How to Cope With Shame

Asma Rehman, LPC
Latest posts by Asma Rehman, LPC (see all)

Black woman standing in front of a sunlit bush with her hand on her forehead, appearing distressed.Throughout our lives, we all experience intense moments of self-judgment and criticism that leave us feeling bad or angry with ourselves. Whether it’s something seemingly innocuous as criticizing yourself for misplacing your keys, or recalling words and actions from your past with a slight cringe of embarrassment, these feelings of shame are natural and common in our everyday lives.

That normalization of shame, however, tends to make it easy for us to slip into a habit of being too critical of ourselves over anything and everything, even over something as minor and insignificant as a broken dish. And while self-critical reactions in those situations may seem harmless at first, shame-based thoughts and feelings can have serious adverse effects on your everyday life if left unchecked.

Shame is more than just being hard on ourselves. 

It’s a painful feeling of embarrassment and self-judgment based on our thoughts and actions. 

Shame not only negatively affects the way we see ourselves, but also how we view our relationships and our place in the world. It adversely affects your self-esteem and self-worth while also contributing to a sense of isolation from peers and loved ones. 

Eventually, those feelings evolve into despair and hopelessness and you may start to believe that you aren’t deserving of love or happiness.

What’s the difference between shame and guilt?

Because shame and guilt share similar qualities and are often felt at the same time, these emotions are often confused or used interchangeably. There are, however, key differences. 

Guilt focuses more on the bad behavior or action and how it affects others, while shame focuses more on the self. If you find yourself saying “What I did was wrong,” it’s probably guilt. But if your comments fall along the lines of “I’m a terrible person for what I did,” then you’re experiencing shame.

These emotions often linger and can be difficult to forget. And When those feelings are embraced and accepted as truth, they can lead to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. There are, however, many ways to cope with these feelings of shame. 

Here are a few strategies you can try to help you cope with shame:

Learn to recognize shame-based behavior as it occurs.

Coping with shame and self-criticism can be a difficult process for anyone to manage for a litany of reasons. Because shame typically develops early in life, negative thoughts and feelings we perceive about ourselves become ingrained into our psyche to the point we believe critical self-judgment is natural and necessary. 

This alone can make shame difficult to recognize in ourselves, but it is not impossible.

white man over a black background, wearing a yellow beanie and black jacket, and holding his hands over his faceIf we wish to recognize and eventually cope with our shame, it’s essential to pay close attention to our thoughts, emotions, and actions throughout the day and keep a log of those feelings. Doing so allows us to observe and keep track of shame-based thinking or patterns of self-critical reactions, which teaches us how and when to pick up on similar thoughts and behavior as they occur.

Simply acknowledging these thoughts and behaviors over time can improve your ability to recognize when you’re experiencing moments of harsh self-criticism. Recognizing shame is also important to the coping process because it allows us to assess our thoughts and behaviors and help us identify possible reasons for feeling shame.

Explore the Origins of Shame

In order to recognize feelings of shame, it’s important to first understand where our shame comes from and what causes us to believe we are bad or undeserving of love.

For many people, shame develops in their childhood, often stemming from negative experiences with a caregiver that can range from harsh criticism and neglect to physical and emotional abuse. Other factors in childhood, such as heightened expectations from teachers and parents, a fear of rejection from peers for being perceived as different, and undiagnosed learning disabilities, can also contribute to critical self-judgement.

Genetic factors and familial circumstances can significantly impact mental health, particularly when there’s a family history of conditions like anxiety and depression, which are often associated with feelings of shame. The ramifications can be even more severe when these individuals are raised in a culture that stigmatizes or even dismisses the importance of mental health, thereby exacerbating these feelings.

To address this, joining an anxiety and depression support group can be an invaluable step towards healing. These groups provide a non-judgmental space for shared experiences, offering individuals a sense of belonging and understanding. They can be instrumental in breaking the chains of stigma and shame, nurturing an environment that promotes mental wellbeing.

Being able to identify and understand the origins of our shame is important to the coping process because it gives us a chance to reflect on our history and relationships and also provides us with an opportunity to better understand our younger selves, and potentially even forgive ourselves for past events over which we had no control.

Practice Self-Compassion

Self-compassion is an effective way to cope with shame, as it directly confronts self-critical thoughts and emotions. Not to be confused with self-esteem, which involves finding value and self-worth in the superiority of your abilities compared to others, self-compassion is about learning to care and be kind to yourself regardless of ability or success. Building self-compassion also requires mindfulness and common humanity. 

A white man wearing blue, sitting on a pier bench, rubbing his eyes with his handWriting a compassionate letter to yourself or speaking with your younger self can help you externalize and connect with parts of yourself you tend to shame and criticize. Even removing yourself from a shame-triggering situation with a walk can help you reflect on your thoughts and feelings and self-assess the cause of your shame.

Reframing negative thoughts and words into positive or factual ones whenever you find yourself experiencing shame is another effective example of building self-compassion. For example, instead of saying “I’m an idiot,” after failing a test, try swapping that thought for something factual and positive like “This isn’t my area of expertise, and that’s okay.”

Practicing and learning self-compassion may seem daunting to anyone who’s never embraced or even heard of the concept before. 

Breaking any habit is often difficult, especially one so ingrained as self-criticism and shame. Some of us feel like we don’t deserve compassion or that we’re not good enough to feel good about ourselves, so the idea of self-kindness and compassion can seem unfamiliar. And though those feelings are hard to shake, employing some of these strategies can help alleviate the shame you’re feeling and eventually improve your overall mental well-being.

Talk to Someone

Due to our natural inclination to project our negative self-perceptions onto others, shame can become very isolating. Those suffering from shame might be hesitant to share those feelings with anyone because they’re afraid they might be judged or criticized by others as much as they do to themselves. Some fear they may even be rejected, so they instead choose to suffer in silence, opting for isolation over connections. 

Although these feelings are natural and easy to embrace, they can be extremely harmful to your mental well-being.

Sharing your feelings of self-judgment and inadequacy with a loved one can be difficult but the act can prove very beneficial. Expressing these issues to a partner or close friend allows them to empathize and sympathize with you, and can help you realize that people will accept you despite the flaws you see in yourself.

If you’re looking for support in dealing with shame, individual counseling with a therapist can be another powerful coping skill. Our team of experienced clinicians specializes in providing individual counseling and is currently accepting new clients. Don’t hesitate to reach out today to get started on your journey towards healing and self-acceptance.


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