How to Deal with Shame in a Healthy Way

A reader asks:

I’ve done something I’m not proud of and feel a lot of shame about it. But unlike most negative emotions that sort of fade with time, I feel like my shame is just getting worse. What should I do? What’s the right way to handle shame?

Shame seems like an especially tricky emotion to deal with because people often mean very different things by it.

For example, here are two common (but very different) definitions of shame:

  1. An emotion characterized by a negative evaluation of the self. A feeling of distress, exposure, and worthlessness that arises from a discrepancy between one’s ideal self and actual self.
  2. The emotion we experience when we’ve done something morally wrong and are conscious that other people know it.

I’m partial to the second definition and tend to think of shame as something like public guilt. But there are perfectly good reasons to think of it as the former.

So, my first recommendation for dealing with shame is to define it for yourself… What exactly are you feeling and how is it distinct from other types of emotion? If nothing else, this will help you be less confused about your shame, which should make it a bit less overwhelming and distressing.

Next, remember that shame—like all difficult emotions—is not an enemy out to get you. Instead, it’s like a good friend trying to give you some difficult advice—and just because you don’t like the message doesn’t mean the messenger is bad. What’s more, just like even the most well-intentioned friends can often give you bad advice, your emotions—while always well-intentioned—aren’t necessarily helpful.

For example, suppose you feel ashamed after being rude to a colleague during a meeting at work. Now, the function or purpose of the shame is to prevent you from doing that again in the future (like a painful reminder). And if you feel a bit of shame for a day or two after the meeting, that’s probably helpful in steering you away from similar behavior in the future. But if you’re continuing to feel shame about it years later, that message probably isn’t especially helpful anymore, which means you should feel free to disregard it.

And this is the trick…

Difficult emotions like shame often become bigger and more persistent than they ought to be because of how we respond to them.

If you feel shame but then become obsessed with it—constantly ruminating about it and why you feel that way, trying to get rid of it or suppress it, talking about it ad nauseam in your therapy sessions—you could be unintentionally reinforcing it and making it stronger.

Ultimately, my advice for dealing with shame is the same as for dealing with any other difficult emotion: Briefly acknowledge it and validate that it’s just trying to help, be willing to have it (i.e. don’t try to get rid of it), but stop obsessing over it and move on.

The more willing you are to have shame and get on with your life the less of a prisoner to it you will be.