Shame: The Monster Under the Bed


What happens to the individual’s relationships to others

when he resolves to be,

not a mass of conventions, but himself?

- Marjorie Grene

sound mind is, in actuality, a well-run committee. Freud notwithstanding, a healthy psyche is made up of the many aspects of our personality, each arguing reasonably yet passionately from its particular point of view. As a minor example, if we are thinking about what to do with a Saturday afternoon, we might be “discussing” the options inside our head with voices that sound like the boss (Get going on cleaning out that garage!), the nutritionist (Let’s go to the farmer’s market for some healthy foods.), the social planner (You ought to have Ron and Sally over for dinner.), the dreamer (Maybe I could try writing a short story.), the coach (Good day for a longer run.) and perhaps the brat (I don’t want to do ANYTHING.) The more distinct and respected each member of our committee is, the healthier we are psychologically. This partitioned personality represents a good design because all those members – in this case the boss to the brat – provide us with rich brainstorming input and hearty internal discussions with which to generate and evaluate options. Hopefully the executive functioning portion of our brain is well formed and allows us to listen to the options and then ably choose to choose.

Unfortunately, most of us have an imposter serving on all of our mental committees. Often disguised as The Voice of Reason, this committee member is actually a saboteur looking to undermine our self-esteem. It is in no way a voice of reason. It is in no way even reasonable. It is the voice of shame.

In my clinical experience, it would be impossible to overstate the toxicity of shame.

I need you to stick with me while I use the rest of this article to make two gargantuan points. The first is that, because shame is toxic (and it is always toxic), it should be eliminated completely from our lives. The second is that, no matter what we have been told, we don’t need shame to make us behave ourselves because that is what guilt is designed for.

Let me start by defining the concepts, because shame is often used synonymously with guilt, but, psychologically and existentially, they couldn’t be more different.


Guilt is an uncomfortable feeling that occurs when we have broken a rule that we believe in. In other words, it is the dismay we experience when we act in a way that doesn’t represent who we are trying to be. If, for example, we believe interrupting is rude, then guilty feelings will occur when we find ourselves butting into someone's side of a conversation.

Guilt is acutely constructive because it reminds us that ignoring our personal values results in an inner distress, and that discomfort urges us to renew our efforts to be a better version of ourselves. The pain of guilt can range from mild disappointment to extreme anguish. We feel guilty if we forget to stop and think before we speak, if we choose not to feed ourselves healthy food, if we indulge in discourteous driving or if we back away from an important challenge. We also feel guilty if we drive over our cat, slap a child, steal from our employer or sleep with someone’s spouse. As I said, guilty feelings can range from gentle to nearly debilitating.

Our job relative to guilt is to first allow the feelings to manifest themselves and then determine what our guilt is trying to teach us. Sometimes guilt is a light warning we can occasionally ignore. (There’s room in your life for a chocolate chip cookie.) If the sense of guilt is strong, however, it is likely an indication that we should reinforce the rule we have broken. If we feel guilty about a pattern of poor eating, we will want to recommit to eating healthily. Heart-pounding remorse over a nearly tragic road rage incident tells us we need to work much, much harder to get our impatience under control. No matter what effect guilt has on our limbic system, it is always ready to coach better behavior out of us.

Sometimes guilt can feel overwhelming, requiring outside help in both changing our behavior and also forgiving ourselves. But, the implication of feeling guilty is this: We are an individual with a well thought through set of values who sometimes makes mistakes. More to the point, our feelings of guilt tell us that we can be trusted to monitor our own behavior and hold ourselves appropriately accountable. (Maybe this needs to be made explicit – people who cannot be trusted to behave themselves tend to be those with very low levels of guilt. They see rules as pertaining to others and not themselves.) Thus, guilt is an internally directed feedback system that reveals our fundamental individual decency.



Breaking Free of the Shame Trap

- Christine Brautigam Evans

How Good Do We Have to Be?

