Kevin Roberts grew up in an alcoholic family and struggled to feel better about himself in the wider world, particularly in school. He was often blamed for things that went wrong, both large and small, and over time he became believing that there was something inherently wrong with him. He hidden his deep feelings of unworthiness by striving to become a perfect student.

“I was always looking for a way to stand out as intelligent,” says Roberts, now 44. “I had been always the first to raise my hand in class — to the annoyance of my peers — as well as in junior high I once plagiarized a poem for an assignment, then tore the page on which it appeared inside a book in the school’s library.”

Outside of faculty, Roberts scrambled to avoid scrutiny. He was withdrawn, never inviting his classmates over to his chaotic home. He felt ashamed, isolated, and uneasy.

In college, his hustle for academic attention, combined with his deep desire to hide another aspects of his life, began to take a toll. He began to experience intense headaches, stomachaches, and panic attacks, which he now believes were caused by an exhausting quest to hide his true self. He experimented with a variety of techniques to reduce anxiety, including yoga and biofeedback, and people exercises helped a bit. But the root of the problem eluded him until he was in his mid-20s and attended a meditation retreat. There he started to examine the role shame played in driving his behavior, and just how it had come to dominate his life.

In the wake of this eureka moment, Roberts began to develop strategies for dealing with this powerful negative emotion. Since Roberts, who lives near Detroit, experienced shame alongside physical symptoms (as most people do), he began to concentrate on those sensations; when they cropped up he used breathing techniques, meditation, and positive self-talk to combat his flagging feeling of worthiness. Within a few years, he was starting to see possibilities for his life opening in ways that had once been inconceivable.

“Shame accustomed to run my life, out of a need to constantly prove myself,” says Roberts, now a counselor and author of Movers, Dreamers, and Risk Takers: Unlocking the Power of ADHD. “Now I can identify shame and permit it to pass through me without getting trapped in it.” Today he leads shame-recovery groups, where the biggest reward, he says, has been able to help others out of their own shame spirals.

Roberts’s story is an example of why it pays to take a close look at the overwhelming, and often hard-to-spot, role that shame plays in our lives. This emotion, which Jungian analysts have dubbed “the swampland from the soul,” makes us feel like we are worthless. To compensate, we scramble to hide our perceived flaws by engaging in a long list of broken behaviors, including blaming and shaming others, perfectionism, lying, and hiding out. (High levels of shame are associated with more serious problems like addiction, eating disorders, and suicide.) Shame, quite simply, causes us to act in ways that keep us from so many of the good things we would like in life — a feeling of forward movement, freedom from fear, a feeling of agency.

The Catch-22, of course, is that shame creates emotional patterns which make us reluctant to face it down. After all, who wants to look inward when what’s staring back is a painful emotion that makes us feel unworthy and unlovable? Ultimately, though, avoiding or suppressing this universal feeling can lead to long-term emotional and physical consequences that trump the short-term discomfort that accompanies self-analysis and honesty.

“Catastrophizing about what could happen if we talked honestly about our fears is really more painful than grabbing the hand of the trusted companion and crossing the swamp,” writes preeminent shame researcher Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, in The Gifts of Imperfection: Forget about Who You Think You’re Said to be and Embrace Who You Are. And what we have to gain can be truly life changing: Whenever we build shame resilience, we disengage from the emotion’s destructive messages, unleash our personal and professional potential, and experience more connection and joy within our lives.

Luckily, there are strategies we can use to traverse this murky terrain and regain our feeling of worthiness.

Shame Definition

At its core, Brown says, shame “may be the intensely painful feeling or experience with believing that we are flawed and for that reason unworthy of love and belonging.

“We’re afraid that people won’t like us if they know the truth about who we are, where we come from, what we believe, how much we’re struggling, or, believe it or not, how wonderful we are when soaring.”

We tend to associate shame with a major trauma or a defining negative event — an abusive childhood, a painful addiction, a seemingly intractable pile of credit-card debt — however the experience of feeling unworthy is universal, regardless of what hides out in our past. Everyone, save for sociopaths, experiences some extent of shame. And this messy emotion turns up in the most “familiar places, including appearance and the body image, family, parenting, money and work, health, addiction, sex, aging, and religion,” writes Brown. “To feel shame will be human.”

In fact, the dark emotion originally served to keep our species safe. “Shame was the evolutionary method of us trying to hide our flaws from others,” explains Kristin Neff, PhD, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. “If the others knew these flaws, they'd kick us out of the group, and evolutionarily that meant death.”

