The Impact of Shame

Guilt can help us grow, but shame tends to beat us down.

Most everyone experiences shame at times. The only people who never experience shame are psychopaths. Butthe impact of shame that’s because they can’t accept personal responsibility for their actions. The rest of us know the feeling of shame.

First, we need to look at the difference between shame and guilt. Both are considered moral emotions, in that they arise as a result of us doing something we perceive as wrong. Both emotions are painful, and can change our future behaviors.

Guilt is a negative appraisal of a specific behavior. “I did something that I shouldn’t have done (or that hurt someone) and I feel remorse that I did it.” Guilt is a healthy emotion. It motivates us to alter our behaviors and avoid the hurtful actions in the future.

Shame is a negative appraisal of one’s self. The emphasis is not on a specific behavior, but rather, on the core sense of identity. With guilt we think, “I did something bad,” but with shame we think, “I am bad.” We may feel unworthy or defective. When we experience shame, we tend to shut down. Shame doesn’t motivate us to improve our behaviors. Instead, it makes us feel powerless and inadequate. We assume that we are inherently bad, and feel the need to withdraw from others.

While both cause emotional pain, shame creates a deeper hurt, as it attacks our core sense of self. Shame is usually associated with a feeling of shrinking or being small. We feel less than and exposed. Even when no one saw our actions, we imagine how they would react if they did. We imagine an intense social disapproval. We have an urge to hide.

A sensitivity to shame may develop in the early years. While a single event can lead to shame, it usually results from more pervasive negative experiences. Children tend to experience shame when they receive global criticism as a person, rather than feedback that is focused on a specific behavior. Global criticism speaks to the child’s identity or character. Examples include, “You are so clumsy. You do that all the time. and You’re stupid.” The child learns to believe he is defective and inferior as a person. This belief can follow him throughout life.

Parenting that conveys the message that the child is good and worthwhile, but made a mistake, helps insulate that child from shame. The child realizes the wrong behavior, and feels guilty, without the more general conclusion that he is a bad person. The child can correct his behaviors, while maintaining a healthy self-esteem.

So, we need to pay attention to the way we treat others and ourselves. Recognize that mistakes and wrong behaviors do happen with everyone. When addressing them, be specific to the behavior. We need to avoid global critical statements about the person, whether talking to our children, or to ourselves.

Self-Esteem Versus Self-Compassion

Developing self-compassion can help anyone deal with self-esteem wounds.

For years now, I have been working on helping people identify and correct negative self-beliefs that were formed byself-esteem harsh criticism, rejection or abuse. I knew that these beliefs triggered negative thinking, depression, anxiety, damaged relationships and sometimes even suicide. I referred to these negative self-beliefs as self-esteem wounds. I said that my work focused on the self-esteem, but I never liked the term.

The term self-esteem is very overused, and has several negative connotations. Some earlier self-esteem programs focused on positive affirmations, such as “I’m very smart” “I can do anything I want” or “I’m a great athlete.” Several self-esteem programs were introduced into the schools in the 80’s and 90’s, but were later found to be fairly ineffective. Some went so far as to say that you shouldn’t point out a student’s mistakes, as that might hurt their self-esteem. Some programs were said to even foster narcissistic tendencies. The negative side of self-esteem work was epitomized by Saturday Night Live’s character, Stuart Smiley, who stared into a mirror, while reciting, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

Many self-esteem programs seemed to foster feelings of superiority, or seeing oneself as above average. The reality is that everyone cannot be above average. Except, of course, in Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town of Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above average.”

My work focused on helping those who saw themselves as inferior to everyone else. I wanted to help them recognize that they were human, with positive and negative traits, successes and failures like everyone else. I tried to help people see themselves as equal with others. I’ve tried to help them have compassion for themselves, while taking full responsibility for their behaviors.

Then I discovered the term self-compassion. Self-compassion can be defined as extending compassion to oneself in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure or general suffering. In other words, you recognize your difficulty, but show kindness to yourself, as you deal with that difficulty. Kristin Neff, Ph.D. has led the study of this concept. Research has shown that self-compassion helps us deal with the inevitable difficulties and failures of life. We bounce back more quickly, remain stronger under adversity, and show more compassion toward others, when we practice self-compassion. We see ourselves, and treat ourselves as being equal to other human beings. And after all, aren’t we?

The Impact of Should Thinking on Self-Esteem

Should statements add an element of self-criticism and guilt to your self-esteem.

