Coping Strategies for Dealing with Shame

Discover effective coping strategies for dealing with shame. Build emotional resilience and reclaim your self-worth.

Leora BH Staff
April 9, 2024

Understanding Shame

Shame is a complex and powerful emotion that can have a profound impact on individuals. To better cope with shame, it is important to first understand its root causes and the impact it has on one's identity.

Root Causes of Shame

Shame can stem from various root causes, as explained by Psychology Today. Some common factors that contribute to the development of shame include:

  1. Toxic Parents: Growing up in an environment with emotionally unavailable or abusive parents can lead to the internalization of shame.
  2. Abandonment or Rejection Experiences: Experiences of abandonment or rejection, such as the loss of a loved one or the breakdown of significant relationships, can trigger feelings of shame.
  3. Unhealthy Environments: Being exposed to environments that foster shame-inducing behaviors, such as constant criticism or humiliation, can contribute to the development of shame.
  4. Traumatic Experiences: Traumatic events, such as physical or sexual abuse, can deeply impact an individual's sense of self-worth and contribute to the experience of shame.
  5. Personal or Moral Failures: Failing to meet personal or moral expectations, whether real or perceived, can lead to feelings of shame and self-blame.

Understanding the root causes of shame can help individuals recognize and address the underlying sources of their shame, enabling them to develop healthier coping strategies.

Impact of Shame on Identity

Shame is an enduring emotion that goes beyond specific situations, impacting one's core identity. According to Laurel Therapy Collective, shame makes individuals believe that they are unworthy, flawed, or beyond redemption. It is considered a form of trauma due to its lasting impact on an individual's mental well-being.

Shame can originate from demeaning messages received from parents or caregivers, as well as from abuse, neglect, or rejection based on one's identity, as mentioned by Psyche. Pivotal life experiences that make someone view themselves as "bad" or "broken" can also contribute to the development of shame.

The impact of shame on an individual's identity can be pervasive, affecting their self-esteem, self-worth, and overall mental health. It is crucial to address shame and work towards healing and building emotional resilience.

By understanding the root causes of shame and acknowledging its impact on identity, individuals can begin their journey towards healing and develop effective coping strategies to navigate this challenging emotion.

Coping Strategies for Shame

Shame can be a difficult emotion to navigate, but there are effective coping strategies that can help individuals deal with and overcome feelings of shame. Below, we explore three strategies: self-compassionate letters, mindfulness and relaxation techniques, and practicing self-compassion.

Self-Compassionate Letters

Recent research by M.B. Swee of Harvard Medical School suggests that writing self-compassionate letters can be an effective way to reduce shame. This practice involves expressing kindness and understanding towards oneself, affirming feelings, and reminding oneself that they are deserving of love and acceptance [1]. In the study, participants experienced significant decreases in both global and external shame, as well as reductions in self-criticism. These gains were maintained during a one-month follow-up period.

Writing self-compassionate letters can be a powerful tool for neutralizing feelings of shame. By offering oneself understanding and support, individuals can begin to challenge self-critical thoughts and cultivate self-compassion.

Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques

Mindfulness and relaxation techniques play a crucial role in managing the intensity of shame and regaining emotional balance. These practices involve being fully present in the moment and engaging in activities that promote relaxation and self-reflection.

Breathing exercises, meditation, and journaling are effective techniques that can help individuals become more aware of their thoughts and emotions, reducing the physical symptoms associated with shame. By practicing mindfulness, individuals can develop a greater sense of self-acceptance and learn to navigate shame with greater resilience.

Practicing Self-Compassion

Practicing self-compassion is a fundamental coping strategy for managing and overcoming shame. It involves treating oneself with kindness and understanding, affirming one's feelings, and reminding oneself that they are deserving of love and acceptance. Self-compassion involves recognizing and soothing one's own suffering, rather than avoiding or suppressing it.

Responding to shame with self-compassion can be challenging, but it is an important step towards healing. By tuning in to one's pain and responding to it in a helpful way, individuals can begin to neutralize the power of shame and foster a sense of self-worth and acceptance [3].

In addition to the strategies mentioned above, engaging in daily acts of self-care can contribute to showing oneself compassion in a tangible way. These acts might include enjoying a cup of tea, going for a walk, reading, or taking a shower. By prioritizing self-care, individuals can further reinforce self-compassion and create a nurturing environment for healing.

