(404) 874-8536 johnballew@gmail.com

Shame and Self-esteem

Getting caught cheating on a test in the third grade. Botching a public speaking engagement on your new job. Who hasn’t felt ashamed at some point in his life? Shame is a normal human emotion.

Bashfulness can sometimes masquerade as shame; so can the discomfort we feel when we’re embarrassed because we’ve screwed up. Guilt can be healthy when we’ve gone against the sense of right and wrong each of us carries inside. Healthy guilt helps us become better people. But shame can be corrosive, especially when it’s unending, undeserved or unrelenting. When we look in the mirror and despise what we see not on because of how we’ve behaved, but for who we are, we’re in trouble.

It’s that distinction – worth as a human being rather than behavior – that distinguishes shame from guilt.

Unhealthy shame is more profound and all encompassing. It’s about who we are, not what we’ve done. It leaves us feeling fundamentally inadequate, unlovable, disgraced. We feel like we go through life with the word LOSER emblazoned on our foreheads.

Many of us learned to feel shame at home; dysfunctional families are knee-deep in shame. Sometimes parents use it in an attempt to keep kids in line. Other times, shame is a byproduct of families with secrets – Dad’s violent temper, Mom’s alcoholism. Problems and relationships aren’t dealt with directly in dysfunctional families, and impressionable kids often bear the brunt of a parent’s abuse or illness. They grow up feeling blame and responsibility for anything and everything – a parent who drinks or the conflict that leads mom and dad to divorce. Double standards and impossible messages become a way of life: be perfect, be strong, your own feelings are unimportant.

You can imagine how homophobia plays into all of this. Unhealthy families banish, silence or scapegoat gay family members. It doesn’t even have to be overt. Often it’s enough just to avoid asking questions about a gay son or daughter’s life to make tacit disapproval clear. The gay family member is taught that his relationships and sexuality are shameful and offensive. The result: internalized homophobia. It’s no longer necessary to have someone else criticize or shame us. We become accustomed to doing it ourselves, believing there is something reprehensible about being gay.

Shame eats away at self-esteem because we judge ourselves by impossible standards. We feel that at some basic level, we’re not good enough. And we feel humiliated because of it. That’s how shame becomes the root of a great deal of human suffering: codependency in relationships, escapist behavior like compulsive sex or drug use, chronic anxiety, domestic violence, self-loathing.

Some people try to cover up their feelings of shame and inadequacy by becoming self-righteous or pretentious, as if striking the right pose, driving a fabulous car or wearing $800 shoes would make up for feeling that at some root level, they don’t like themselves very much.

What do you do if you recognize yourself in this picture? Start by learning to differentiate between things you can control and those you can’t. Stop criticizing yourself. Don’t assume responsibility for things you can’t possibly control. Recognize and challenge perfectionism. You’re a human being, and human beings, all of ‘em, are imperfect. If your family of origin doesn’t support you having a healthy, happy emotional life, you may need to limit your contact with them.

In a very real way, love heals shame. But one of life’s ironies is that we need to be already in the process of healing our shame to be ready for love!

Secrets and shame go hand in hand. If you feel burdened by what’s in your closet, those worries may be running your life. Talking things over with a friend you can trust, a minister or a psychotherapist can be an important step to letting go of old baggage.

About John

I have been  licensed by the State of Georgia as a professional counselor for more than 25 years.  My areas of specialty are relationships, intimacy, sexuality, anxiety and depression.  My passion is helping people build happier lives and stronger relationships. 

I know it isn’t always easy to talk about problems.  My approach to counseling is nonjudgmental and compassionate.  If you have questions, I welcome the opportunity to talk with you about working together.

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Whether you've worked with a therapist before or are exploring counseling for the first time, you probably have questions.  It is important to have the information you need to make a good decision when selecting a therapist.  I welcome your questions -- about your specific situation, about me or about my approach to therapy. Making things better can start with an email, or you can call me at (404) 874-8536.