Shame: The Actual 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.) or 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, nearly all of us have an imposter serving on 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 is impossible to overstate the malignancy 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 shame is toxic, it is always toxic, and 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 one of the rules of conduct. And this is the crucial part of the definition – the rule we have broken is one that we believe in. In other words, guilt 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 accompanying feelings to manifest themselves and then determine what our guilt is trying to teach us. Sometimes guilt is a light warning – one that 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, for instance, we will want to recommit to eating healthily. Then there are times when guilt really grabs our attention. 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, however, 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 here – 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. I recommend avoiding these folks whenever possible.


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...


In conclusion, guilt is an internally directed feedback system that reveals our fundamental individual decency and works within us to continually shape our behavior in an ever-maturing direction.


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? How do we cope with the idea that who we are just isn't good?

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 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 someone you like and respect 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 pensive, authentic person. 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 the specific advantages of ours that have been 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 weight. 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 must learn to acknowledge and monitor our collective guilt using the language of expectation within us that believes we can handle doing that. Our earnest sense of accountability will lead to more nuanced and authentic versions of our lives. For example, if we remember to remember that much of our food comes at a grim 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 effectiveness 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.

In order to 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, a strategy obviously necessary if you are to learn from your missteps. 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.

Snake bit

Before we move on I need to tell you that there’s even more bad news about shame.

When we are shamed, two emotional prongs – terror and humiliation – penetrate deep into our souls and alter the way we view both ourselves and the world.

The shamed one is terrified that he deserves to be banished, scorned or shunned. As I described above, this fear is primal and yet logical – for powerful adults can do just those things to youngsters. (If you still have any doubt that shame can destroy a life, Google “shunning.”) But the operative word in that first sentence is, of course, “deserve.” The terror that shame creates in a child punches home the lie that whatever the behavior was that caused him to be shamed must be awful and ipso facto he is awful.

The shamed one feels humiliated by her disgrace. And the lamentable thing about humiliation is this: when she remembers the humiliating episode, she will re-experience – to about the same degree – the psychological agony of that event. She will actually once again exist in the mortifying state of humiliation, and in that full-bodied reliving, sadly, she reopens the wound. Humiliation is Promethean in its enduring punishment.

The take-away here is that we all have residual episodes of shame in our past that have yet to be detoxified, and these historical attacks of shame are still poisoning our sense of self.

The antidote to being snake bit by shame is to sort through painful memories and replace the shame encapsulating them with one of two things: self-love if your past behavior was fine despite the opinion of others; or guilt if how you acted reflected a poor choice.

What you don’t want to do is leave the venom in place. Each toxic pocket of shame will leak continuously into your sense of self, leaving a weakened self-esteem. It then becomes easier and easier to discover yet another way to despise yourself.

Try this at home

I need to stop you here and send you thought shopping. Direct 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? Was it a rule you believe in?

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. We cannot choose who we were made to be by our upbringing. But we can choose to reject any past manipulation efforts in order to become who we are designed to be.

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.

Restraining order

There is one last thing you need to understand about the monster that lives under the bed of so many of us, and that is this: Shame will stalk you until your dying day. No matter how successfully you have trained yourself to both refrain from self-shaming and also refuse to allow others to shame you, this psychological weed will lurk in the tall grass waiting for the chance to send its invasive roots back into your life.

Here’s why that happens:

If you can think of your maturational process as an upward, expanding spiral rather than a linear, flat path, you can start to see how life doubles back on itself as it repeatedly “invites” us to revisit old psychological lessons. For most of us, each iteration of a cycle gets both larger (encompassing more challenges) and higher (dealing with more complex issues.) As a result of this design, when life brings us around to face an issue again, we will most often resolve it more quickly with less collateral damage. But revisit we must. For example, a woman who was raised by parents who were extremely childish may have to learn – again and again – that she doesn’t have to be as anxious as she was as a child. She may have had to deal with too much on her own as a kid, but an adult now, she is much more resourceful than she was when she was eight. Plus she has surrounded herself with trustworthy people with whom she can now consult. Each time life scares her a bit with something new, however, she will have to remind herself of her new adult potency and resourcefulness. Or, if a man was raised by parents who were intimidated by him, he may find himself struggling to relearn empathy as he catches himself repeatedly leading with hypertrophied narcissism when facing a new stage of life. He will need to renew his commitment to overcoming his overweening entitlement by intentionally utilizing empathy as he comes across differing types of relationships over the course of his lifetime.

While we may fear we are backsliding in our adulting efforts when we again hit one of our historical areas of psychological vulnerability, a better way to look at it would be this: life is offering us a continuing education course on how to solidify our maturational gains. No reason for shame. None at all.

Here are some of the sources of pressure that force us to revisit our historical challenges thus potentially reactivating shame:

• As we age, our expectations for ourselves climb. We demand higher and higher levels of expertise in terms of daily living habits, psychological skills, professional development, and interpersonal attachments as well as for excellence and coherence in the general maturity department of life. These heightened demand characteristics that we put on ourselves mean that the chances for disappointing ourself also go up. This reality can be especially daunting when we feel we are revisiting old issues that we should have put behind us. If we can work to keep our efforts in the context of the increasing challenges we are facing, we can bolster our self-respect and strengthen our defenses against allowing shame to sneak back in.