- Harold S. Kushner



- Laurie R. King

The Bluest Eye

- Toni Morrison



What about people who do really horrible things? Shouldn't we use shame to make them stop?

There are two reasons people intentionally do really horrible things: either they are sociopaths or they have been so badly shamed they have become stunted humans. For the former, shame will be ineffective because sociopaths are immune to social pressure...


Shame, on the other hand, is external feedback that attacks not our behavior but our personhood. Shame on you. Those who originally shamed us weren’t suggesting that we made a mistake and our actions were bad. They were stating that we were bad.

What does that mean – we are bad? In cultural terms, it means that we are not of value to the community. That is not a good state of affairs for us.

Humans are designed to want frantically to belong because, as fairly defenseless mammals, we can only survive if we have the support and resources available in a community. This need to be included, however, results in extreme vulnerability to threatened exile. The humiliation and disgrace experienced when we are shamed and shunned serve as harsh reminders that we need the group much more than the group needs us. If we continue along the path we’re on, shame warns us, we will be asked to leave the safety of the group. Shame takes us metaphorically by the shoulders, walks us to the edge of town and says, “See out there? You will be sent out into that wilderness if you don’t behave yourself.” If that happens, we will fail to survive. It is clear, then, why shame is so powerful. On a very primitive, yet very real level, we understand that shameful behavior can lead to very unpleasant outcomes up to and including our death.

A critical point: the threat of exile (death) is made explicitly only in the most abusive families. For most of us, it is an unarticulated threat – sometimes as subtle as a frown or a "tsk" sound. Ironically, the subtlety makes the fear harder to fight, for, like a monster under the bed, its very vagueness connects it more securely to our imagination where terror enlarges it to truly epic proportions. We know we are being threatened, but by what? How do we fight the sense that everyone is disappointed in us?

Shame is a formidable punishment, a dose of social rejection that implies that we deserve to die for our mistakes. Please believe that this is not an overstatement. And because little kids can’t distinguish between trivial mistakes and egregious mistakes, they start to shame themselves for every little thing they get wrong. Instead of learning from their missteps, then, they learn to internalize that voice that tells them that they are no good.

If this describes your childhood, wise and thoughtful guilt will have been replaced on your committee by shame – that cleverly disguised saboteur of self-esteem. You can prove to yourself whether or not this is true for you with a simple experiment. Start paying very close attention to how you talk to yourself. Listen carefully to the tone of voice and the type of words you use to give yourself directions and feedback. Now, picture talking to someone else in the same manner that you talk with yourself. If you cannot imagine speaking to others the way you speak internally to yourself, you will know you are hounded by shame.

Let me sum up this section this way: There are no circumstances under which shame moves a person toward a better version of themselves. I don’t mean to intimate that any of us have a day that is utterly unwinceable. Nor do I mean to suggest that we all don’t behave appallingly at times. I am saying, without hedge, that shame is never an appropriate reaction to missteps we make no matter the size of the error.

Collective Guilt

I want to step to the side for a moment to discuss the existentially unavoidable collective guilt that would bedevil any authentic person worth their salt. Fed by many tributaries, the river of collective guilt sweeps every one of us along from the moment of our birth. One tributary could be called simply “human nature.” Even without Grimm’s bleak fairy tales, children figure out pretty early that people can be evil and that they contain some of those evil tendencies within themselves, too. Another branch of that creek is the later realization that we are all here as the result of the victories our ancestors had over others. In other words, our very existence is due to some degree of violence. Our river of guilt also collects the waters of our more specific advantages gained at the cost of others. For example, it is probably impossible to eat any food without doing so on the backs of many, many folks or purchase any item that didn’t – somewhere along the line – cause someone to bleed. And, finally, who can truly get through a day without coming in contact with the immeasurable cruelties going on all around us, and how can we then tolerate the fact that we are doing nothing about the vast, vast majority of them? Our daily silence in the face of these horrifying truths creates appropriate if unbearable feelings of dismay within us.

