A photo of a man wearing a sign that says "Failure" to represent the topic of the article - The Very Important Role Shame Can Play In Our Mental Health

The Very Important Role Shame Can Play In Our Mental Health

Shame, unlike guilt, which focuses on a specific action, is a powerful emotion centred around feeling like we, as a person, are fundamentally flawed or unworthy. Thus, it can play a significant negative role in our mental wellbeing.



What Is Shame?


Shame is seen as a negative emotion that arises when one is seen and judged by others (whether present, possible, or imagined) to be somehow flawed in some way, or when some part of ourselves is believed to be inadequate, inappropriate, or immoral (Dolezal and Lyons, 2017).


This means shame can be a social event where we’re being judged and shamed in the eyes of others or a private feeling linked to our judgements of our own feelings, abilities, and characteristics (Matos and Pinto‐Gouveia, 2010).




How Shame Damages Our Mental Wellbeing


In the moments when we feel shame, we feel flawed or inferior, feeling as though others can see this as well (Dolezal and Lyons, 2017). Thus, this feeling can affect our behaviours, how we see ourselves, our identity, and how we feel about social acceptability and desirability (Matos and Pinto‐Gouveia, 2010). In short, shame can harm our identity and the social bonds we have, whether the shame is real or imagined.


During the Samurai period of Japan, Samurai would commit seppuku (harakiri) to avoid bringing shame to them, their clan, and their lord. This is an extreme example, but people do go out of their way to avoid shame, even if that avoidance means harming one’s self (Dolezal and Lyons, 2017). Furthermore, Samurai culture isn’t the only culture to take shame to such extreme measures.


A single-person case study by Vanderheiden and Mayer (2017) that focused on the development and change of one individual over 12 months to investigate shame had some interesting results. They collected their data through in-depth face-to-face interviews, Skype and telephone calls, observation of the participant in the group they were attending, field notes of participant observations, and a researcher’s diary.


The group the participant attended was a long-term archetypal group development process, used to develop people’s awareness of the ways archetypes were actively impacting someone’s life and decisions.


The participant was experiencing shame for who their parents were, the fear the children might be ashamed of the participant (how they look, behave, and what the participant did), and the fear of shame due to failure.




However, by working on the deep-rooted sense of shame the participant experienced, they were able to let go of it and reduce their feelings of inferiority. Furthermore, they also identified that they were ashamed of who they’d married, showing signs of improvements in that regard thanks to acceptance and admitting that feeling existed.


The results of all this were improvements to the participant’s self-esteem, creating a new self-image, and feeling empowered. Even a year later, the participant was more mindful, empowered, and positive.


As Vanderheiden and Mayer’s (2017) study noted, and which is supported by Matos and Pinto‐Gouveia (2010), shame is an experience of the self that is related to how we believe others see us in their minds. In the case of the participant in the case study, it was how they thought their children would see them and be ashamed of them.


So it’s not a surprise that shame can be an alienating and isolating experience, which for that person experiencing it, is often disturbing and distressing (Dolezal and Lyons, 2017).




Another study, this time by Kõlves, Ide, and De Leo (2011), looked into the shame experienced by relationship breakdowns. Their study found that males are more vulnerable to shame caused by separation, and how that is linked to the development of suicidal ideation and intent. Although both males and females can experience this emotion when a relationship breaks down, it’s how each sex responds that appears to lead males to develop suicidality.


That’s likely because shame can make it difficult to be vulnerable and connect with others authentically. Something males have been historically bad at.


Shame has a strong presence in minority groups as well, because of stigma. Therefore, people with health issues, from a minority ethnicity, who are religious, who are LGBTQIA+, who are goth, etc. can experience shame born out of the stigma for their marginalised group (Dolezal and Lyons, 2017).


I know I was made to feel ashamed of the colour of my skin. So much so that I spent almost all my childhood wishing I was White. This is even supported by (Matos and Pinto‐Gouveia, 2010). They report that people with early shame experiences tend to believe others judge and see them as inferior and inadequate, which the person internalises and applies to themselves. And yeah, that’s pretty spot-on for my experience.


