Category: Shame

How to identify feelings of shame

How to identify feelings of shame
Shame is the most toxic of emotions

The relevance of shame should not be underestimated, since it is the most toxic of emotions. Shame not only crushes one’s self-esteem, but it is also at the core of mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. Despite being potentially harmful to our psychological and emotional wellbeing, shame is rarely dealt with in a straightforward manner. Because it is so uncomfortable to talk about shame, it usually takes a reasonable amount of talking until most of us feel safe enough to relate our thinking and behaviour to deep feelings of shame, or the core beliefs that fuel them.

As emotional healing is all about feeling whole and connected, it is vital that you learn how to identify feelings of shame. As Brené Brown (2013) points out in her bestseller Daring Greatly, “Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither”. To help you name and shame your shame and deal with it as openly as you can, the following are common feelings and attitudes that are motivated by it:

  • Feeling left out, ignored, unimportant
  • Feeling defeated, vulnerable, weak
  • Feeling rejected, unwanted, not good enough
  • Feeling hate or disgust towards yourself
  • Avoiding social contact or being the centre of attention
  • Always believing in what others have to say about you, especially when negative
  • Feeling inadequate and embarrassed about what you have said and done
  • Finding it hard to accept the whole of you, especially what you do not consider a positive trait
  • Feeling crushed by self-criticism to the point of having thoughts of suicide
  • Refraining from saying anything in social gatherings or giving voice to your needs or opinions for considering them not important or interesting enough to others
  • Constantly worrying about what other people think
  • Not being able to say no or always doing what others want in order to feel valued in a relationship
  • Believing not to be liked or loved, as if it were a fact and not just a thought
  • Behaving in a certain way to gain the approval of others, even when it does not reflect the true you
  • Not having anything positive to say about yourself or your appearance
  • Putting the wellbeing of others before your own or believing it is your duty to care for others
  • Hiding or lying about your age, having a need to look younger
  • Feeling more comfortable with the thought of failure than that of success
  • Feeling like a bad or broken person, or believing that you are the reason why something bad has happened to you
  • Procrastinating or taking a lot of time to do something, so to get it “absolutely right”
  • Thinking that nobody feels the way you do or has experienced the things you have
  • Feeling different or less than others, as if you were not worthy of good things
  • Struggling to accept the good or believe in others’ love or interest in you
  • Minimising the harm done to you by an abusive relationship
  • Feeling you cannot do anything right or achieve what you would have liked in life
  • Staying in a broken relationship for not believing you could do any better
  • Being in denial about how you feel, or doing your utmost to hide your true emotions so not to be “judged by others”
  • Felling used
  • Taking things personally: immediately believing something is your fault/you have done something wrong when others are not as friendly or polite as you would have liked or expected
  • Not being able to take criticism objectively, feeling not good enough immediately after making a mistake or not being able to fulfil expectations
  • Using labels of negative connotation to describe yourself and your behaviour, such as stupid, ugly, fat, etc.
  • Having the habit of analysing your own performance, what you have said and done, in order to identify mistakes or errors in your judgement


Brown, B. (2013). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books.

4 cognitive errors that make it hard to take criticism well

4 cognitive errors that make it hard to take criticism well
Dysfunctional thinking makes it hard to take criticism well

Your emotions can get the best of you if you do not know how to handle criticism. If you have a history of trauma, had a tough upbringing and was raised by overtly critical and perfectionist parents, or in an environment of emotional neglect, you could be especially prone to taking criticism badly. Even if that does not correspond to your background, criticism has the potential to hurt when it is not delivered properly. What is more, it is often difficult to identify the real motivation behind criticism, if its aim is to foster learning or belittle, or a mixture of both. Notwithstanding all the confusion, it is possible to help yourself deal with either constructive or destructive criticism in a balanced manner and without affecting your self-esteem negatively. The secret is to monitor your reaction to criticism closely and correct any cognitive errors that give your thoughts an antagonistic tone, as the ones mentioned below. To raise your awareness, help improve your mood and the quality of relationships, here are 4 cognitive errors that make it hard to take criticism well:

1- Overgeneralisation

The language of high self-esteem and self-confidence loves a rich and detailed evaluation. Global statements such as “Because I have been criticised, it means I am incompetent”, on the other hand, make one feel worthless instantly. It is inaccurate and irrational to assume that only because you have been criticised about one particular act or characteristic your whole being is as bad as one single – and often quite insignificant – part. You can be a wonderful person and still do something not great. Learn how to embrace your own humanity by accepting that ambivalence. The meaning of our complexity exceeds the dichotomy between good and bad.

2- Personalisation

For those whose negative core beliefs are the most active, taking everything personally can become an unhealthy habit. When your self-esteem is low, you can be easily hurt by others even when it is not their intention to upset you. Caring a lot of guilt and shame, or other unresolved feelings of inadequateness, can make you more susceptible to feeling hurt by criticism. Automatic thoughts such as “He criticised me because I am not good enough” are most likely incorrect because we all have our own motivations for behaving the way we do. Not everything is related to you. Next time you are criticised, take some distance from the process. Look at it objectively and ask yourself, “What reasons – other than myself – could have motivated the critic?”, or even “What can I learn from this person and his/her criticism (if anything)?”.

3- All-or-nothing thinking

Thinking in black and white terms tends to be one of the root causes of a great array of mental health problems, such as perfectionism, depression and anxiety. Cognitive errors such as “Because I have been criticised, everything is a complete disaster” is a self-confidence killer. Learning also takes place through trial and error. If you do not allow yourself to make mistakes, you will not learn. Simple. There is no shame in learning, since life is a long journey of growth. Open yourself to feeling vulnerable and to the experience of learning. Your relationships are bound to be greatly improved by a more compassionate and forgiving attitude to criticism, be it towards yourself or others.

4- “Should” and “must” statements

You have probably made a mistake, were criticised for it and – if that was not enough – decided to punish yourself with “should” and “must” statements! “I should have known better” only makes you feel more miserable. You could not have known better, because you did not or “the right thought” did not occur to you at the time. As obvious as that sounds, it is worth reminding yourself of such technicalities if you would like to handle criticism better. It is humanly impossible to be at your best 100% of the time. While perfectionism is not a skill, self-criticism undermines learning and development. Have a zero tolerance to “should” and “must” statements that are only there to discredit your efforts. Why kick yourself when you are already down, when you could be helping yourself get up and dust yourself off? A good start could be to use “could” instead of “should” whenever you are tempted to chastise yourself, as in “Next time I could try something different” instead of “I should have done (it) better”.

Before feeling like a target, take some time to reflect. Challenge dysfunctional thoughts that are filled with cognitive errors, which are notorious for making us nervous and vulnerable. Objective thinking that allow us to evaluate a situation from a more sensible perspective can us help calm down at such moments. When our emotions are in control concerning criticism, we tend to see it more clearly. If you still find it wrong, unfair or misplaced after considerable deliberation, however, it is OK to ask for clarification when it reflects genuine curiosity.