This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.

Sometimes the difference between healthy and unhealthy thinking is simply a matter of tone. The difference may be subtle. For example, the statement, “I want to lose some weight” expresses a healthy desire, but the statement, “I’m so fat” damages the self-esteem.

You may think the difference between the two statement to be inconsequential, because you know what you mean, but it’s not. The human brain processes self-talk literally. Much like a computer, it processes exactly what you put into it.

Research has clearly demonstrated the importance of the actual words used in our thinking. You may rationally know better when you say, “I can’t do anything right.” You may know that you can do some things right. After all, you got dressed this morning, and you did that right. But your self-esteem hears the actual words, and you feel as if you can’t do anything right. The damage is done.

So now, let’s consider a situation where you want to make some change or take some future action. It could be anything. You want to spend more time with your children or with your aging parents. You want to clean your house, or get more involved in a worthwhile organization. The motivation may be admirable.

You might think, “I want to …” do some action. You’re expressing a healthy desire, and hopefully, you will follow-up with actions to make it happen. It’s all good. Or you might think, “I should …” do the action. In this case, you’re still expressing the desire, but you add a little jab. The “should” statement suggests guilt, shame or inadequacy, and provides a bit of chastisement.

The “I want to…” statement leaves the self-esteem intact. It may even engender a little excitement as you visualize accomplishing the action. The “I should…” statement tends to lower your mood, leaving you feeling inadequate. The damage of each statement may be minor, but the repetition of such statements can be devastating.

“Should” statements remind me of a little known religious group of the 14th century called the Flagellants. They believed they should punish themselves because of their sins, so they marched through the streets whipping themselves on the back with leather whips. Frequently using “should” statements is little like whipping yourself throughout your day. Like the whip, each “should” creates a little more damage.

Pay attention to the words you use in your self-talk. They really are important. Try substituting “I want to…” or “I would like to….” for the more negative, “I should…” See how it works.

Helping A Loved One With Low Self-Esteem

We often feel helpless when trying to help someone with negative beliefs about self.

Do you have that friend who believes that she’s ugly, even though she is actually very attractive? Or perhaps you haveHelping someone with low self-esteem a friend who gives up on his dreams because he thinks he lacks the ability, but you know he could do it. Do you have a loved one who suffers from depression or anxiety because she believes she is less than she really is?

We all know someone like this, and it hurts. It hurts to love someone who doesn’t love or respect himself. It hurts to see them living a limited life, because of self-limiting, and false, beliefs.

We want to help. We try to help. But, how do we do it? If you’re like most, you try to argue with the person. You say things like, “You are not ugly. You are beautiful. You are intelligent. You can do anything you want to do.”

How does that work? I suspect not very well. They don’t believe you. They think your words are kind, but untrue. They don’t change their beliefs. They continue to suffer.

I like this quote from Seth Godin:

People don’t believe what you tell them.

They rarely believe what you show them.

They often believe what their friends tell them.

They always believe what they tell themselves.

This is particularly true when it comes to helping someone change a negative believe about self. We have to take our time, listen first, then try to help them look at their belief from a different perspective. It still doesn’t always work, but it definitely works better than an argument.

Of example, I have found the technique of “putting someone else in your shoes” to be very helpful. Let’s say that I have made a mistake. I’m not imagining that it was a mistake. I actually did mess up, and I’m tempted to be very self-critical and beat myself up. I immediately picture someone I know in my mind. I identify someone that I like and respect. I imagine how I would feel if my friend made the exact same mistake, under the exact same circumstances. I also imagine that they are feeling badly like myself.

I then ask myself how I would judge that person. I don’t ask myself what I would say to them, because I might tend to be kind. I ask myself how I would actually feel about that person making the same mistake, under the same conditions. Then, I never let myself be any harder on myself, or any easier on myself, than I would to my friend.

If my conclusion for my friend would be that he couldn’t actually help it, or that he should let it go, then that is what I tell myself. If my conclusion would be that he should be more careful and make amends to the hurt party, then that is also what I tell myself. In other words, I apply the same rules and consequences to myself that I would apply to anyone else.

It’s amazing how often this exercise tempers any tendency to be harsh with myself or to beat myself up. Try it some time, and see how it works for you, or for your loved one. Again, if we can get them to see themselves from a different perspective, they may be able to tell themselves a different story about who they are. Wouldn’t that be nice?


