The Valley of Shame

A Guide to Understanding and Healing From its Impact


It can occur in an instant…

You receive a standoffish comment from someone in your life, you miss a work deadline, you are exhausted and skip your workout routine for a few days…  The list of triggers that can evoke shame is endless. A deeply personal feeling about the self colored by our own complex life experiences, shame is nearly universally recognized. In other words, we all grapple with shame in one way or another.  

So What Exactly is Shame?

Shame is a feeling that accompanies a self-belief of falling short. Unlike guilt (a feeling that arises around isolated events of falling short, and can actually be motivating) shame is a deeply held understanding that one’s failings are the natural outcome of being a failure. Where guilt may cause one to say “I missed the deadline and blew it this time, but it is not a reflection of who I am. I want to do better next time,” shame declares, “I missed the deadlines and blew it again. Because that’s what failures do.” 

Signs of Shame

Shame is a spontaneously occurring global and definitive belief about our own essential worthiness, goodness, or lovability (ie. “I am not good enough”). There are often somatic or physiological sensations that accompany the feeling of shame; therapy clients will commonly describe a gut-churning sensation, pain in the chest, or tension and tightness in the body. The experience of shame has been associated with a vast array of mental health symptoms and conditions including low self-esteem, anxiety, irrational guilt, perfectionism, and addiction*.

How Shame Develops

There can be many origin points for the development of shame, but it often percolates in childhood as we are taking in our surroundings and learning about who we are.  Sometimes in this process we internalize harmful messages about ourselves (even when those messages were unintentionally transmitted by the people around us), leading to shame. One of the more troubling aspects of shame is how it confuses our mind-body system and defocuses us, detracting from our abilities to act in the ways we would like to act in our lives.  Because shame is such a painful internal experience (it “lives” within us), orienting toward mitigating feelings of shame instead of reacting to them often seems impossible.   

3 Responses to Shame

Renowned researcher Brené Brown, citing earlier research, describes that there are three common responses to shame itself, “moving away, moving toward, and moving against it.”  These three responses could be translated to repression (denial), people-pleasing / perfectionism, and aggression towards others (externalizing blame).  Unless properly healed, chronic shame can lead us down life paths that look nothing like the ones we would envision ourselves taking.  Because shame is such a painful feeling, it forces us to prioritize those responses to it whose impact will be most tolerable (responses that nourish shame as it lives on inside of us).

2 Ways to Heal From Shame

So what can be done to meaningfully address and heal shame?  It is a tricky task, particularly because shame can masquerade as a seemingly innocuous or even healthy perspective.  For example, saying to yourself “I want to learn to manage my time better in the future” after missing a work deadline could be driven by a recognition of something that feels genuinely important based on your personal values, or it could be fueled by a sense that “I’m no good at all unless I can make deadlines”.  There are two main methods for healing shame, the first being to habitually reinforce opposite practices such as self-compassion and self-acceptance, and the second being to learn to recognize (and manage) shame as it arises through a careful process of discernment. Habitual reinforcement of de-shaming practices might involve journaling about experiences, reflecting on and seeking clarity about values, engaging in loving-kindness meditations, or combined practices rooted in self-reflection and self-acceptance in an open and positive manner.

Addressing Shame Directly Through Therapy

Addressing shame directly involves recognizing experiences of shame (What am I feeling? What reactions are they causing in me?) followed by identifying shame’s deeply-trodden pathways dotting the internal maps of our emotions that we just can’t seem to find our way around. Once those common patterns of shame are recognized and understood differently (with compassion), they become much easier to release and far less painful. Therapy is an ideal venue for this type of work because therapists are trained to ask the types of questions that can help you make these important observations and connections.  Those connections can lead to the development of a Self that can observe shame, rather than just live in it. Brené Brown reminds us in this illuminating talk that shame has been called “the swampland of the soul” by psychiatrist Carl Jung.  It can be a daunting voyage to attempt to heal shame, but it is ultimately extremely rewarding and leaves you in a better space to live out the rest of life with more choice and freedom.

ADELINE DETTOR, LICSW, is a 1A Wellness therapist who specializes in working with couples, 20-somethings and working professionals.
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Note on Health Insurance

1A Wellness is a self-pay out-of-network practice. As such, we do not accept health insurance. But if your healthcare plan includes an out-of-network option, partial reimbursement may be available. See our FAQ section for more information.