This might be why some people still believe this negative feeling “keeps us in line” by becoming a type of emotional course correction, or even a teaching tool — think dunce caps or relaxing in the corner. Research, however, has shown that shame does just the opposite: It clouds good judgment, skews perception, and drives destructive and unhealthy behavior.

Fear of exposure is a reason so many novels sit, dusty and half-written, in desk drawers. Their authors don’t lack for creativity; they are afraid their ideas will be scorned. A sense of unworthiness is also part of the reason why employees don’t speak in meetings, that friends offer disingenuous apologies (or an outright lie) when they forget a lunch date, and that family members blame each other for their own crummy feelings.

“For shame to exist, you'll need secrecy, you need silence, and you require a perception or the reality of judgment,” says Darcy Sterling, PhD, a clinical social worker in Nyc who focuses on building shame resilience with clients. “Shame can only survive and incubate if we don’t talk about it — that’s where it derives its power. If we talk about it, and our own personal experiences around shame, it’s like pulling the plug onto it.”

What Are Shame Behavior Patterns?

Everyone experiences shame in slightly different emotional and physical ways, but some key elements underlie the phenomenon. There are almost always physical manifestations — common ones include flushed cheeks, dizziness, tunnel vision, a failure to focus, a loud rushing in the ears, chest constriction, and not being able to make eye contact. These symptoms are akin to the sensation of panic, which, like shame, triggers a fight-or-flight response in the body. Physically, we interpret both because the threat of danger.

The emotional experience of shame is fueled by negative self-talk. The messages we tell ourselves in these moments, says Brown, are always a variation of “never good enough.” In The Gifts of Imperfection, she identifies a few of the many forms these messages can take:

  • I’m flawed.
  • I’m not: good/pretty/talented/ successful/rich/masculine/ feminine/tough/ caring/pretty/ skinny/creative/ popular enough.
  • Who do I think I am?
  • No one can ever find out about _______________________.
  • I’m going to pretend everything is OK.
  • I can change to fit in basically have to.
  • Taking care of them is more important than taking care of me. 

“Shame is that warm feeling that washes over us,” continues Brown, “causing us to be feel small, flawed, and never good enough.”

The end result, says Tamar Chansky, PhD, author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety “is the fact that we feel bad about who we're. And in a preemptive strike, rather than waiting to be shunned, we hide” or engage in other distancing behaviors. “Then we think we aren’t worthy of good things; we become very negative about ourselves and the world gets much smaller.”

To compound matters, says Neff, people usually have a lot of self-judgment about their shame, also it becomes a nasty cycle: A psychological wave washes over you, you blame yourself to get stuck in a spiral of unworthiness, and then you feel even less deserving. Shame feeds shame. But by cultivating resiliency we are able to interrupt this negative emotional loop.

How to reply to Shame

Building up our defenses against shame entails recognizing when we’re feeling the emotion, moving through it, and eventually coming out on the other side with more courage and compassion. Here’s what those things look like in practice:

Recognize. When you’re aware of being in a shame spiral, you may be deliberate in your response to it, says Brown. Among the easiest ways to know when the emotion has had hold is to identify the physical signs that is included with it. Remember that these will be slightly different for everyone, but they often resemble the physical changes associated with panic.

Next, try to identify your default emotional reaction when you feel ashamed. According to Linda M. Hartling, PhD, director of Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies, a worldwide network of academics focused on promoting human dignity, these are the three most common ways people defend themselves from this uncomfortable feeling: moving away from others by withdrawing, being silent, and keeping secrets; moving toward unhealthy relationships by trying to appease and people-please; and moving against others when you are aggressive and trying to restore one’s dignity by overpowering others (fighting shame with shame). Simply being aware of your typical knee-jerk reaction increases your chances of pausing, reflecting, and learning to recognize your specific shame triggers so that you can respond in a more positive and intentional way.

Share. Since empathy is definitely an antidote to shame, sharing your story and receiving empathy in return can help dissolve this painful feeling. “Probably the most powerful aspects of recovery from shame happens when we realize that we’re not by yourself,” says Joan E. Mullinax, a therapist in Houston, who leads shame support groups. “When we see that we are human beings like everybody else, we feel worthy of being connected to everybody else.”

Authentic sharing requires vulnerability, however, and that can be anxiety inducing — especially if you’re discussing something you haven’t told lots of people. So choose someone you trust. It can also help to clarify what you expect ahead of time: Perhaps you ask a close friend to simply listen and not offer advice, or you request that the person not try to speak you out of what you’re feeling — No, really, you’re an incredible singer and sounded great at your brother’s wedding! — or otherwise inadvertently disqualify your emotions. Feeling heard is important here, and so is using the term “shame” — not “guilt” or “embarrassment.” By naming this insidious feeling, you’re taking away some of itsmtoxic power.

