How to Overcome Shame


*** Now Available: Attachment to Your Therapist: A Conversation. This series of posts in expanded E-Book form, on Amazon.***

Echo says: “I don’t want to be afraid to be seen any more. I want to enjoy being valued, and I want to be present – sharing moments with others. So how do I let good things and healthy relationships in, and not fear self-worth? Would you mind elaborating on low self-esteem and guilt a little more?”

This one of the more challenging change processes. First let me put in a plug for How We Heal and Grow: The Power of Facing Your Feelings. Chapter 5, “Your Conscience Can be Wrong” is all about this topic and, like the other chapters, has a “Next Steps” section at the end discussing practical things to do.

Basically, the answer is “The Kitchen Sink,” meaning all the resources and approaches you can find. The reason is that low self esteem and inappropriate shame emanate from values we have internalized as part of our conscience. Internalized values and attitudes are hard to change. Why? As I have said before, your conscience would lose all its power to override your immediate wishes and desires if it were that easy to change. Like the “Untouchables,” those prohibition era federal police who were incorruptible, your conscience is built to resist other parts of your mind that would be happy to bend principle for pleasure. Therefore, trying to change your (inappropriate) values takes everything you can throw at the task.

EMDR is one of the few therapeutic traditions to recognize that changing values is different from other healing processes. They call it “installing” a healthier value. Francine Shapiro in her book on EMDR tells how this is done. My own thoughts are as follows:

Zhao ! on Flickr

Photo by Zhao on Flickr

First, education. It helps to realize that your low self-esteem and shame are inappropriate and dysfunctional products of your mind. Sometimes it is useful to know how you got your unhealthy values and attitudes. In the case of trauma, they often come directly from your perpetrator, the last person you would want to have governing your feelings. Armed with this knowledge, you can “talk back” to your own mind, reminding it that it is wrong. It also helps to have others to remind you that your own opinion of yourself is not true and that you really are valued.

But the most powerful measure is probably action. I call this “civil disobedience” because you are taking it upon yourself to act in ways that your conscience will not like. You can expect to feel guilty or ashamed afterwards, but will need to resist those inappropriate feelings and persist in your new, healthy actions. By bringing your behavior into sync with the values you truly believe, you will bring out uncomfortable feelings that will then resolve through catharsis and make it easier to accept healthy values and attitudes.

Notice, here, that behavior patterns that reflect values and attitudes towards the self are the mainstay of how our conscience keeps us in line. We get quite uncomfortable when we act differently than we feel about ourselves. Making changes in our habitual ways is not easy, and takes a long time to become natural, but it an essential part of the change process. I’m afraid that one of the main reasons people fall back into unhealthy patterns is because of the subtle shame or guilt we feel when we deviate into unfamiliar postures.

I hope that is useful, and urge you to check out Chapter 5 in How We Heal and Grow.

Next post in the Attachment series: Saying Good Bye



  • Have been in therapy for a little over a year and it wasn’t until I read your book that I could begin to understand the process I was finding so uncomfortable and frightening. Your explanations made me see things from my therapist’s view. I am now able to trust that she, like you, truly cares. Thank you for helping me to understand and feel that the path to peace from my past was vulnerability.

  • Dear Jeffery,

    I love each posts of you and I really enjoy reading your blog. Do you have any email and if you don’t mind can I send you my questions ? I also want to thank you for all these very very helpful posts. I don’t know how to send you my appreciation and tell you how much your posts has helped me . THANK YOU


    • Dear Parastoo, the best way to communicate directly with me is to join with the subscribers group. Click the subscribe link, give your email address and you will be in. The list is just for announcements of new posts, but you will also be able to ask me questions directly. JS

  • Just ordered “How We Heal and Grow: The Power of Facing Your Feelings” on Amazon. I’m reading it on Kindle right now. Don’t you just love the instant download?

