What is Shame?

It is the Intensely Painful Feeling of Being Fundamentally Flawed

Shame is the most difficult emotion to identify within ourselves because we feel ashamed to do so. For me, shame is a natural but powerful emotion.
Shame has a job to do, that is, to protect us by making sure we fit in with our culture’s norms and rules for acceptance in our family and community, therefore, it plays a big part in our overall survival.

Shame comes with its own built-in “inner critic” that works hard to protect us from getting further shamed by our outside world. Unfortunately, the inner critic can be very harsh, and it can become the critical parent screaming in our ear, telling us that we are bad, stupid, and worthless.
When exposed to a lot of shame in early childhood, the child’s inner critic leads them to believe that they must be lacking in some way, therefore, fundamentally flawed and “bad”.

This may cause the child to act out accordingly, bringing another layer of shameful feelings onto the initial shameful feelings. So, it can create a very vicious cycle. Furthermore, it can catch you unawares because it has a way of sneaking up on you when least expected.

But don’t take my word for it.  What do other experts in the field of trauma say about shame?

Dr. Peter Levine (1997) says, “Shame is a very powerful emotion. It probably, in many ways, is the most powerful emotion because of the way it sneaks up and just takes over the person’s organism from the inside”.

According to Dr. Borysenko (2007) “Shame very much like eating a poisoned plant. If you eat a poisoned plant just once, you never want to go back there again because the physiological terror and horror and sickness of it imprints on your brain because that’s how we survive, by not eating poisoned plants.

So, I’d have to say, shame is the poison plant of emotions. And I think it takes a lot clinically to erase that tracing of shame, which really is so deeply connected to the nervous system.”


Dr. McGonigal (2015) says, “We often interpret the strength of the shame as a sign about how truly bad we are, or what’s truly wrong with us. Instead, I think we should learn to read that intensity as a metric of how much and how deeply we care, not a metric of how fundamentally screwed up or inadequate we are.”


Dr. Buczynski (psychologist and President of NICABM) says, “Shame is such a pervasive issue in our work. If you think about it, any clinical problem that presents itself with a kind of self-criticism or judgment is almost always dealing with shame. And when shame goes untreated, it grows stronger. And it eventually reaches beyond ourselves to affect future generations.”


Dr. van der Kolk: “At the centre of human structure are all of these good emotions – there are no bad emotions. All parts are welcome, and shame is there for a reason. We don’t say to people, “Don’t be ashamed.” We say, “Let’s go there. Let’s explore shame. Let’s feel shame. Let’s see what this shame is about.”


Dr. Richard Schwartz (Founder of Internal Family Systems (IFS)says, “Shame is a two-part phenomenon. There is a critic who says you’re shit, and there’s this young part that believes it. Usually, there’s then yet another part whose job it is to get away from the shame, and sometimes that will resort to extreme behaviours that can then actually bring on more shame.”


Shame may well be “the bedrock of psychopathology” in both the narcissist and their victim’s  behaviours.


Paul Gilbert & Bernice Andrews (1998) writes: –
The behaviours associated with shame can be divided into four aspects:

(1) behaviours aroused as part of the shame response—the hot response.

(2) behaviours that are triggered to cope with, or conceal, shame as it occurs.

(3) behaviours instigated to avoid being shamed (safety behaviours) or shame being discovered.

(4) behaviours designed to repair shame.

These behaviours can be self-focused to soothe the self, or socially focused to soothe others—for example, making apologies.

Recognisable self-defeating shame reactions:

We all experience shameful feelings at some time or other, but, according to Peter Breggin (2014) when they are in excess, it may indicate that we are experiencing self-defeating shame reactions:

• Feeling sensitive

• Feeling unappreciated

• Blushing uncontrollably

• Feeling used

• Feeling rejected

• Feeling you are small or have little impact on people

• Being concerned about what other people think of you

• Worrying that people don’t treat you with enough respect

• Feeling taken advantage of

• Wishing you could have had the last word

• Keeping your thoughts and feelings to yourself to avoid embarrassment

• Not wanting to seem stupid or inappropriate

• Being concerned about failing rather than about doing something bad

• Being a perfectionist

• Feeling left out, different, or like an outsider

• Being distrustful or suspicious

• Avoiding being the center of attention

• Feeling like a “shrinking violet” or “wallflower”

• Feeling like withdrawing or shutting people out


Before we can combat shame, we must be able to identify it in ourselves, and of course, that will make us feel vulnerable. 

This checklist above may give you some indicator of your own shame responses, and how these negative emotions could be holding you back from being your true self, especially as you try to make yourself inconspicuous. 

Shame can be so powerful that it can crush our very identity.  Of shame, Brené Brown observes:

Somewhat paradoxically, our bodies often react to shame even before our conscious minds do. People always think it’s strange when I ask them where and how they physically feel shame. But for most of us, shame has a feeling—it’s physical as well as emotional.
This is why I often refer to shame as a full-contact emotion. Women have described various physical reactions to shame, including stomach tightening, nausea, shaking, waves of heat in their faces and chests, wincing and twinges of smallness.

If we can recognize our physical responses, sometimes we can limit the powerlessness that we feel when we are in shame.

The Gaslighting Syndrome

When Shame Begets Shame

The 3 Faces Of Evil

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Christine is a Psychotherapist, Educator, Author and Supervisor of mental health professionals for over 28 years. She was part of a team in the Trauma Unit of St. Brendan’s Psychiatric Hospital, Dublin, and has worked specifically with victims of pathological narcissistic abuse in her private practice for many years.
Her books, “The Three Faces of Evil: Unmasking the Full Spectrum of Narcissistic Abuse” and “When Shame Begets Shame: How Narcissists hurt and shame their victims” set out to to help those who have been affected by a narcissist and also to address the shortfalls in a therapist’s education, so that they become better equipped to work with survivors of narcissistic abuse.Much of her knowledge has come from her post-grad studies in Criminology and Forensic Psychology, and it is through these disciplines that she has gained her understanding of “The Dark Triad”, (Narcissism, Machiavellianism and Psychopathy).
These three faces of evil are vital information for understanding the full spectrum of narcissistic abuse and the dire effects on the victims.It is her vision that narcissistic abuse becomes part of the curriculum of all Mental Health clinicians.
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