Dealing with Shame

Emotional Levers — Part One:   Today’s post begins a series about the emotional pressure points used by Aggressive people to manipulate the behavior of others. We who want to live assertively need to stand our ground and pursue our missions undeterred by manipulative tactics.

The children’s book Ramona the Brave opens with an insightful portrayal of an experience of shame. Six-year-old Ramona hurries home from the park, eager to tell her mother how she stood up to the big boys who were teasing her sister. As Ramona launches into her proud description, the older sister, Beezus, interrupts to say that Ramona’s tirade embarrassed her almost to death. The book describes Ramona’s reaction:

She felt as if she were standing aside looking at herself. She saw a stranger, a funny little six-year-old girl with straight brown hair, wearing grubby shorts and an old T-shirt, inherited from Beezus, which had Camp Namanu printed across the front. A silly little girl embarrassing her sister so much that Beezus was ashamed of her. And she had been proud of herself because she thought she was being brave. Now it turned out that she was not brave. She was silly and embarrassing. Ramona’s confidence in herself was badly shaken.

Shame is the sinking sensation that hits us when we realize we’ve lost the respect of others. Depending on circumstances, it can range from mild embarrassment to a deep sense of failure and inadequacy. Shame is different from guilt. Guilt is our internal assessment that we have violated our own moral code. Shame is triggered from the outside—by the disdain or disapproval of others. Thus, a sober young man who spots his drunken father lying in the gutter might be torn between guilt and shame. His conscience requires him to stop and help. His shame urges him to pass by and pretend he doesn’t know the man.

Shame is an inherent human emotion that appears early in life, fueling a child’s desire to conform to social norms. With good guidance from wise parents, shame can inspire the efforts, questions and discussions that enable the growth of conscience.

In the hands of unscrupulous aggressors, shame also can be a powerful tool to bend others to their will. “You’re not afraid, are you?”—is a classic line used to pressure someone into doing something foolish. A naive youngster might do whatever it takes to disprove the shaming accusation.

The techniques of manipulative shaming are many and varied: the subtle insult disguised as a compliment, the public airing of dirty laundry, nosy questions, statements that pigeonhole a person into a restrictive stereotype. To defend ourselves, we’re tempted to memorize a catalog of strikes and counter strikes, but such an exercise would be misguided. We shouldn’t seek to do battle with the manipulators. We don’t need to “win” the shaming contest. Our job is to tend to our own proper responsibilities undeterred by the discomforts imposed by shamers.

There are no easy answers. We can’t inoculate ourselves against the sting of shame without diminishing our humanity. Shame reminds us to be humble. We are social creatures who care about the opinions of others. This is a good thing.

How do we remain open to the positive purposes of shame without being victimized by manipulators? My struggles with this thorny issue are far from over, but I want to share three prescriptions I’ve found helpful:

Stop running from shame.

As a child I learned that shame itself is an embarrassing sign of weakness. I learned to block shame from my thoughts, lest it show on my face. I pretended my feelings weren’t hurt. At the time, my only goal was to escape with my dignity intact. As adults, we usually have more important objectives.

In the early years of adulthood, I continued trying to mask my feelings of shame, talking circles around any situation that made me look bad. If I sensed that someone might try to shame me, I would try to head them off by changing the subject or by giving them what they wanted before they could have the chance to shame me into it. It was an exhausting way to live—approaching all interactions with my guard up, trying to second-guess the motives of everyone I dealt with.

Over time I learned that it’s less stressful, and no more painful, to lower my guard and leave myself open to surprises. If someone hits me with a shaming question and I find myself at a loss for words, silence is okay. If the result is that people think badly of me—well, that’s the price I pay for sticking to my guns and not playing their game. I may feel bad, but I’ve lost nothing of value. If their good will depended on my willingness to be manipulated, it wasn’t real to begin with.

I still care what people think, but I’ve accepted (at least partially) the fact that disapproval and rejection are natural parts of life. The unpleasant sinking sensation of shame is a “cost of doing business” that must be endured from time to time.

Keep your eye on the ball.

“The ball” is whatever task I ought to be tending at the time the shaming incident occurs. For example, if I approach a friend to ask for help and she responds with, “You have a lot of gall to come to me after all the ways you’ve let me down!” my proper response will depend on my mission. Here are two possible scenarios:

If my main goal is to recruit her help, and the friend’s outburst is a trumped-up delaying tactic, I’ll want maintain a positive focus on the importance of the thing I’m asking her to do. My response should be something like this: “I’m here to appeal to your kindness and generosity. You don’t owe me a thing, but I was hoping you’d be willing…“

If, on the other hand, the person is a close and trusted friend, her revelation that she harbors resentments against me will be an important wake-up call.  I’ll probably set aside my original request and focus on finding out what’s bothering her. “Keeping my eye on the ball” in this case means reminding myself that I care more about the long-term health of the friendship than about the short-term problem I wanted her to help with.

Remember where true worth comes from.

The only person capable of evaluating us accurately is our Creator. He has already judged us each to be of infinite worth. He also knows that we fall drastically short of his standards of virtue. There is nothing we can do to impress Him, but He is pleased when we obey Him and rely on Him for every need.

I like to imagine going through life like a child on the playground under my heavenly father’s watchful eye. As I interact with the other “kids”, I sometimes get into trouble. The other children may tease me or their parents may scold me. But Daddy’s there and, no matter what happens, at the end of the day I’ll walk home holding His hand, secure in His love.


  1. This is an excellent lesson. I can identify with your experiences in dealing with shaming. Your Ramona the Brave example is excellent! I was a very sensitive child and it extended into adulthood. I did not take criticism well. It still hurts me. I make myself miserable by replaying the event. I love your three helpful methods, especially the final one. Thank you so much for your wisdom, Connie. Wow!

  2. Thank you, Pamela for your candid response. Do you have any suggestions you can share for those of us with sensitive natures? It’s easy to SAY that God’s opinion is the only one that really matters, but sometimes it sure FEELS like human disapproval is very painful.