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  • Writer's pictureSusan Stubbings


Updated: Jan 16

Shame is an important emotion, we associated shame with guilt yet they are distinctly different and miles apart in their nature. Shame is a complex maze of conundrums swirling, turning, sinking, swelling like waves in and out of our very being.

The difference between guilt and shame is guilt is about human ‘doing’ whereas shame is about human ‘being’; shame is something we ‘become’ or attribute to our self whereas guilt is something we do and/or feel we have ‘done’ therefore unlike guilt which we can make amends for in our behaviour; shame is something we believe we 'are'. Both guilt and shame may become toxic which means they can eat into our very being. Yet guilt can be assuaged by our behaviour we can make things better by behaving more positive, changing, apologising to those we may have wronged and making promises to do better next time. Whilst shame on the other hand doesn't seem to be able to be assuaged because it is about our very being, the core of who we believe we are inside our self, we can't just apologies for being our self.

Suggested reading: John Bradshaw The Shame that Binds Us’. Bradshaw’

How does shame play out?

In many ways, it is/can be seen in our behaviours, which to me is the end result of that which begins inside us ‘our internal locus of evaluation’. Usually a painful emotion because it is a judgment about who we are as a person, it is the evaluation others attribute to us and/or we make or made years ago about our self, it separates us from others as we do not want to be exposed, humiliated or let anyone see our ‘flawed ‘self as we perceive that self to be. It is so painful an emotion we tend to hide it from others/self but it can be seen in our:


I’m a failure, I am unlovable, I am worthless, I am a bad person, I am no good. I’m rotten to the core, I am ugly inside out, useless, anyone who loves me, must be something wrong with them! I don’t deserve to be happy.


Hopeless, despair, dissociations, unworthy, fear, inadequacy, embarrassment, absent of good feelings about self or self-love. Feel inferior, incompetent, vulnerable, helpless and hopeless.


I must be perfect, I can’t let anyone see me, I’m defective, I’m different, I’m rubbish, I can’t, critical self-talk, victim mentality, I’m a disappointment, I am unlovable, I don’t deserve anything, I'm weak, I want to end my life - suicidal ideation.


Shy, eyes downwards, blushing, people pleasing, isolating or the opposite anger, superior attitude, grandiose, depression, anxieties, panic attacks, lack of depth intimacy due to not allowing anyone in, in case you are ‘seen! Complex post traumatic disorder CPTSD and PTSD. Suicidal attempts, or passive suicidality. Don’t try new things convinced will fail so doesn’t start anything. Rage, deep sorrow sadness; sexually provocative only feel they have worth if they offer sex, sexual addictions, Narcissism.


In relationships one partner may be more dominant than the other and this may create shame for the less dominant partner where there are power issues the less dominate person may become dependent, co-dependent, leave relationships before they are left! Difficulties in relating to others, turning over personal power to the most significant person in their life; this can in turn be seen in domestic violent relationships because the person feeling shame doesn’t think they deserve any better and stay in the relationship of fear of the unknown or being alone and lonely.

The perpetrator of abuse or someone who has power issues or controlling behaviours may also be suffering with toxic shame and overpower to show others they are strong, in control and powerful, the opposite of how they may feel inside themselves, but can't show weakness for a myriad of reasons.

Shame can lead to a negative relationship with self and lead to addictions due to the ‘escape me’ factor!

It is the discrepancy between the comparison of our actions with our self-made standards and we do not live up to our self-imposed standards which are usually not attainable i.e. I must be perfect to be loveable to have value and worth therefore just existing to a person who experiences self as shameful may be enough to ‘be ashamed’.

The sense of shame is a person’s conscious awareness of the core of our personal human condition, our "perceived" sense of being disgraced and inadequate. This state or condition may be attributed to us from external sources i.e. our parents, caregivers and/or those who nurtured us older siblings/teachers/priests who may not have valued or showed worth or love to the child.

Shame restrains the person who ‘feels’ the emotion and it can become toxic and keep the person repressed and oppressed since it can arise from the violation of one’s internal values. Children who have been sexually abused will feel shame; at the core of their being is shame. Children who suffered sexual abuse have been violated to their core before that core had a chance to develop fully, so shame is about them as a person because it is given to them from outside themselves. Couple this with being blamed for the abuse we can begin to see how children grow up with complex false selves and multiply false selves which develop into Dissociative Identify Disorders (DID) in response to the abuse. Or dissociate from the shame because they cannot cope with the intense feeling of toxic shame along with the aggression of being sexually abused. Childhood sexual abused are likely to feel toxic shame which will need careful handling in the healing process if dissociations, negative coping strategies are to be healed; this must be thought of in the long rather than short term.

But know this the abuse was not of your doing you are not to blame

Dissociation is a creative coping mechanism which a child utilised to protect the self and the psyche from permeant damage, however, it is not a choice the child consciously makes, as an adult however they can make the choice to work on healing so dissociation is no longer a coping strategy and more conscious strategies are utilised. Toxic shame is the transference of responsibility onto the child from the abusing adult’s Behaviour as such the child blames self unjustly, guilt and shame prevail for the child who grows into an adult. This shame becomes the normal expectations of the child therefore the child does not believe they deserve anything in or out of life, the toxicity of this shame is poisoning the adults thinking because they do not know anything else. It’s not enough to just tell the child who is now an adult ‘it wasn’t your fault’ because this person’s belief system needs reframing and this can take some time there is no quick fix from toxic shame, which literally seeps into every aspect and every cell of a victims living and Being.

Shame may be at the root of many human concerns for example distorted thinking, anxieties, panic disorders depressions, eating disorders, self-harming, addictions, gambling, alcoholism, stealing, excessive shopping, debt problems. hoarding, personality disorders, weak self-esteem, low confidence, low belief in self. Poor parenting, ‘imposter syndrome’ i.e. if people see the real me they will be discussed at what they see and dislike me, self-destructive. Self-sabotaging behaviours, driving recklessly, pessimism, negativity, suicidal behaviours. Risk taking, extreme sports, perfectionist attitudes, not taking responsibilities for own actions, lack of accountabilities, lack of compassion for self/others. Poor body/self-image, pushing people away, Intimacy issues with self and others, disconnection from others, completion of suicide and a whole host of others!

Shame is a Paradox

Shame can be both positive and negative, in its positive form it can motivate us to achieve our absolute best, which can offer us good feelings of achievement, for a job well done if we've moved forward and away from our toxic shame, the feeling of shame can alert us that something is out of balance and make us aware we have some work to undertake for our own well-being. But in its negative form shame can be debilitating, repressing, oppressing it can make us ashamed of who we are in our central sense of being and it can change our internal locus of evaluation to be self-punishing, self-depreciating and used as a tool to undermine our self-worth.

We can then perhaps begin to see the significant of the negative effects in the toxicity of shame to the human condition!

If you are concerned about any of the above or have intense emotions you can't make sense of or feel your self-esteem and confidence needs some attention please contact me to gain experienced, professional and compassionate support!

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