Comments: Have you found some ways help someone, or yourself, see themselves in a more positive light. Please share.

Who Do You Trust?

Self-esteem wounds can often make us trust the wrong people.

Trust is a firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something. When we trust, we have Who Do You Trustconfidence in that person or thing. We trust people when we believe that they will be honest and treat us well.

So how do we choose who to trust? Why do we trust one person more or less than another? Is our decision always rational or reasonable? The answer is no.

Of course, we do trust some people because their past behaviors have proven them to be trustworthy. Each time we interacted with them, they behaved in a reliable or truthful manner, and so gained trust in our eyes. They earned it.

This kind of trust is fairly rational. We are rarely let down by such earned trust, but sometimes we are. We’ve all had the experience of someone letting us down for that first time. They had been trustworthy in the past, but this time they weren’t. It’s painful isn’t it?

When trust is broken it hurts. We begin to doubt what we thought we knew about the person. We even doubt our past experiences with the person. Were we being fooled in the past? Were they who we thought they were? Was the whole thing a lie? And we all know that it takes much longer to build back trust than it took to lose it.

But our decision to trust is sometimes not rational. Sometimes we trust when we shouldn’t have. Sometimes we trust despite warning signs that we shouldn’t trust. Why is that?

I have found that such misplaced trust often occurs when we have self-esteem wounds. When we don’t value ourselves, we tend to blame ourselves when we are treated badly. We perceive that their negative treatment of us is somehow our fault. Our tendency to self-blame keeps us from seeing their negative characteristics. We make excuses for them.

Our friends and family often see the negative traits of the other person. They try to warn us and urge us to leave the situation, but we don’t listen. We continue making excuses for the hurtful person and blaming ourselves. We fail to see the truth.

Do you find yourself in a relationship with a hurtful person? Do you keep trying to be good enough to please them? Have you ignored warnings from friends and family? Take a long, hard look at the relationship. Would you want a loved one to be in the same relationship? If it wouldn’t be good enough for them, why is it good enough for you?

Ten Negative Consequences of Self-Esteem Wounds

A self-esteem wound can impact the victim in many different ways.

Most would agree that a low self-esteem is harmful to the individual, but we may not realize that self-esteem woundsdepressed_man_001 can present themselves in many forms. People rarely come to see me complaining of low self-esteem, but they often come in because of the results of low self-esteem.


Self-esteem wounds can be the driving force behind many psychological difficulties. Here are a few.


  1. Depression:

    There are several types of depression. Some are primarily cause by a chemical imbalance, and can be inherited. Most depression, however, is brought about by negative life experiences, and negative thinking patterns. Self-criticism fuels depression. The individual is bombarded by negative thoughts about himself, and negative thoughts about his future. Treating depression usually requires helping the person alter negative thinking patterns. When the self-esteem improves, so does the depression.

  2. Anxiety:

    Self-esteem wounds often come in the form of inadequacy feelings. The person doesn’t feel prepared to deal with difficult life tasks, and anticipates failure. Everything begins to feel overwhelming. Anxiety is the natural result.

  3. Social Anxiety:

    This is when a person feels anxious in social situations. She assumes that others are judging her, and is afraid of saying the wrong thing or not being able to say anything. She assumes that others are better than she, are more comfortable in social situations, and therefore, are judging her inadequacies. With treatment, she learns to see herself as equal to others, thus lessening the social anxiety.

  4. Withdrawal:

    Similar to social anxiety, here the person avoids interactions with others. He may withdraw because of a fear of judgment, or simply because he no longer enjoys social interaction. He may see himself as less competent than others, or as less likeable or important. Assuming that he will not be liked, he avoids occasions where rejection is possible.

  5. Irritability and Temper Outbursts:

    When the person perceives herself as inadequate, she may assume that others are judging her. Her reaction may be anger. When she perceives herself as unlovable or unlikeable, she may perceive rejection even when it isn’t there. Her reaction to the perceived rejection may also be anger.

  6. Poor Relationship Choices:

    It may sound strange, but people tend to find themselves in relationships, that deepen their self-esteem wounds. The abused girl often grows up to marry the abusive man. The rejected boy is often attracted to the distant woman. The criticized boy often marries an overly critical wife. These choices are unconscious, but are common results of self-esteem wounds.