While there is nothing we can do here other than monitor our behavior for any unwitting sloppiness that compounds the reasons for our collective guilt, we must develop some skill in containing that guilt lest it attach itself to our “manageable” guilt. When this contamination occurs between the collective and the individual sources of guilt, many of us run the risk of collapsing under their combined burden. What happens when that happens is that our defense systems kick into overdrive and we fail to learn from our missteps. When we fail to learn from our missteps, we become fated to stumble again and again over the same unlearned lesson. Better to learn the lessons our manageable guilt is trying to teach us as early in the process as possible. Again, this is difficult to do if our individual guilt has dissolved into the far greater and absolutely unmanageable collective guilt.

The trick to disentangling these two from a self-construction standpoint requires twofold attention. First, we learn to acknowledge and monitor the collective guilt using the language of expectation within us that believes we can be held accountable to do this and our accountability will lead to more nuanced and authentic versions of our lives. In other words, if you remember to remember that much of our food comes at an horrific personal cost to someone in the production of it, we can enhance our thoughtfulness around waste, diet choices, local sourcing, superfluous packaging and so on. And, second, we must soothe ourselves with words of comfort that we are simultaneously entitled to acknowledge that thinking globally yet acting locally is a valid choice. Since we cannot fix everything, in other words, we can ease our pain a bit if we at least fix something.

In achieving this balance in our attention between the twin truths that we can neither ignore nor mend all the ills of the world, we increase our tolerance for the totality of our guilt. With increased tolerance, of course, comes a greater ability to ponder that totality, parse the collective from the individual and set some realistic goals for handling all of it. At that point in our skill development we have optimized the management of our individual guilt.

It’s Not What You Did

Hopefully you can now see the effective power of guilt and the toxicity of shame. A respect for guilt can create in us pride in our ability to self-correct. Allowing shame to exist in our minds, on the other hand, always leaves us feeling badly about ourselves and therefore less motivated to try new things. Guilt guides, shame punishes.

We need to learn to be vigilant in observing internalized shaming (without shaming ourselves when we find it!), and replace it with the following thinking: Sometimes we behave badly and hurt ourselves and/or others. We are capable of learning from those mistakes. We learn by reacting emotionally to our mistakes, but not with shame. We must replace shame and the resultant self-loathing with guilt, curiosity about our behavior, and respectful self-talk.

Here is the cleanest thought process I know to help you insert guilt solidly into your governing committee and eliminate shame – remember this principle: It’s not what you did that matters. It’s what you do with what you did.

You misstepped. If you can turn that misstep into something productive, you have won a victory. Guilt can help you do that by not foreclosing on your character. You can think of guilt as a psychological roll bar. It can keep you alive and functioning through one of life’s accidents so that you can live to fight another day. Shame traps you in defeat by crushing any sense that you deserve to prevail.

Try This At Home

I need to stop you here and send you thought shopping. Send your mind back until you can find a wincer in your recent past behavior. Answer the following questions about the incident:

1. Are you using a waspish tone of voice when talking with yourself about what happened?

2. Did you actually make a mistake or was this someone else’s deal?

3. If you did make a mistake, did you do whatever it was on purpose?

4. Would you do it again if given the chance?

5. Do you believe that mistakes are an unavoidable part of being a human?

6. What rule did you break when you made the mistake?

7. What could you learn from this mistake?

8. Can you see that feeling guilty is unpleasant enough without invoking the character-assassinating villain of shame?

9. What did you do with what you did?

If you can practice using questions like these to gently debrief after a misstep, you will break the legacy of cultural cruelty that willfully uses shaming. And if you can spend a little time from time to time reviewing past missteps and rethinking them in this kinder and more accurate manner, your brain will gradually heal the wounds that repeated exposure to shame has created within your sense of self. Please read that last sentence at least three times. If you find that it's not sinking in, then please, please take it to a wise friend or a therapist who can help you absorb it into your relationship with yourself.

Every single article on this website is designed to help you root out shame in all of its clever disguises and kick it to the curb. There is no room on any committee for such a wicked, wicked impostor.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.