What Is Shame? (Plus 3 Steps to Overcome It)

Posted By: on October 16, 2015

Imagine that when you were young, you came home with a shiny new toy bought with the money from your piggy bank, and your parents thought it was a frivolous purchase. Instead of celebrating and being excited with you, your dad might have said something in a critical and angry tone like, “I can’t believe you spent your money on that!”

Any statement in which we feel diminished, defined, dismissed, or discounted is a humiliating transaction. Shame is the response to a humiliating transaction. In shame, we comply with the implicit message: there must be something wrong with me; I am not enough.

Shame leads us to retreat within ourselves and withdraw into a compliant place. Over time, we internalize the humiliating voices and start to shame ourselves when we feel we have made a mistake.

Why Can Financial Trouble Cause a Person to Feel Shame?

In our culture, one of the ways we value ourselves and experience a sense of worth is through money. We are told that we should feel better about ourselves when we have a lot of money and worse when we don’t.

So, if we come across hard financial times—sometimes as a result of our own doing and sometimes because of unforeseeable outside circumstances—we send a humiliating message to ourselves and then, create a sense of shame.

  • How could you let this happen?!
  • There must be something wrong with me.
  • What’s wrong with me that I’m not making more money?
  • I should have known better.

We tell ourselves, implicitly, that we are not enough. And, worst of all, we believe ourselves.

How Does Living with Shame Affect an Individual and Impact Their Relationships?

Shame causes us to feel badly about ourselves and withdraw. When we create this internal sense of inadequacy, we begin to avoid the people around us. We become less likely to talk about our feelings, struggles, hurts, and vulnerabilities.

This is the time when we need to reach into relationship for care and support from the people that love us, yet shame tells us to hide away in fear because people will see our self-imposed inadequacy and critique us as well.

When hard times hit us (and they hit us all) here are some ways we can begin working through and overcoming shame:

1. Be Compassionate Toward Yourself

For example, if we find ourselves becoming self-critical, be compassionate toward the self-critique saying, “This critical voice must be here to protect me from making this mistake again. Thank you critical voice for your intention to help. I appreciate your intended care, but I think I can find a better way.”

2. Speak Kindly to Your Sadness

We can also speak kindly to that sad and scared part of us: “I understand the sadness and fear  that I feel and I will make room for those feelings.”

3. Reach Out to Others

In addition to doing that for ourselves, we can reach out to others during these times for their support and understanding. It’s best if we care about ourselves and have someone else who cares about us, too.


If you find yourself trapped in your shame and just can’t seem to get out, then you might want to consider help from a therapist. Sometimes we get stuck in a feedback loop of self-criticism and negativity. If that’s the case, a therapist can lend a compassionate ear and help you to find self-empowerment.

Carl R. Nassar is a professional counselor and director of Heart-Centered Counseling, a comprehensive counseling center located in Fort Collins, Loveland, and Greeley. You can learn more about Carl at carlscounseling.com and all about his counseling center at heartcenteredcounselors.com.

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