University Counseling Center
227 Elkins Hall, 448-4080
Shame is at the root of low self-esteem. People who feel shame feel bad about who they are. This differs from feelings of guilt, which are related to thoughts, feelings, and actions. Those who experience the pain of shame have negative erroneous beliefs about their inherent abilities and worth. Large doses of unhealthy guilt can cause one to feel shame and its negative effects.
Social abilities are impeded when one feels burdened by shame. A person may have a pattern of avoiding social interactions, which can lead to lack of development of social skills. They may avoid intimacy with others and have only superficial relationships, which deteriorate in times of stress. Isolation and loneliness are serious consequences of shame. Self-condemning attitudes and negative self-talk reinforce the shame and ultimately lead to self-loathing and self-sabotaging behavior.
People who harbor feelings of shame often find that their significant relationships support their ongoing experience of low self-worth.
Are you in a shaming relationship?
Does a significant person in your life (such as a spouse, parent, adult, child, sibling, or supervisor) criticize you often?
Are you in a relationship in which you feel respect is lacking?
Do you feel that a significant person in your life is trying to make himself or herself feel superior at your expense?
Do you often feel publicly humiliated by a significant person?
If you answered “yes” to any of the questions above, you may need to examine how shame is affecting your relationships and behaviors. Shame will not simply go away. But it is a reaction that can be changed.
The following exercise is useful in changing self-concepts that are rooted in feelings of shame.
- Head a new page in your journal “My Positive Traits.” List the things you are good at such as gardening, working on the car, managing money, cooking, etc. Write down all skills, abilities, character traits, and experiences, strengths you can think of in all areas of your life.
- Consider yourself in relation to the other people in your life, including strangers. What positive traits do you have as a friend, child, spouse, sibling, patron
- First thing in the morning, select three items from your list. It doesn’t matter which three, so just start at the top on the list. The next day selects items 4 through 6, and so on.
- When you have time during the day (in the shower, driving to work, on your lunch break, while fixing dinner, before you fall asleep) recall a specific incident from your past in which you demonstrated the strength or attribute. Take time to relive the memory in detail.
- If the incident involved someone paying you a compliment or otherwise acknowledging your worth, and at the time you were unable to accept the praise, this time listen to what the person says without rejecting it. Imagine that you simply smiled modestly and accepted the compliment with a gracious “Thank you “or “It was my pleasure.”
- Recall any incidents that occurred during the day that demonstrate your positive characteristics. If these characteristics are not on your list add them.
The goal here is to learn to believe in your positive qualities and integrate them into your self-image. Keep doing this on a daily basis until you have completed the list. Add new qualities to the list as you proceed. Once you complete the list, start at the beginning.
The information in this document was adapted from Belonging: A Guide to Overcoming Loneliness by William R. Brassell, Ph.D. and Enhancing Self-Esteem by C. Jesse Carlock, Ph. D.