Build self-compassion. It’s much easier to be vulnerable and share our shame feelings when we engage with the world from a host to worthiness, says Brown. “And area of the process of cultivating worthiness is through self-compassion — treating ourselves the way we treat other people we love and respect.”

One self-compassion-building exercise that Neff recommends is locating in which the sensation of shame manifests in your body. “It could be a pit in your stomach, or perhaps a whole-body kind of numbness or ache,” she says. Then place a hand over that area or over your heart and direct comforting, affirming energy to that particular part of the body. This might feel goofy at first, but there’s a physiological reason the exercise works. “Self-criticism and shame take advantage of the threat defense system, but self-compassion taps into the care-giving system,” Neff says. “When you place your hands on your heart and say kind things to yourself in a soft voice, you reduce your cortisol levels and release oxytocin and opiates.”

If you still feel silly doing this exercise and find yourself laughing, go with it. Laughter will also help alleviate shame. “Humor takes us from feeling like a personal target and provides us a broader perspective,” says Hartling. “Additionally, it gives us energy and can open us up to connections with other people,” which is its very own powerful tool for transforming shame.

Regardless of where you are in terms of building shame resiliency, go easy on yourself; it’s an ongoing practice — even for experts like Brené Brown. Right before we spoke, she’d misplaced her wallet. “I ultimately found it,” she says, “however i was like, ‘I’m this kind of idiot.’”

Steve, her husband, said, “Whoa! What would you say to me basically lost my wallet?”

“I said, ‘OK, point taken,’ and that he said, ‘No, I want you to say it.’ So I told him I'd say something like ‘You’re under a lot of stress, Steve. You’ve got a lot going on and you need to give yourself a break. You’re human.’ And that he said, ‘There you go.’”

She laughs, adding, “It was a total ‘Researcher, heal thyself’ moment.”

Illustration by Jon Krause

This article continues to be updated. It was originally published in the October 2021 issue of Experience Life.

Men VS. Women

Shame Triggers

Men have one main trigger: being perceived as weak. This can be in terms of physical strength, financial clout, and emotional stoicism. Men have a tendency to equate weakness with failure.

Women's shame generally centers on appearance and the need to be regarded as perfect. What's more, women feel pressure to achieve beauty and perfection without appearing to set up any effort. If someone sees them sweat, it doesn't count.

Negative Self-Talk


  • I can't support my family
  • I'm failing at work/in my marriage/in bed/with money.
  • I did that wrong.
  • I am wrong/defective.


  • I'm not attractive.
  • I need to look pretty and put together all the time.
  • I'm a bad parent/spouse.
  • I never do enough for my family/at work/in bed.
  • I should be able to do it all effortlessly.

Resiliency Strategies (Both women and men)

1. When you start feeling emotionally off-kilter, pause. What is going on through your head? If it's messages about what you are instead of what you've done – “I am bad” instead of “I did something bad” or “I am a failure” rather than “I failed at that project” – you are in shame's toxic grip. Simply being able to notice the emotion and label it helps move you away from it.

2. Tamar Chansky, PhD, author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety, suggests choosing four compassionate and affirming people – living or dead, real or imaginary – and asking their opinions. So how exactly does your “possibility panel” interpret the situation? Borrow their perspectives how you could see yourself and your options differently. You could even jot down their names on a sheet of paper and leave it in plain sight, so you will have a visual reminder to remember to not judge, but rather broaden your view and consider other perspectives.

3. Imagine using a tea party and inviting the negative messages along, suggests Kevin Roberts, author of Movers, Dreamers, and Risk Takers. “Oh, there's my career-based inadequacy – haven't seen you inside a long time,” he jokes. Attempting to suppress shame's destructive messages increases their power; conversely, befriending the messages lessens their intensity. Another tip from Roberts: Eye contact is key with compassionate people. Since one physical characteristic of shame is casting one's eyes downward, eye-to-eye contact can function as an antidote.

Shame VS. Guilt

Sometimes people confuse shame and guilt, but they're distinct emotions.

Shame: The feeling that you are intrinsically bad as a person; a feeling that you are inherently unlovable, unworthy, and undeserving. Feelings of shame drive destructive, unhelpful, and self-limiting behaviors for example perfectionism, lying, blaming and shaming others, and hiding out.

Guilt: The sensation that you did something bad, or that you simply violated your personal moral or ethical code. Guilt, unlike shame, can actually be a helpful emotion. Used as a behavior barometer, it can lead a person to accept responsibility for his or her actions, apologize, making an effort to do things differently the next time.