By employing these coping strategies, individuals can begin to navigate and overcome feelings of shame, fostering emotional resilience and a greater sense of self-acceptance.

Healing from Shame

Shame can be a deeply ingrained and challenging emotion to navigate. However, with time, patience, and the right strategies, it is possible to heal from shame and cultivate emotional resilience.

Time and Patience in Recovery

Healing from shame is a process that takes time. It is important to remember that progress is not always linear, and setbacks are a normal part of the journey. Patience with oneself is crucial during this recovery process. Acknowledging setbacks and understanding that they do not define one's worth or progress is essential. It is through self-compassion and a gentle approach that healing and growth can occur.

Addressing Setbacks

Setbacks are an inevitable part of the healing process. When faced with setbacks, it is important to approach them with understanding and self-compassion. Instead of dwelling on the setback, it can be helpful to identify any triggers or patterns associated with it. This self-reflection can provide valuable insights and help develop strategies to prevent similar setbacks in the future. Seeking support from trusted friends, family, or a therapist can also be beneficial in navigating setbacks and regaining a sense of resilience.

Building Emotional Resilience

Building emotional resilience is a vital component of healing from shame. This involves developing skills and strategies to cope with and bounce back from difficult emotions and experiences. Some effective strategies for building emotional resilience include:

  • Self-Care: Engaging in self-care practices such as regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and practicing relaxation techniques can help reduce stress and enhance overall well-being.
  • Emotional Regulation: Developing skills to identify and manage emotions can be empowering. Techniques such as deep breathing exercises, journaling, or seeking therapy can aid in this process.
  • Mindfulness: Practicing mindfulness can help cultivate self-awareness and non-judgmental acceptance of emotions. Mindfulness exercises, such as meditation or grounding techniques, can be valuable tools in building emotional resilience.
  • Healthy Coping Mechanisms: Engaging in healthy coping mechanisms, such as engaging in hobbies, talking to supportive friends or family members, or seeking professional help, can contribute to emotional resilience.

Healing from shame is a personal and unique journey for each individual. It may involve seeking therapy that specializes in shame and trauma-sensitive approaches [5]. With time, patience, and the implementation of effective coping strategies, individuals can break free from the grip of shame and cultivate emotional resilience.

Differentiating Shame and Guilt

Understanding the distinction between shame and guilt is essential in navigating the complex realm of emotions. While these emotions are often used interchangeably, they have distinct characteristics and implications. In this section, we will explore the emotional and behavioral differences between shame and guilt, as well as the mental health implications associated with each.

Emotional and Behavioral Differences

Shame and guilt differ in their focus and impact on individuals. Guilt typically revolves around a specific act or behavior, where an individual feels remorse or regret for something they have done. It is often connected to a sense of responsibility and a desire to make amends. Guilt can serve as a healthy motivator for individuals to apologize, learn from their mistakes, and avoid causing harm in the future.

On the other hand, shame centers around an individual's perception of themselves as being inherently flawed or unworthy. It goes beyond a specific action and encompasses a deep-seated belief that one is fundamentally bad or defective. Shame often leads to feelings of humiliation, inadequacy, and a loss of self-worth. It can be accompanied by intense self-criticism and a fear of being judged or rejected by others.

Mental Health Implications

The mental health implications of shame are particularly significant. Research suggests that shame is more strongly linked to mental health problems than guilt is. Shame can contribute to the development of various mental health challenges, including depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. It may also hinder individuals from forming close relationships, performing well in work or school settings, and engaging in activities that bring them joy and fulfillment.

The impact of shame on mental health can be particularly concerning, as it has been associated with suicidal thoughts and actions. Shame's profound effect on a person's core can lead to feelings of unworthiness, hopelessness, and isolation. Seeking help for shame involves recognizing these emotions, understanding that shame is treatable regardless of its source, and implementing strategies to build resilience and heal.

Therapy is a valuable resource in addressing shame, especially when it stems from trauma. Trauma-sensitive approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and psychodynamic therapy, can help individuals explore the root causes of shame and develop coping strategies to break free from its grip [5].