• Life never stops being difficult, and one specific way this is true is that humans, with their decades long life span, face new developmental challenges every 7-10 years. New exigencies emerge as we move through time and some of these demands will pull for our strengths and some will land solidly in one of our “needs improvement” categories. We can feel humiliated if we hit one of those developmental challenges for which we lack the skills and experience. When we feel humiliated, we tend to regress – a normal and even appropriate reaction. But that regression can throw us back into the need for relearning old lessons. The only way to keep this humiliation at bay is to remind ourselves that no one is good at every stage of life. Honest. We need to rest assured that we will learn what we need to learn in order to stick the landing of this new challenging decade. It just may take us a little longer than we’d like.

• The flow of time also affects us in that it affects all the cultures within which we swim. In other words, because humans en masse are always on the cutting edge of human experience, the trends and biases created within those masses will continually challenge us to master ourselves in new ways. Just like developmental challenges, as trends change they will also sometimes pull for our strengths and sometimes hit us where we’re not so strong. It can feel socially mortifying to think we are out of it at any age, and that mortification can send us back into weak spots created by our less-than-stellar upbringing. We need to be alert to those times in our lives when we need gentle support for being behind the eight ball relative to our peers.

• Shame is a master of disguise. The familial labels of the complete list of awful and the cultural labels of the seven deadly sins serve shame well in terms of giving it something to hide behind. If we aren’t vigilant about keeping these common accusations at bay, shame will impersonate them and sneak back inside. The words sloth and lazy are good examples of words that can seem both accurate and benign, but both very often lead us to a demoralizing self hate. When chores pile up and we start to feel a little passive toward life, we become susceptible to these words turning into shame. We cannot be over careful about reminding ourselves that the human animal needs rest and comfort on a regular basis. To treat ourselves otherwise is repeating the cruelty of a noxious upbringing.

• Sadly, guilt can also serve as a disguise for shame. If we fail to meet every instance of guilt-inducing behavior with the dual communication of “of course” and “and,” we will ease the door open for shame to shoulder its way past guilt and back into our lives. It does feel rotten to have to endure guilt with respect to a behavior we thought we had mastered. If we put on five pounds during the COVID pandemic, for example, and spend too much time focusing on our guilty feelings, we will be vulnerable to slipping into shame. It’s more helpful, rather, to say to ourselves “Of course you found necessary comfort in baking. It was a terribly stressful time with no sure exit point and you are an excellent baker. And, now it’s time to recommit to limiting your baking to a manageable level.” The “of course” is gentle and caring. The “and” is stern and demanding. But neither is shaming. Together they will lead you forward and out of your guilt, into solution and far, far away from shame.

• Fate can pile on with challenges that compound other aspects of bad luck, other developmental tests or other cultural tribulations. The indignity of bad luck can feel like a personal failure – especially when we try to explain our situation to others. There is a subtle but resolute belief in Western culture that bad luck – especially a string of it – is somewhat self-inflicted. Because humans are so sensitive to disgrace, even a slight judgment coming from others can tip us into a shame pit. Therefore, because Fate is always present in our lives, we are best served by a community of supportive folks who witness our ongoing efforts as we surmount those difficult, Fate-created stumbling blocks. With friends like these, we will be reminded to not take the whims of Fate personally.

With all these sources of regression that life can throw at us, it’s no wonder that we might need to issue an internal restraining order against shame. A restraining order is only as effective as the policing of it, however, which means you will have to assign a part of your brain to being a shame sheriff. Make sure to treat this part of you with a great deal of respect, train it thoroughly and check in with it frequently for updates on violations of the protective order. Teach it the complete list of awful and all seven of the deadly sins. Remind it to be watchful for any and all of these words and their surrogates trying to sneak into your description of yourself. Make it practice speaking to you with the words "of course" and "and." And be prepared to do this for the rest of your life.

Private conversations

Your brain is always talking to itself. As a result, most of the listening we do is to our own opinions. Think about it for a sec. In fact, think about yesterday. Compare the hours spent hearing your inner chatter relative to the time spent hearing input from others. Now think about this – if you are unable to eliminate shame from those constant internal conversations, you will be trapped inside your mind with a hostile and seriously unhelpful antagonist. This bears repeating. With each cluster of our sense of self that gets shamed, more of our ego gets bound up in self-loathing. In the end, we become the near-constant target of our own most bitter judgments.

One last salvo in my personal war against shame: To answer the question posed by the epigraph from philosopher Marjorie Grene, when individuals try to be themselves – especially as children – they are often shamed. Because shame is such a terrifying punishment, kids can’t help but internalize it. They quickly develop punishing self-talk, which is the shame-based belief that if we are not brutal with ourselves we will not amount to anything. If instead we train our private conversations to invoke a strong desire to understand our actions and activate guilt as necessary, our sense of self will be positively energized by our internal kindness. Doesn't that sound like a smart move?

Please be diligent in your effort to replace a shaming indictment of your every little move with curiosity about why you just did what you just did. 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 2024 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.