Shame does a very good job of chipping away at our core beliefs of self-worth and lovability. It can make us feel like we’re not good enough, leading to low self-esteem. This also helps fuel our inner critic, taking it up to 11, leaving us with negative self-talk that further contributes to our feelings of inadequacy.


The picture is split in two, with the top image being of a two Black children standing with their hands covering their face in shame. The bottom image being of a someone standing with a paper bag on their head. The two images are separated by the article title - The Very Important Role Shame Can Play In Our Mental Health


People may also turn to substances or other unhealthy behaviours to cope with the overwhelming feelings of shame. Unfortunately, addiction then creates a negative feedback loop of shame (Flanagan, 2013). Someone with substance dependency feels shame for being dependent, with each engagement with their substance dependency, and subsequently, their failure to recover from their dependency.


Simply put, a situation that triggers shame might lead to negative self-beliefs and behaviours. These behaviours will reinforce the original feeling of shame, perpetuating the cycle.


It’s also interesting that the threat of shame can feel worse than physical pain or risk of death (Dolezal and Lyons, 2017). This is the reason some people weaponise this emotion to manipulate, blackmail, and abuse other people. Sextortion is an example of that. It’s little wonder that unresolved feelings of shame can lead to depression (Matos and Pinto‐Gouveia, 2010). In fact, it’s a common component of depression and anxiety, as it can contribute to feelings of hopelessness and social isolation.


My feelings of shame, which are now rooted in being overweight and my loss of hair, have replaced my typical anxiety disorder issues that used to drive me to want to stay at home. I used to have issues with leaving my home, which would trigger my psychosis, but not anymore. Now the desire not to be seen by other people and to stay at home is solely about the shame I feel about my weight and lack of hair.




Breaking Free From Shame



Kindness plays a big role in managing and overcoming shame. Practice self-compassion and treat yourself with the kindness you treat your loved ones, and don’t be so hard on yourself.



If you have made a mistake, accept responsibility for it. See this as an opportunity to learn and grow as a person (Stop It Now), rather than drowning in the negative feelings that making a mistake can bring.


To err is human

Think about how other people may also experience similar shame-inducing episodes (Psychology Today). Consider situations where they may feel, for example, bad, incompetent, defective, unlovable, or immoral. Then work on accepting that this can happen to any of us and that’s ok.



It’s easy to beat yourself up with hindsight about the insight you may have lacked at the time (Psychology Today). So forgive yourself for the feelings, thoughts, or actions of that former version of you.



Recognise the situations or thoughts that trigger feelings of shame. One way to do this might be to keep a journal so you can note down the situations and thoughts that triggered that feeling. That way, it’ll be easier to work out how to challenge the thoughts and find themes and patterns.



Challenge negative self-talk, negative beliefs, and other negative thoughts. Remember, everyone makes mistakes, and that doesn’t define you. One way to challenge negative self-talk is to keep a journal. But also to engage in thought challenges like reframing and putting your thoughts on trial. This is also better than attempting to suppress your thoughts, which more often than not, does the opposite of what you want.


Seek support

Talk to a trusted friend, family member, or therapist about your experiences with shame. Sharing your burden can be a powerful step towards healing.






Shame is a common human emotion. But it doesn’t have to control you. By developing self-compassion, challenging negative beliefs, challenging negative self-talk, and seeking support, you can break free from the cycle of shame and improve your mental wellbeing. Most of the time we feel shame, there isn’t even a valid reason for feeling that way.


As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, please share your experiences with shame in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget, if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, you can sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, click the red bell icon in the bottom right corner to get push notifications for new articles.


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Dolezal, L., & Lyons, B. (2017). Health-related shame: an affective determinant of health?. Medical humanities43(4), 257-263. Retrieved from https://mh.bmj.com/content/43/4/257 and https://mh.bmj.com/content/medhum/43/4/257.full.pdf.

