Daily Change

Unshackling Shame: Understanding Its Grip and Taking Bold Steps Forward

Harnessing the Power of Self-Compassion to Overcome Shame

When we stumble in life, the emotion we often encounter isn’t just disappointment or sadness — it’s shame. Shame is that cringing feeling, that internal voice whispering, “I am a failure.” But here’s the truth: shame is not a reliable narrator of your life story, and understanding its function can help us rewire our brains to stand tall and take action.

The Burden of Shame

Shame is a deep-seated emotion that causes us to feel inadequate, unworthy, or regretful about who we are. Unlike guilt, which relates to our actions, shame touches upon our core self, making us believe that we are fundamentally flawed or unlovable. It is insidious and paralysing, hindering our ability to move forward.

Shame tends to flourish in secrecy, silence, and judgement. When we hide aspects of ourselves or our experiences because of shame, we only nourish its power over us. So, how can we overcome this debilitating emotion?

Understanding Shame’s Function

Shame, like other emotions, has evolved as a psychological mechanism that guides our behaviour. It acts as a social barometer, signalling us when we have violated societal or personal norms and need to correct our actions. Understanding this can help us see shame not as a verdict on our worthiness but as a feedback system that, albeit uncomfortable, aims to keep us aligned with our values.

However, when shame becomes pervasive, it can distort our self-image and lead to unhelpful behaviours, such as avoidance, isolation, or self-sabotage.


Rewiring Our Response to Shame

Overcoming shame doesn’t mean eradicating it completely — which is impossible — but rather changing our relationship with it. Here’s how we can start:

Cultivating Self-Awareness

The first step is to recognise when we’re feeling shame and what triggers it. This awareness creates a small gap between the emotion and our reaction, allowing us the space to choose a healthier response.

Practising Self-Compassion

Self-compassion, according to researcher Kristin Neff, involves treating ourselves with kindness, recognising our common humanity, and maintaining a balanced perspective during difficult times. When we’re ensnared in shame, self-compassion can be a powerful antidote. It allows us to acknowledge our flaws and failures as part of the shared human experience and respond to them with kindness rather than harsh self-judgement.

Cultivating Self-Acceptance

Instead of hiding or rejecting parts of ourselves that cause us shame, we can choose to accept them. This doesn’t mean resigning ourselves to unhelpful behaviours, but rather acknowledging our present state and our potential for change and growth. Self-acceptance also involves honouring our strengths and recognising our inherent worthiness, independent of external validation.

Reaching Out and Sharing Our Stories

Remember, shame thrives in secrecy. By sharing our stories of shame in safe and supportive spaces, we can break its hold over us. In voicing our vulnerabilities, we often find that others share similar experiences, which can help dispel feelings of isolation and unworthiness.

Seeking Professional Help

For some, shame can be deeply entrenched and linked with past traumas or adverse experiences. In such cases, seeking help from a mental health professional can be crucial. Therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) can be particularly effective in helping individuals navigate and overcome shame.


Ten signs that you may be stuck in shame and ways to move past them:

1. Negative Self-TalkSign: You consistently belittle or criticise yourself, and your internal dialogue is filled with self-deprecating comments. – Solution: Start noticing and challenging your negative self-talk. Replace it with positive affirmations and kinder self-dialogue.

2. Fear of JudgmentSign: You are overly worried about others’ opinions and constantly fear being judged or rejected. – Solution: Focus on your own self-worth and values instead of external validation. Practice self-acceptance and self-compassion.

3. Withdrawal from OthersSign: You isolate yourself, fearing that others will see your perceived flaws. – Solution: Reach out to trusted individuals and share your feelings. Support and understanding from others can help mitigate feelings of shame.

4. PerfectionismSign: You strive for perfection in everything you do, believing any failure or flaw will bring shame. – Solution: Recognise that perfection is unattainable and that it’s okay to make mistakes. Embrace your imperfections as opportunities for growth.

5. ProcrastinationSign: You put off tasks because you fear failure and the shame associated with it. – Solution: Understand that mistakes are part of the process. Start with small tasks and celebrate your progress to build confidence.

6. OvercompensationSign: You constantly feel the need to prove your worth to others, often overworking or overachieving to avoid feelings of shame. – Solution: Realise that your worth is not tied to your productivity or achievements. Practice self-care and establish healthy boundaries.

7. Difficulty Accepting Praise or ComplimentsSign: You struggle to accept praise or compliments and often downplay your achievements. – Solution: Practice receiving compliments gracefully. Start to recognise and value your achievements.

8. Unhealthy Coping MechanismsSign: You resort to unhealthy behaviours (like substance abuse or self-harm) to numb feelings of shame. – Solution: Seek professional help if needed. Find healthy outlets for your emotions, such as exercise, meditation, or creative pursuits.

9. Body Image IssuesSign: You feel shame about your physical appearance and struggle with body acceptance. – Solution: Practice body positivity and self-love. Understand that everyone is unique and that true beauty comes from within.

10. Excessive GuiltSign: You experience excessive guilt over minor mistakes or things out of your control, often feeling like you’re a “bad” person. – Solution: Differentiate between guilt (a response to an action) and shame (a judgement of self). Practice self-forgiveness and learn to let go of things beyond your control.

Remember, acknowledging and understanding shame is the first step towards overcoming it. It’s a process that requires time and patience, but with self-compassion and courage, it’s possible to break free from the grip of shame.


Standing Tall and Taking Action

Overcoming shame involves standing tall in the face of self-judgement and taking action towards our values and goals, despite feelings of unworthiness. It involves embodying what Brené Brown, a renowned researcher on vulnerability and shame, calls “wholehearted living” — embracing our vulnerabilities and believing that we are worthy of love and belonging.

Rewiring our brains to overcome shame is not a one-off event but a journey — a journey of self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-acceptance. It’s about letting go of the stories of unworthiness that we’ve been telling ourselves and writing new ones — stories of resilience, growth, and self-worth. By doing so, we can break free from the shackles of shame and step confidently into a future of our own making.

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