  • JS,

    After spending the past 18 months proactively working on accepting my schemas and integrating my internal thoughts and feelings with my external behaviors to be healthier and create meaningful relationships and exchanges, I was fired from my job of 11 years. My intuition tells me that those I have worked with, similar to family members during the holidays, were unaccepting of my changes and this lead to my termination. Shame, guilt, low self-esteem, etc, are certainly products of my mind. A challenge I see for us afflicted with knowing we can be different, is surrounding ourselves with people who embrace our “civil disobedience” so that we sustain our changing behaviors, thought and feelings. Your blogs and recent book are incredibly timely, reassuring and essential.


  • Hi JS,

    My last post was a little over a month ago, where since then I have come to understand a little more of the signficance of becoming individuated. I begin my new job tomorrow. For over 30 days, I struggled heavily with understanding how my actions played a roll in my circumstance. It was painful to acknowledge, painful to experience alone as a single mother to a senior about to go off to college this Fall. My “self” was utterly destroyed, because I was not the author of my life. I was good at my profession, yet dependent on unhealthy others for me sense of self. This I learned from being terminated, and so much more. I learned I enjoy working, being productive, working on challenging projects and, oddly enough, that stress can be a motivator.

    My question to you is, now that I am a bit more aware my “self” and I have a vague idea of what I want it to look like, how do I move forward towards becoming stronger in being individuated. I am scared that in my new job and with family members that I will fall back into old habits, that make me anxious, depressed, isolated and feeling powerless and shame.


    • How to step into your new self? How not to fall back into old patterns? Those are not easy questions. The short answers are: 1. Write about your new self so you can clarify and firm up who that is. 2. Enlist others you trust in talking about it, so that you will have someone(s) on the sidelines rooting for your change. 3. Go back to what you wrote periodically to evaluate how you are doing. JS

  • JS,

    Those are some great tips. After today and learning my new co-workers’ personalities, I feel defining my self is uber important. It is remarkable how fragile it can become within a millisecond, especially after a traumatic event.

  • Hi Jeffery,

    I’ve just stumbled across your blog while exploring some things I have been struggling with and this post and the previous one about shame and attachment seemed particularly resonant. In fact, I can see how/where I have been doing both “education” and “civil disobedience”. The issue is that I did those things in the context of a workplace friendship which I have come to see was actually a therapeutic relationship for me, albeit an accidental one – and unacknowledged. I “talked back” to myself in their voice; I practiced taking risks (they felt like enormous ones even though they really weren’t!) in relation to them, and found them to be dependable, warm, a real secure base.

    What I am struggling to manage is an abrupt drop in this person’s availability to me – they moved jobs and I feel I have practically lost a relationship that I was in the process of healing myself with, internalising new values. Now I feel intense guilt and shame at “bothering” them every time I take another risk and make contact, which I am compelled to do at regular intervals just to reassure myself.

    Since they are not an actual therapist, I have been wondering whether I should bring this up with them, but can’t quite figure out whether that is a healthier part of me talking, or just my need for reassurance – but either way, actually doing it would be excruciatingly difficult at the moment. Can you shed any light?


    • Dear Zedb,

      First, for everyone, your experience shows the benefits of a professional therapist who is paid to be there just for you in a special one-way relationship. But it also shows that therapeutic change can happen in life, not just in therapy, and that is where a lot of important changes do happen.

      Now, for you, zedb what a difficult problem. It sounds like this relationship was really working very well. I think only you can gauge how your colleague would respond if you were open about what was happening. On the other hand, trying to keep the relationship going at a distance without disclosing might be very unnatural. The third alternative is to seek out professional help where you could continue your experiments. Overall, what you are doing is teaching your inner child that life is not as perilous now as it once was. You may have to take some real risks and work to explain to yourself that if they don’t work out, it does not mean the terrible things it once might have.

      I hope that helps a bit, but I know it would be better if you had just been able to continue your healing and growing. Jeffery

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