from emotion and vulnerability?

One of the things about shame is that it muddles the truth. It’s hard to pin down. Who wants to look shame in the face?

Dancing with shame.

There are many ways to define shame. This article describes some of what I’ve learned. This is not an exhaustive interpretation, but covers the basics. These ideas inform the way I see and work with it, while allowing shifts and evolution over time the more I dance with it. Let me know how it helps you.

So what is shame, exactly?

Ultimately, shame is relational.* It is about self-regulation, vulnerability, and how you are perceived by others.

Shame is tied to feelings of unworthiness, isolation, despair, attachment style.
Shame is tied in to trauma, envy, jealousy, anger, belonging, connection, loss.

Shame vs guilt.

Shame is different from guilt. Guilt says, “I did something wrong” or “I failed” or “what I did wasn’t okay.” Shame says, “I am wrong” or “I’m a failure” or “who I am is not okay.”

While guilt is about an action or behavior, shame is about identity.

It’s easier to repair the feeling of guilt. You can feel remorse. You can apologize for what you did wrong. You can ask for forgiveness.

On the other hand, shame does not want to be named. Shame is too shameful (humiliating, disgusting, afraid) to be named.

Where does shame come from?

Shame results from relational trauma. When a sense of safety or connection is challenged.

When there is a lack of attunement from caregiver to child which disrupts self-regulation. It can be pre-verbal (before learning to speak); before there is spoken language. This makes it even harder to understand.

Shame also comes from ostracization from a group. It happens when you see yourself through others’ eyes, and they are reflecting disgust or disapproval back to you. You turn that energy back onto yourself and absorb it. “There must be something wrong with me, for them to look at me like that, and act like that.”

What are the effects of shame?

Shame results in the loss of self-identity. You are split into a second identity of observing the situation. There may be avoidance or denial. Or there may be anger or blame extended to others.

What sensations does shame create?

The physical manifestation of shame can be to make yourself smaller, avoid eye contact, lose access to your voice.

It may trigger a freeze response, emotional flooding, confusion and disorientation. It may trigger a fight response and anger. It may trigger a fleeing withdrawal response.

What is the impact of shame?

Lack of trust, need for security, self-blame. Externalizing problems, becoming hyper-vigilant in focusing on others, self-censoring, having difficulty with connection and being seen.

There may also be shaming of shame. You may not be able to get help for emotional distress caused by shame, and even if you try, help may not touch it when you’re deep in shame.

The most burning question: How do you alleviate shame?

It’s not about eliminating shame. And it’s not about pushing past the barriers and resistance, only to be laid flat by self-bludgeoning thoughts.

Shame is vulnerable. Vulnerability is vulnerable.

First, can you identify the evasive cause of conflict? Can shame be slotted into a situation you’re struggling with most? Do these descriptions seem familiar? It may help to not feel so isolated in this experience.

Offer your shame deep compassion and acceptance.

Read more about how to dance with shame here.

Stay tuned to read more about the two parts (relational and internal) of working with shame.

*Source: Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame: A Relational/Neurobiological Approach by Patricia A. Deyoung