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Adele Wilde

Counsellor and Psychotherapist
Perth, Western Australia

Shame refers to feelings ranging from mild everyday embarrassment to the acute states of panic and paralysis that most or all of us have experienced at one time or another in our lives - and that some of us experience chronically. Strong shame involves a sense of personal inadequacy in which I am not going to measure up, that I will be shown as deficient (or possibly too much) in some important way. The experience of shame in extreme forms has a way of cutting to the bone of our sense of basic worth and capacity to survive and cope, a kind of background feeling that underlies other feelings and experience. When we are in extreme shame we are in a state of great vulnerability, and even have the potential to become self destructive and/or harmful to others. Alternatively, profound moments of shame can cause paralysis and inability to act and respond, particularly an inability to speak up. At a more chronic level shame can underlie feelings of powerlessness and passivity.

Shame is about the whole self and is distinctly different from guilt, which is often about the transgression of a personal value. In shame one feels naked, lacking in dignity and worth. Shame is often the failure to live up to an ideal image of oneself. We feel shame about being seen as 'weak' or 'worthless'. People don't actually feel low self-esteem; rather they feel ashamed, worthless, acutely embarrassed. The shamed person feels exposed, defective, diminished, or even has the experience of feeling totally destroyed. The behavioural response, when in a shamed state, is often an impulse to hide, to break eye contact, so as to avoid being seen. Shame is often referred to as 'losing face'. The linguistic roots of shame are to hide or cover up.

Guilt, on the other hand, generally involves a breach of personal values of right and wrong. Guilt is about something one has done, whereas shame is about whom one is, about oneself not being good enough. We are ashamed about who we are. In guilt we can take action to remove the guilt by making reparation. In shame there is no way to redeem oneself. The shamed person is stuck and immobile until the episode passes.

A sense of shame involves concepts such as 'self esteem', 'defeated dejection', 'defective self', and 'mortification of being exposed'. Hopelessness and lethargy can reflect an underlying state of chronic shamefulness. Shame is the consequence of well-established self-critical judgments, or deeply held self-critical beliefs, about our perceived or assumed failures and defects. This sense of defectiveness may be out of awareness much or some of the time, and can be activated by external events such as criticism or rejection by others. This activated shame is felt as the experience of being exposed in ways we do not want to be exposed. Exposure can be contrasted to the experience of being seen, which is the nourishing experience of feeling understood and appreciated.

When we feel ashamed we feel a loss of connection to others. A feeling of worthlessness leads to a belief that we are of lesser value in the eyes of the other. This has an important effect in our relationships with others, particularly our loved ones such as life partners.

When there is a sense of personal inadequacy (e.g. doubts about one's loveableness) in one's significant relationships there can be a tendency to favor the surface over the depths; we become preoccupied with the appearance of the relationship rather than its reality. We seek the pretty still life picture rather than the truth. This then leads to confusion as to the difference between looking like something and being something. Relationships become dishonest and empty rather than rich and fulfilling. Such shame-based relationships often feature a marked tendency to blaming, either self or other, for personal unhappiness within the relationship, or to clinging and putting-up-with. When relationships like this end (such as in bad divorce settlements) they are often marked by bitterness and a desire for revenge, one-up-man-ship, and winning more than the other.

One can talk about types of shame:

Adaptive or 'healthy' shame.

Feeling overexposed or embarrassed - violation of personal standards

Maladaptive or 'unhealthy' shame

Worthlessness, humiliation, inferiority, unlovable - becomes chronic, global, core self-experience

Secondary shame

Transient internalised negative self-evaluations, situation - specific (e.g. self-contempt for having been a coward)

Shame-related secondary emotions

Anxiety and rage - shame avoidance strategies

So, in summary, the salient characteristics of shame are personal diminishment, break in connection to important others, and paranoia.

It is generally shameful to feel shame, so it is one of the least acknowledged, and hardest to acknowledge, feeling states. Because we don't speak about shame, we often don't recognize it and hence have no way to help ourselves see how much influence it is having on our personal and public life.

If you would like more information or help, Adele can be contacted by telephone or email.

Phone: 0439 324 703


Adele Wilde
Counsellor and Psychotherapist

Mt Lawley Counselling Centre
13 Alvan Street
Mt Lawley Western Australia 6050

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