Dealing with Shame

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can't survive.” –Brené Brown



We’ve all felt it—the soul melting rush of shame. It happens to nearly everyone, and it can happen at any time. Sometimes you can see it coming. Maybe you’ve been shamed by someone before so you anticipate it. But sometimes shame appears out of nowhere and slaps you in the face, leaving you gasping for breath.

Shame, as with all emotions, originates in our bodies before it shows up in our conscious awareness. The brain signals our adrenal glands (located on top of our kidneys) to release a large amount of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is part of the mechanism responsible for getting us ready to stand and fight or run and flee. Cortisol causes major arteries to constrict, which causes our heart rates to elevate. Cortisol also sends glucose to our major muscles so that our muscles have fuel and are ready to flee. All of this happens in a fraction of a second, beyond our conscious control.

We can’t prevent our response to shame anymore than we can prevent the flight or fight response when we see a bear. Thanks to this response, we run away from the bear and only later, when we’re safe, does the overwhelming fear register in our thoughts. The part of our brain responsible for responding to fear is unable to distinguish between different types of danger, so our response to shame functions in much the same way as our response to a bear. Our bodies sense danger, and we react.

Shame registers in our brains as a threat because it makes us fear that we will be socially ostracized and cut off from others. So when shame strikes and we are consumed with what others might think about us, we are not being petty or over reacting. Our panicked response to shame is a basic and fundamental need for social acceptance and connection.

So what on earth can we do? Are we doomed? Of course not, biology is never absolute destiny.

First, I believe it is important to realize that we’re feeling shame by identifying the signs our body is showing us—increased heart rate, flushed face, etc. While there are some common signs of shame, we all experience shame differently. For me, it starts at the top of my head and feels like someone has poured a bucket of warm water on me. My breath becomes shallower and my face feels warm. I’ve had clients describe their palms getting warm, or a sensation that begins in their stomach and spreads out.

Second, after we realize that what we’re feeling is shame, we can take a few slow, deep breaths. This helps reset our nervous system. Slow, deliberate breathing is a signal to our bodies that the danger has passed (because we can’t relax in the face of danger).

Finally—and this is the most important step—find a trustworthy friend or therapist and tell the story of your shame. Really! Out loud. Say the thing you find shameful to another person who has earned the right to hear it. “I made a stupid mistake at work and feel so ashamed.” “I said an inappropriate and really mean thing to my child out of frustration, and I hate myself for it.” Speaking our shame out loud removes the secrecy and judgment that surrounds it.

A word of caution is important here: Choose carefully the person to whom you tell your story. Are they good listeners? Have they shamed you before? Have they shared their stories with you? Speaking our shame out loud is a vulnerable act, and we need someone who will handle our shame with care and tenderness.

Brene Brown is a shame researcher. If you have not watched her TedTalk, Listening to Shame, click on the link and watch it now. She has a lively and engaging speaking style, and more importantly, she has solid research-based evidence behind what she says. Her research has shown that the best response is to speak our shame to someone who has proven worthy of hearing it. Shame cannot live in the light of our connection to others.

Think about that for a minute. It might initially feel counterintuitive—the last thing we want to do is expose our secret feelings of shame to others, right? But upon second thought, isn’t she right?  Exposure really is the key to unlock the prison of shame.

Shame is a universal experience. We may not be able to control our initial response to it, but we can take positive actions so that shame does not control our lives. We can regain our equilibrium by recognizing shame and calming ourselves. And then most importantly, by speaking our shame out loud to a trustworthy companion, we loosen its chains.

  • Can you think of a time that you experienced shame?
  • How did your body respond to shame? What were your bodily sensations?
  • Do you have a friend, therapist, counselor or partner that has earned the right to hear your shame stories?