We all grow up with a certain set of values and messages (spoken or unspoken) that guide our actions and internal thoughts.

Many of the values messages we heard are undoubtedly good. We learn from a young age to be truthful, act with kindness, and hopefully, we experience unconditional love.

At the same time, even the most well-intentioned parent will at times act or speak in ways that negatively impact the tender spirit of their children. Indeed, it is an unavoidable part of being human. We all have our baggage.

The family and culture we are raised in influence our values and the messages we receive about acceptable behavior. On a more subtle level, we are also raised with a certain level of self-esteem, self-respect, and self-acceptance.

As we grow into adulthood, the baggage from our childhood becomes our responsibility to address. Additionally, as we recognize patterns of thought or behavior that are unhealthy or unwise, we must do the work to reframe and retrain.

One powerful emotion that can arise from the baggage of life is shame. How we view ourselves and our actions in the world is rooted in how we were raised and influences our feelings of shame.

Shame is a universal emotion, and like all others, it has a purpose and a dark side.

The Psychology of Shame


Shame is an emotion that arises when we feel bad about ourselves for having done something wrong or that we feel others will look down on us for. In fact, shame is an internally focused emotion, meaning it is directed towards ourselves. (1) Shame tells us that we are no good.

When we do not appropriately manage shame, it negatively impacts how we feel about ourselves. Some people are more sensitive to feelings of shame than others. This may be related to self-esteem and whether someone has a healthy value for themselves. (1)

Unresolved feelings of shame may lead to low self-esteem and even depression. (2) When we consistently feel bad about ourselves, our view of our value and worth can be distorted. Over time, if we allow those feelings to go unchallenged, it can affect mental health.

Shame vs. Guilt

Guilt and shame are not the same things, though they share common features. They often arise together in situations where we have done something we don’t feel good about.

Shame is directed at one’s self and involves feelings of being inadequate or unworthy. On the other hand, guilt is directed outwards and involves feeling regret for an action. Thus, shame makes us feel bad about ourselves, while guilt makes us feel wrong about something we’ve done. 

Either emotion could lead us to choose healthier patterns of behavior. For example, if we feel bad about ourselves, we might recognize that feeling and take steps to either reframe our thoughts or become a better person. Likewise, if we feel bad about actions we’ve taken, we are more likely to make a better choice in the future.

Unhealthy Shame


When it comes to shame, we often allow the emotion to fester and grow into something unhealthy. It is easy to do when experiencing a feeling that tells us there is something fundamentally wrong with us.

If we do not work through our shame, the narrative that we are bad or unworthy can lead us to behave in unhealthy ways.

Unresolved shame is in close connection with depression, eating disorders, and self-harm. (3) If someone believes what shame tells them about their worth as a person, they are more likely to act in self-destructive ways.

Shame can also lead to unhealthy relationships. How we feel about ourselves is often expressed in how we allow others to treat us. If we believe we are bad, we are less likely to object if someone treats us badly. In fact, we may unconsciously feel that is what we deserve.

Freeing Ourselves From Shame

While shame is a universal emotion, it is not one we should allow to take root. It may have something to teach us about ourselves, but it is time to let it go once the lesson is learned. 

How we respond when we feel shame can either support our well-being or harm it. We will all experience shame throughout our lives. To prevent it from becoming destructive, we need healthy ways to cope with the emotion.

If Needed, Right the Wrong


Shame may arise in a situation where we feel we have done something wrong. If this is true, the first step to release the emotion is to address the source. 

Being humble enough to ask for forgiveness or to make restitution can remove feelings of shame and guilt. It is not a sign of weakness to be wrong or make a mistake, though it takes courage to admit. In fact, it is a sign of emotional health to be comfortable knowing that we are all imperfect and also be willing to show it. 

If the situation calls for it, make right what is wrong. Now the foundation is laid for moving on from shame.

Reframe Negative Thought Patterns

It is essential to be aware of your internal thought patterns and how they may be influenced by shame. Shame tries to tell you that you are inadequate and unworthy. The tendency to view ourselves negatively can be so deeply internalized that we may not be aware of it.

Intentional effort to view ourselves positively and to cultivate a positive self-image is a powerful tool to combat shame. To reframe negative thought patterns, choose positive self-affirmations. It may feel foreign at first, especially if you struggle with poor self-esteem. But it gets easier with time.

They may feel silly, but how you speak to yourself about yourself matters. Here are some suggestions:

  • I am a good person who treats others with kindness.
  • Above all, I deserve love and respect, even from myself.
  • I am not perfect, but I work hard and do my best. 
  • I love (insert your good qualities) about myself.

Don’t be afraid to be your own biggest cheerleader. You should be!

Practice Mindful Breathing


Studies show that using mindful breathing to recenter yourself in the midst of feeling shame can reduce the emotion. (4)

Open the Be Well app and choose any of the helpful breathing exercises available. Instead of trapping yourself in the cycle of shame, let the app guide you through this powerful coping technique.

The practice of mindful breathing focuses your attention on the present. It gets you out of tumultuous thoughts and brings you back to your essential self. Shame would have you ruminate on the unhealthy narrative that there is something wrong with you. But, when you stay present in the moment, you can choose a better narrative.

Do Something That Makes You Happy

Part of letting go of shame is choosing to view yourself and life with joy. You are worthy of happiness, no matter what. 

Engage every day in things that make you feel good. Open the Be Well app and put on some fun music. Maybe you could even dance. 

Do a movement video from the app and soak up the positive endorphins exercise provides. Choose from one of the uplifting stories and find happiness in the pleasure of listening and learning. 

Don’t hesitate to care for yourself by finding happiness.

Build Healthy Relationships


A strong, healthy relationship should remind you of your value and worth. If shame has led you to settle for toxic relationships, an essential step in leaving shame behind is finding relationships that make you feel good about yourself. 

The higher value you place on yourself, the less likely you will settle for relationships that make you feel bad. The saying “treat others the way you want to be treated” also works this way: “Don’t let others treat you in a way you wouldn’t treat someone else.”

You are the only one who can stand up for yourself and your worth as a person.

From Shame to Freedom

Unhealthy shame can only make you unhappy.

While we all make mistakes, we are all worthy of love and respect, even from ourselves. Perhaps especially from ourselves.

So, don’t let shame choose your self-worth. Instead, take steps to move from shame to freedom and experience the happiness and well-being you deserve.