Understanding shame: Redefine it and you can dial down its importance

Padraig O’Morain: Why we condemn in others faults we are ashamed of in ourselves

Shame, so far as we know, is felt “in people” in all cultures and countries. I wrote “in people” because it appears to be felt physically.

If a three-year-old child piddles on the carpet during a family gathering, the resulting emotion of shame happens at a time when the child cannot intellectualise it. So it becomes physical, like a bad feeling in the stomach.

With luck, this little bit of shame won’t matter all that much unless it’s thrown back at the child again and again.

Shame can happen in various incidents in childhood and they can pass if they are allowed to pass. We have all read of instances in which children were repeatedly shamed, through harsh public punishment, for bed-wetting and, as adults, the experience of shame stayed with them.


Incidents that shame us can, of course, continue to happen as we grow up and in adulthood.

We don’t talk about our shame incidents because hiding is the essence of shame. You can hide by staying away from people or by presenting to the world a front which isn’t tainted by shame.


For instance, you could become a performer, anywhere from the workplace to the stage, and feel quite safe because everybody knows the routine and nobody is going to get to look inside you. Yet, offstage, you might be afraid to let a single other person know you deeply because you fear they will see something shameful.

A measure of our desire to keep our shame hidden can be seen in our fascination with the exposure of other people’s shame. Headlines with words like “shamed” or “disgraced” are sure to draw the eye. When we read of a celebrity who has abused or misused female or male fans or colleagues, are we more intrigued by the celebrity’s shame than by the suffering inflicted?

This fits very well with the theory of projection in which we are quick to see and condemn in others the faults we are ashamed of in ourselves. Other people’s shame brings us relief from our own, at least until the show is over.

As a fun game, when you've used up Netflix, watch clips of public figures condemning the behaviour of others and ask yourself if they are actually describing their own behaviours. You'll be surprised at how often the answer is yes.


Author Brené Brown, who has written widely and deeply on this topic, has pointed out that shame can lead to aggression, addiction and other bad behaviours designed to shield us from our own pain.

In approaching your own experience of shame, it’s important to distinguish between doing shameful things and actually being shameful.

If you do shameful things you can hope to make amends or at least work to avoid doing them again. If you think you “are” shameful you are in a more painful place by far. If you believe your very essence is shameful, how can you allow yourself to be seen? How can you handle the pain of that knowledge?

If you review what you see as shameful incidents in your life, it is crucial redefine them as behaviours and not as something that represents the essence of who you are.

Some might be events that you should feel guilty about and you can honestly acknowledge the guilt – that’s far more healthy than seeing yourself as a person whose very core is shame.

Shrug off

You’ll also come across incidents, like the small child piddling on the carpet, that are not worthy of the word “shameful” at all and that you can now shrug off.

If, though, you have seen intense shame as something that’s at your very core, it might take time to shift it, maybe with the help of a counsellor. Meanwhile, by redefining shame in the ways mentioned above, you can dial down its importance in your life.

And when we see other people being shamed, maybe we could look on them with some empathy – not necessarily approval – for their present suffering, instead of joining the mob.

– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com)