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Working Through Shame

Of all of the emotions we can experience as humans, shame is perhaps one of the most hard-hitting ones of them all. Indeed, a study from The Journal of Psychology showed that shame feelings are associated with low self-esteem, hostility, and psychological distress, with women experiencing higher levels of shame in comparison to men.

But what exactly is shame, anyway? And how can we be kind to ourselves if this emotion starts taking over? Read on for my tips.

The Crucial Difference Between Guilt and Shame

I define guilt as an emotion that occurs when you feel that you have broken your own moral code in some way. We feel guilty when we snap at our partner after a long day, when we didn't call our mom when we said we would, or when we generally acted in a way that didn't align with our personal value system. In this way, guilt is actually a very healthy and important emotion as it guides us to make amends.

Shame, too, can be useful when it's in healthy doses. Shame is the emotion that might step in when we feel like we've really messed up and can direct us to turn our attention inward and see what needs to change for us to feel like we're acting in healthier ways for ourselves and others.

But then there's toxic shame.

Toxic shame occurs when shame overrides your entire sense of self. Instead of thinking, "I'm a good person who did a bad thing," you think, "I'm a bad person. I'm unlovable. I'm disgusting." Your entire sense of self erodes and you start experiencing feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, too. Unlike guilt or healthy shame, which often motivates us to make positive changes, toxic shame is paralyzing. In this state, we shut down. And when this state persists for days, weeks, or months, we enter what's called a shame spiral, where we eventually reach a point of feeling like others or even the entire world would be better off without us. It is a place from which no healthy growth can occur.

I'm sure it's no surprise to hear that toxic shame has the potential to lead to a number of mental health disorders, from anxiety and depression to eating disorders and substance abuse (1).

What to Do When You've Entered a Shame Spiral

1. To know how to gently remove yourself from a shame spiral, you have to know when you're in one. Here's a super useful acronym I found that indicates the different symptoms of shame (2):

Self-deprecating comments


Avoidance of the here-and-now


Emotional withdrawal

2. Brené Brown, one of the leading researchers on shame, found that individuals with a high degree of shame resilience—meaning they can move through shame "without jeopardizing their authenticity"—had these things in common:

  • They know what their shame triggers are.

  1. This is very personal to each person. For those with eating disorders, for example, breaking one of their many eating rules like eating too many calories in a day has the potential to trigger a shame spiral. I often witness mothers feeling ashamed when they feel as though they haven't met the endless unrealistic expectations that are imposed on them from society. Or the couple going through infertility might feel ashamed and thus keep their diagnosis from friends and family.

  2. PRACTICAL TIP: keep a journal or note in your phone and jot down the different moments in which shame arises. With heightened awareness, we can take more intentional steps to take care of ourselves proactively rather than reactively.

  • They have the ability to check the facts.

  1. Whenever I'm feeling any intense emotion, I tell myself to check the facts, which is essentially about giving yourself a reality check.

  2. PRACTICAL TIP: ask yourself questions like the following during a shame spiral:

  3. Is it possible that there's more to the story that I'm not considering right now?

  4. Is it possible that I'm being unnecessarily hard on myself?