  7. Arrogant Behaviors:

    This one may surprise some people. We usually assume that someone who displays arrogant behaviors actually thinks too much of themselves. While this may be true at times, most arrogant people are actually compensating or hiding insecurities. They see themselves as less than others and try to hide that by bragging or acting like they are better than others.

  8. Underachievement:

    People with self-esteem wounds will not pursue opportunities as frequently. They doubt themselves. They expect failure, so they don’t attempt things. They dismiss their dreams because they think they are possible.

  9. Overachievement:

    This may sound strange, but some people with low self-esteem put too much effort into achievement. They sacrifice everything to succeed. They try to succeed to prove their former critics wrong. Such attempts are like pouring water into a bucket with a hold in the bottom. No matter how much you pour in, it never gets full. No amount of success will heal an inadequacy self-esteem wound.


The list could go on. Self-esteem wounds impact people in many ways. You may have seen yourself or a loved one in this list. If so, take steps to address the wounds. Self-esteem wounds can be healed with time, treatment and persistence.


Comments: Can you think of any other consequences of self-esteem wounds? Please share!

The Hidden Nature of Self-Esteem Wounds

Your Assumptions About Other's Self-Esteem May Be Wrong.

There are several common stereotypes regarding self-esteem issues. Our misperceptions can hamper our ability tohappy_people effectively address such issues in ourselves or in those we love. Let’s examine some common self-esteem stereotypes.


Some imagine an individual with low self-esteem frequently verbalizing self-critical, or self-derogatory statements, while avoiding eye contact, and sitting in a corner.  We also tend to imagine a certain physical appearance. We might picture an unattractive person in plain attire, slumping and walking with a shuffle.


We often assume that we would be able to recognize a low self-esteem from external appearances. We assume that very attractive people automatically have a good self-esteem. We assume that success, high paying jobs, or high status positions reflect confidence and feelings of self-worth. We assume that outgoing, talkative people are socially comfortable and that they have a good self-esteem. These assumptions are often wrong.


In fact, you would be quite surprised if you knew the self-esteem wounds carried by some of the people around you. There are probably some people you think you know well, co-workers, fellow students, even people you admire, who suffer silently from self-esteem wounds. Despite their admirable traits or accomplishments, their minds are filled with self-criticism or self-doubt. Some may have even experienced early life trauma or abuse beyond your imagination.


Of course, many people have a fairly healthy self-esteem. They see themselves as equal to other human beings. They recognize that they have strengths and weaknesses, but accept themselves. They are able to maintain a good balance between striving for improvement and being comfortable with who they are now.


So, how do you tell the difference? How can you tell whether a person has a good or poor self-esteem? That’s the point. You can’t. Don’t assume. The only correct answer is that you don’t know.


When you recognize the fact that you can’t know another’s experience, struggle or heart, you are slower to judge. You may find it easier to be kind. You will be less likely to compare yourself to them. When you recognize that others, like you, are fellow travelers on this life journey, you may feel more connected, more comfortable in your own skin.

Comments: What are some other ways that we tend to misjudge other’s self-esteem?

Self-Esteem Wounds From A Distant Parent

This "Fresh Prince" scene illustrates the pain of an unavailable father.

Many children experience the pain of an unavailable parent. The child mistakenly believes that he or she is the blame. The question, “Why can’t he love me?” is all too common. Of course the problem actually rests with the parent, not the child, but the child doesn’t know this. The self-esteem is wounded, as the child feels unlovable. That feeling of being unimportant or unlovable follows the child into adulthood, maintaining the self-esteem wound.

This scene from “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” provides an excellent example of a rejecting parent and a hurting son. We need to recognize that the problem lies with the parent, not with the child. Will Smith does a beautiful job of depicting the reaction of the rejected child. First, he acts cool, as if there is no problem and it doesn’t bother him. Then he expresses anger at the parent for not being there for him. Finally, he becomes more vulnerable to asks the ultimate self-esteem wound question, “Why doesn’t he want me?” He shows the very strong tendency the child has to blame himself.

Unfortunately, far too many children and teenagers have to deal with a distant or absent parent. Of course, adults know that the problem lies with the parent, not with the child. The child blames himself.

Being Human

A few facts to consider when assessing your self-esteem or self-worth.

When writing and teaching about self-esteem, I’m often urging people to reconsider their negative self-beliefs andgirl_looking_in_mirror work toward healing self-esteem wounds. I point out that every human being has worth, and try to help people gain a healthy perspective on themselves.