Flanagan, O. (2013). The shame of addiction. Frontiers in Psychiatry4, 62422. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/journals/psychiatry/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00120/full.

Kõlves, K., Ide, N., & De Leo, D. (2011). Marital breakdown, shame, and suicidality in men: A direct link?. Suicide and Life‐Threatening Behavior41(2), 149-159. Retrieved from https://www.trieft.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Shame_Suicide_in_Men_Kolves.pdf.

Matos, M., & Pinto‐Gouveia, J. (2010). Shame as a traumatic memory. Clinical psychology & psychotherapy17(4), 299-312. Retrieved from https://estudogeral.uc.pt/bitstream/10316/46618/1/2010_Shame%20as%20a%20traumatic%20memory_%20repositorio.pdf.

Vanderheiden, E., & Mayer, C. H. (Eds.). (2017). The value of shame: Exploring a health resource in cultural contexts. Springer. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Claude-Helene-Mayer-2/publication/315850182_Shame-A_Soul_Feeding_Emotion_Archetypal_Work_and_the_Transformation_of_the_Shadow_of_Shame_in_a_Group_Development_Process/links/62bc3f5793242c74cad76557/Shame-A-Soul-Feeding-Emotion-Archetypal-Work-and-the-Transformation-of-the-Shadow-of-Shame-in-a-Group-Development-Process.pdf.

14 thoughts on “The Very Important Role Shame Can Play In Our Mental Health

  1. Really interesting post. My experience with shame is connected to my mental health. I’m a Christian and in the Christian community you’re supposed to trust in God. You shouldn’t need to see a therapist. If you are feel you need to see a therapist, then your faith is weak. This thinking is being challenged, but there is still a stigma on mental illness in Christian communities. Because of this I felt shame for being depressed. I didn’t really want to talk about my depression with anyone because of that shame. I felt like I shouldn’t be dealing with depression if I’m supposed to be a Christian. It took me a long time to put aside that shame and open up to a therapist. It took even longer for me to decide to take antidepressants. I was very lucky to meet an understanding therapist who was very kind and patient with me. She really helped me to see that going to therapy and taking antidepressants didn’t make me a bad Christian and that released me from the shame I felt. Thankyou for sharing this post.

    • I was raised Christian, so I can understand that. I experienced a lot of trauma growing up, and my mum would keep telling me it was part of god’s plan. Like there wasn’t a less traumatic way to get me to the same point. It sounds like the strength you found to overcome that feeling of shame and reaching out for support really paid off. I’m glad you were able to get the support you needed and I hope you’re still doing well. Thanks for sharing

  2. Humans are wacky sometimes. I wonder if that’s social or cultural programming. Or is just simply our awareness? Interesting

  3. This is such a good one to cover, and I find studies on it fascinating (I did a psych degree so I love research generally). Shame is a complex issue, isn’t it? I actually started two blog posts a long time ago now, one for shame and one for guilt. I never got too far as it’s quite close to home and really difficult to write about concisely. You’ve done really well with it.
    It’s reassuring to know you can “process” the shame and learn more about the root of it to change your thoughts, feelings and consequential behaviours. It’s awful to think how much shame, like guilt, can hold us back from our own lives in so many ways.
    Caz x

    • Shame has a weird place in society because it can make us do things against our best interest, and in extreme cases, led to violence. Being human is just so complicated. Thanks for sharing your thoughts

  4. Great post as usual thank you as always for bringing your very valuable expertise, experience and perspective to the table to talk about this. It’s something many people struggle with and I love that you brought up treating yourself with kindness and compassion. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Fantastic article. I knew shame was bad, but I didn’t realise there were so many links to shame and our mental health. I’m sorry you experience shame about your weight and hair. I think treating yourself with kindness and forgiving mistakes is important. Everyone makes them. Thank you for sharing 🙂

  6. Very informativ, this article focus on important things regarding shame. And it is more common in our communities these days and impact our communications with others. Great post!

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