By understanding the differences between shame and guilt, individuals can gain insight into their own emotional experiences and develop effective coping strategies. It is important to remember that shame is not an inherent or permanent characteristic, and with support and self-compassion, it is possible to build resilience and cultivate emotional well-being.

Seeking Help for Shame

When coping with shame, seeking help and support from professionals can be invaluable. Therapy, particularly trauma-sensitive approaches, can play a crucial role in addressing shame and promoting emotional healing.

Therapy for Shame

Therapy provides a safe and supportive environment for individuals to explore and work through their feelings of shame. When shame is rooted in trauma, trauma-sensitive therapy is often recommended. Various therapeutic modalities, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and psychodynamic therapy, can be effective in addressing shame. These therapeutic approaches help individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns, develop self-compassion, and learn healthier coping strategies.

Trauma-Sensitive Approaches

Trauma-sensitive therapy specifically focuses on addressing the root causes of shame that stem from traumatic experiences. By creating a safe and non-judgmental therapeutic environment, trauma-sensitive therapists help individuals process their traumatic memories and the associated shame. This approach emphasizes understanding the impact of trauma on the individual's self-perception and identity, while also fostering resilience and healing.

In trauma-sensitive therapy, various evidence-based techniques, such as cognitive restructuring, grounding exercises, and somatic experiencing, may be utilized. These techniques aim to help individuals regulate their emotions, reframe negative beliefs about themselves, and develop adaptive coping skills. Through the therapeutic relationship, individuals can gradually build trust, reduce shame, and cultivate a more compassionate and resilient mindset.

When seeking therapy for shame, it is important to find a therapist who specializes in trauma or has experience working with shame-prone clients. The therapeutic relationship and the therapist's ability to create a safe and non-judgmental space are essential for effective healing and growth.

By engaging in therapy, individuals can gain insight into their shame triggers, develop healthier ways of responding to shame, and ultimately build emotional resilience. Therapy provides a supportive framework for individuals to explore their shame and work towards developing self-compassion, acceptance, and a more positive self-identity.

Effective Strategies for Shame

When it comes to addressing shame, there are several effective strategies that can help individuals cope and build emotional resilience. These strategies involve exposure to shame, assessment of warmth and belonging, and expression of warmth and positive regard.

Exposure to Shame

Surprisingly, effective work with shame means exposure to shame. Research by Luoma et al. suggests that bringing individuals into contact with shame, while simultaneously using perspective-taking and compassion-based exercises, can help them learn new ways of responding to their own shame, rather than avoiding it. By facing shame head-on, individuals have the opportunity to challenge and reframe their negative beliefs and emotions, leading to positive therapeutic outcomes.

Assessment of Warmth and Belonging

Assessing for past experiences of warmth and belonging is crucial in addressing shame. Matos et al. found that early memories of warmth can buffer the effects of shame memories on depression. By carefully eliciting clients' experiences of warmth, belonging, and connection, therapists can identify resources that can be built upon to foster greater self-compassion. This assessment helps individuals recognize and draw upon positive experiences and relationships to counteract the impact of shame.

Expression of Warmth and Positive Regard

Therapists and mental health professionals play a crucial role in the effective management of shame. It's important for them to pay attention to their expression of warmth and positive regard towards their clients. Zuroff et al. found that higher self-critical perfectionism in clients predicted a tendency for therapists to show less warmth and positive regard. Moderating intense affective expressions and connecting with clients in a casual or friendly manner can help foster a sense of safety and acceptance.

By utilizing imagery exercises involving friends or children who are struggling with the same problem, therapists can enhance self-compassion and flexible perspective-taking. Falconer et al. found that this approach helps clients imagine themselves as a young child or a friend, allowing them to extend compassion towards themselves.

It's also essential to address shame-related stigma and barriers to accessing mental health treatment. Glazier et al. suggest that mental health professionals should consider ways to address shame and stigma before clients even seek help. This can involve examining marketing materials, websites, intake forms, and office signage to ensure that messages are supportive and inclusive.

By applying these effective strategies, individuals can develop coping mechanisms to navigate shame, foster self-compassion, and build emotional resilience. Therapists and mental health professionals play a crucial role in creating a safe and supportive environment that promotes healing and growth.


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