The Anatomy of Shame

By Nicholas de Castella

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The Anatomy of Shame Summary :
  • Shame can be a bit crazy making.
  • Shame is an emotion.
  • Shame is created by invalidation.
  • Common Ways of Shaming.
  • Labelling can be shaming.
  • Shame is often about being exposed in public as flawed.
  • Secrets aren’t free.
  • Shame spirals – get us stuck
  • Our shame can bring more shaming on us.
  • Shame can be passed
  • Shame and Stupidity and Lack of Presence
  • Shame and Judgement.
  • Judgement causes the loss of our experience of our essential being.
  • Deshaming Yourself.

I recently counselled a middle aged couple, John and Maree. Maree was criticising and invalidating John for not being able to share his feelings with her. She told him that he was inadequate as a partner and that he was hopelessly out of touch with his feelings, just like her farther.

In response John felt ashamed and blank. With a little assistance from me,John shared how he felt about his relationship with Maree

Maree responded by throwing her arms up in the air with a loud “Hooray, Thank God!”. I cringed and John stared back sheepishly

The irony in this situation was that Maree wanted so much for John to share his feelings with her but the way she expressed it led John to feel ashamed. When he did share his feelings her response was still shaming leading to a further shut down in John

Shame is another reason for not expressing emotions. We may have been told that we were ‘being emotional’, ‘too sensitive’ or laughed at when we were angry, scared or sad. Often boys are called wimps, weaklings, or babies if they cry, and chickens or scaredy cats if they are afraid and girls are called bitches, nasty or catty if they express their anger.The suppression of emotions was often necessary to avoid experiencing more pain. This is true for most children being reprimanded. If they express their anger about being hurt they would most likely be punished more severely.


We may be blocked to natural feeling responses by beliefs or philosophies that we carry about ourselves or life. For instance; a person who is being abused may not feel angry about the abuse because they subconsciously believe that they deserve that kind of treatment: it fits with their self image created in their abusive childhood. Somebody else may not feel angry when they are being abused because they were taught to ‘turn the other cheek’, ‘to be bigger than that’, or ‘to rise above it’.

Shame can be a bit crazy making.

The search for the cause of much unexplained unhappiness often lead us to examine our experiences of being shamed. Emotional wounding from being shamed early in life often goes unrecognised. Jim, a 34 year old carpenter who is struggling to find satisfaction and happiness said to me: “I had a good childhood. I had caring parents. I wasn’t abused. I was punished a couple of times, but nothing really bad, so I don’t really have anything to complain about. I don’t feel happy but I suppose I should be thankful.”


During much of the shaming that happens to us we are unaware that we are being abused. It is relatively easy to realise the physical abuses suffered, but when it comes to realising how we have been abused by shame it takes a bit more understanding to see it and its effects.

Shame is an emotion.

It is the sadness (energy of loss) in which we feel that we are wrong, bad, flawed or invalid. A common reaction to feeling shame is to tighten our bodies, leaving us feeling numb, blank and unable to respond. This is a collapse of being into virtually non-emotional existence. Our right to ‘be’ is invalidated – challenging our right to: have an experience, to have an opinion,to have a feeling, to have an existence.

Many religions create shame by teaching us that we are flawed. In my Catholic education I was taught to see human personality as essentially flawed – that humanity fell from grace into original sin when Adam and Eve ate the apple from the tree of knowledge.

Shame is created by invalidation.

We feel invalidated when we have been diminished or not respected, when our truth has not been honoured. As children we may have been told that we are wrong, bad, naughty, or not good enough. We may have been treated as insignificant by not being listened to or by not having our opinions and feelings taken seriously, respected and validated.


For example: If a child who is feeling lonely and can’t get attention has a tantrum, a common response by parents is to ignore, punish or make fun of them by laughing at him / her. You may hear the parent dismiss their feelings by saying: “You only want attention”. The point here is not whether the child should be given more attention. The point here is that the child is feeling angry and needs to have his / her feelings respected by being taken seriously, acknowledged and responded to with compassion.


Shaming often comes from a lack of compassion, from a closed heart, lacking empathy. The person doing the shaming may be angry eg: “Who do you think you are?”, or they can come from someone out of touch with their own feelings eg: “You shouldn’t feel like that” or they can come from someone who is carrying a lot of shame themselves and is subconsciously passing it on eg: “No, not you! Surely you’re not upset! You just have to be stronger!”.

Common Ways of Shaming

  • Shaming words:
    stupid, silly, idiot, bad, wrong,
    pervert,ugly, evil, dumb, imbecile


  • Shaming phrases:
    “How dare you!”, “Who do you think you are!”,
    “You’re so thick”, “Grow up”,
    “You should know…!”, “When will you get it?”
    “How many times do I have to tell you!  


  • Shaming energy:
    Sometimes the energy that is expressed is shaming even though the actual words and phrases may not be shaming. Sarcasm is a example of this.

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