How to Overcome Shame

Dr. Will Horton

There are many theories about why and how we feel shame. This has created many false presumptions into the best way to overcome this feeling. Before overcoming shame, a person must first understand the origin of this negative emotion and its effects. Shame is often mistakenly confused with the similar, but completely different feeling, of guilt. These terms are often confused in today’s society and used incorrectly, causing difficulties in dealing and coping with shame. Guilt is defined as the fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime, through omission or commission, whereas shame is a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the internalization of foolish behavior or feelings such as guilt. The greatest difference between these two terms is that guilt is a required feeling to keep society functioning, and in itself, can have positive long-term effects. Shame, as it is the internalization of negative feelings, can cause problems of isolation and separation, and create larger issues for an individual. Whilst guilt can lead to positive change, it is this harmful feeling of shame that needs to be overcome.  

Step One – Origins of Shame 

Phineas Quimby once stated that the answer (or in this case, cure) is in the explanation. To commence overcoming feelings of shame, a person must first understand where these feelings originated, and why they feel this negative emotion. Historically, shame began as a protective instinct that caused human beings to become invisible and fade into the background of any negative situation. In times of high stress or trauma, it was beneficial to hide and remain out of trouble, which is the response people have when feeling shame. This reaction, since the development of modern society, has become outdated. It is caused by a disruption in a person’s nervous system and is an uncontrollable reaction. People are taught of the fight or flight instinct, but this response is to freeze, collapse and submit. A person will go along with actions they would not normally agree with, leading to feelings of guilt. Guilt can then be dealt with healthily, or internalized into deeper feelings of shame. High achieving parents or siblings, Parents with mental issues (for example; narcissism or addiction), coaches, and authorities who tend to push people beyond their capabilities can trigger this internalization of negativity, and these responses are often re-enforced since childhood. Young people are often punished for a mistake multiple times and for extended periods, until guilt is internalized. This feeling of guilt for any given mistake is then transformed into shame, and the more this process occurs, the easier guilt turns to shame in adulthood. 

Step Two – Seeing and Feeling Shame 

Being able to identify feelings of shame is an important part of the healing process, and can be one of the hardest steps in overcoming shame. Self-sabotage of all kinds is problematic, and whilst a one-off instance may be an anomaly, multiple occasions in numerous areas of a person’s life are a clear sign of deeper feelings of shame. Other clear signs of shame include when a person is unable to take a compliment, accept a gift, ask for help (or accept help), or when people downplay their achievements. All of these behaviors indicate a root problem; that once achieving something, it becomes worthless. To overcome shame, a person must first admit that they feel this way. Then, they will be able to feel where in the body this response is coming from, remembering that this feeling is linked to the nervous system. This may manifest in a physical location, a kinesthetic response, a feeling, a sound, a color, or a variety of other bodily responses. Once a person can identify this feeling, they can then begin to ask themselves important questions to help begin the healing process; What is this response trying to do? How are these feelings trying to help me? What can I learn from this? Am I ready to move these feelings? Can I move these feelings to where they belong now? The answers to all of these questions individualize a person’s road to healing and help identify how a person will be able to overcome their shame. Once facing these questions a person can begin to realize they are no longer a victim, are safe in the present, and can start facing and releasing their past shame. 

Step Three – Regulating the Nervous System 

The negative energy that builds up and causes feelings of shame are like a clot in a blocked pipe of a person’s nervous system. This is why many therapeutic techniques don’t work; they do not address the root of the problem. They focus on the symptoms, providing only temporary relief. Addressing the emotional issues behind a person’s actions is the most effective way to overcome these negative emotions. This begins with a Polyvagal Release Technique (PRT) followed by an Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). The PRT is a playful mixture of activation and calming of the unique nerve influences. It begins with a form of meditation addressing the above questions and helps identify the root of shame. This is then transformed into an energy flow and released. EFT triggers the nerves in a person’s face and upper torso and helps a person balance their energy after releasing their shame while re-affirming positive thinking. 

Step Four – Forgiveness or Release

The final step to overcoming shame is understanding the difference between forgiveness and release. Some shame is, unfortunately, unforgivable, whether the actions were committed by or against an individual. This step can involve inner-child work and involves completely letting go of energy connected to shameful events in a person’s past. This release does not mean a person has to forgive what occurred, but more accept the healthy side effects of releasing that negative energy. Once negative energy is released, daily positive re-enforcement helps minimize any chances of regression. This provides positive encouragement to remaining shame-free.