Shame is the painful emotion of personal – and hence, social – dissolution. It signals the mind that the need for and the basis of belonging is eroding or, at worst, gone (humiliation). A small, healthy dose of shame motivates us to change in ways that enhance our social functioning. Toxic shame tears down our self-esteem and ultimately sabotages our relationships. If you persistently do not like yourself, you are struggling with shame.

Shame Is Ubiquitous

Shame has a hundred and one synonyms, which we can only begin to list: insulted, disrespected, dissed, demeaned, offended, disparaged, slandered, maligned, defamed, denigrated, impugned, snubbed, rebuffed, derided, affronted, rejected, abandoned, stigmatized, poor self-esteem, self-respect, self-image, indignant, feeling small, foolish, invisible, overlooked, nobody. The most enigmatic one in my view is simply, “hurt.” “My feelings are hurt.” What does that mean? What is hurt? It’s the ego that is hurt. Shame is ego pain, or perhaps worse. Carl Jung called it “the soul-eating emotion.”


Cain Coming from Killing His Brother, Abel – Henri Vidal, 1896

Many Issues Are Based in Shame

Shame is behind most anger. If you are always angry and/or get angry over seemingly small things, then after developing some basic anger management skills you need to look at underlying shame.

Shame drives a lot of anxiety, particularly social anxiety, and depression is an almost logical consequence of long-term shame. Trauma and shame go hand in hand. Trauma is often about severe shame; any kind of abuse is shaming by definition.

No wonder Thomas Scheff, the sociologist, called shame “the master emotion.” It is explains a lot of human behavior. As a mental health therapist, it’s usually the interpretive key to understanding my clients’ issues and the theme for solutions. Yet it goes even deeper in my case because I came to this work as a way to affirm people’s inherent goodness. It has a spiritual component. “Remind you of your original blessing,” is how I put it on my tagline. At first I didn’t know why so many people needed this reminder, only that they desperately needed it. When I realized (for myself) that shame is the root cause, I then had a more clinical framework to explore and develop.

Most couples’ conflicts are about mutual shame. And shame can start and sustain addictions. Nearly all of my clinical specialties constellate around shame. So, yes, that is why so much of my focus is on this one basic emotion.

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