But today, I thought it might be interesting to consider just what it means to be human. Exactly who are we in the grand scheme of things?

First, we are mammals, like cows, dogs, sheep, monkeys, etc. we are born alive and we nurse our young. We are totally helpless when we are born, and remain totally helpless longer than any other mammals. Without someone else taking total care of our physical needs, we would die quickly.

We live a fairly short life. In the United States, the average life expectancy is 79 years (76 years for males and 81 years for females). In other countries of the world, the average life expectancies range from 84 years in Japan to only 46 years in Sierra Leone. While living to around 80 years may seem like an eternity to a sixteen year old, those of us in the last half of the trip realize that it is a blink of an eye.

For years, people have quoted that the actual chemical worth of the elements in a human body (calcium, carbon, iron, etc.) is about 97 cents, but inflation has helped us a bit. It is now said that our various raw ingredients are worth about $5:00. I guess that’s one way to feel better about ourselves.

From a psychological perspective, we can sometimes be a mess. We operative out of raw emotion far too often. We are constantly assuming what others think and feel, and we’re often wrong. We incessantly compare ourselves to other humans, as if we could actually do such a thing objectively. We all tend to have our insecurities, but work so hard to give the impression that we have it all together.

But, at the same time, we humans can do great and wonderful things. We often give our money, our time and even our lives to help the people we love, and even those we don’t know. We can entertain dreams and ideals and then move mountains to attain them. We have the ability to love selflessly. We often show great courage and determination. We have the capacity to touch others in a meaningful and last way, even when we don’t realize that we have done so.

And we actually are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” The human brain, that 3 lb. mass of pink tissue behind your forehead, contains about 100 billion neurons. There are anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 synapses in each neuron. Neurons develop at a rate of 250,000 neurons per minute during early pregnancy, and humans continue to develop new neurons throughout life due to mental activity. No computer has ever been created that remotely matches the capacity of one human brain.

I said earlier that the raw chemicals of the human body were worth about $5.00. While that is true, the synthesized components of one human body (e.g. hemoglobin) would actually cost about $56,000,000. That seems a little better doesn’t it?

Fact is, you are an amazing creation. Now, live today like you know that!


Comments: Please share your thoughts or questions about what it means to be human.

Does Your Self-Esteem Suffer From Cherry Picking?

Selective Attention can maintain or worsen our self-esteem wounds.

Wikipedia (the on-line encyclopedia) defines cherry picking as “the fallacy of incomplete evidence” or the act of self-esteem cherry pickingpointing to individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position.” So, we do cherry picking when we pay attention to those instances that confirm our prior belief, while discounting or completely ignoring the instances that would refute our prior belief.

Cherry picking is a major factor in the maintenance and worsening of self-esteem wounds. It allows the person to maintain a negative belief about herself, despite a significant amount of evidence to the contrary. In cognitive psychology, this is called selective attention.

For example, a child who experiences harsh criticism learns to see himself as inadequate or a failure. As an adult, he “cherry picks” by focusing his attention on his failures, while ignoring or dismissing his successes. Any compliment he receives is discarded as a kind gesture. A 100 on a test is discounted in his mind by statements such as, “I got lucky” or “It was an easy test.” On the other hand, his failure experiences are analyzed, reviewed, and long remembered as indisputable evidence of his inadequacy.

Another example of cherry picking is occurs when the person with low self-esteem compares herself with other people. She selectively pays attention to a positive trait of one acquaintance, wishing she could be more like her. She then pays attention to a different positive trait in another person, wishing she could be like him in that way.  She ignores the negative traits of each person, leaving her with a strengthened belief that she is inadequate, compared to most people.

A wife and mother may envy another woman who keeps a spotless house, while ignoring the fact that the woman seems very irritable toward her children. She then envies another mother, who seems to have more patience with her children, while ignoring the fact that her house is cluttered. She is, thus, left with the impression that she is a failure as a housekeeper and a mother.

Sometimes when I hear someone cherry picking, I ask them to identify any person that they know well, with whom they would completely change places. I ask if they would they exchange all their own traits and characteristics with all the other person’s traits and characteristics. In others words, they would have to exchange all the good and bad traits of the other person. I’ve never had anyone to say that they would.

Next time you notice that you are comparing yourself with others, consider the possibility that you are cherry picking. Also, notice where you focus your attention. Make a deliberate effort to notice your positive traits, characteristics and circumstances, as much as you do your negatives. See how that makes you feel.