Ask the experts: How can I move past shame?

Shame is one of those slippery emotions. Insidious in nature and tricky to push past, what exactly can we do to overcome shame?

Here we speak to resilience coach Alex Pett to learn more about how we can cope with shame and finally move past it. 

How can I move past shame?

Can you tell us why shame can be so detrimental to our well-being?

Shame makes us feel unworthy, unlovable, and broken – and silently destroys our ability to love and accept ourselves as we are. So, it’s like a knife in the heart of well-being and drains resilience. It’s there in any moment where we don’t feel able to be who we really are, but like we have to hide, disguise, or improve ourselves. Not because we want to, but to be more acceptable to others/the world. 

Shame is so harmful because it hides, often behind behaviours we think are signs of success – something like perfectionism is not high standards, for example, but shame in disguise. If you don’t tackle it, shame can trigger self-sabotage, stuckness, and limiting patterns. It stops us from being ourselves and frequently hides behind anger and resentment, which damages relationships. If it’s triggering anxiety or dread that is continuously tipping you into fight, flight, or freeze, it can affect you physically, too.

What is the difference between guilt and shame?

Guilt comes with its own discomfort, but it’s a feeling we can learn from. It’s the sense that you’ve said or done something wrong, that your behaviours/actions caused a problem. Shame is feeling that you are the problem. It feels so paralysing because there is no separation of you, the person, from what you’ve done. So, rather than feeling like a ‘good’ human who did something ‘bad’, you just feel like a bad person. 

Because shame is an inward-facing emotion that reflects how you feel about yourself, it can trigger constant self-punishment, and fear of others’ judgement that leaves no space for happiness or growth. It often sounds like: “You/I should look different/want less/be more accomplished/in a relationship/not so sensitive” etc. Any kind of ‘should’ is a sign. 

Guilt: I have done something wrong. I said something that caused a problem. 

Shame: I am wrong. I am the problem. 

How can coaching help us overcome shame? 

We often don’t realise when we’re shaming ourselves – or allowing others to shame us. It might feel like we are just trying to be the best version of ourselves, more organised, disciplined etc. A coach holds a mirror up to where this is happening in your life in a destructive way, so you can recognise the signs, and find ways to stop keeping yourself small and stuck. 

Coaching is also a safe space – shame can be painful to unpick and work through, so this is very necessary. Resilience coaching works by supporting you to uncover your own solutions through new perspectives, powerful questioning, and establishing new tools and strategies. Most of us already have what we need to be resilient (to shame and in life) and it’s just about uncovering the right habits and perspectives and making them stick. Solutions that are self-discovered like this are sustainable – the mindset shift and tools fuel ongoing growth.

Alex’s top three tips for moving past shame:

Because we often don’t realise how much shame we have, tip one is to start noticing when it’s there – that burning feeling, being obsessed with what other people think about you (paralysed by the idea of it being negative), numbing behaviours (e.g. five hours of Netflix disguised as ‘rest’), being horrified at the thought of just being yourself, physically or emotionally – or regularly feeling a lot of anger and low self-esteem

Second, talk to someone you trust. Shame thrives in silence and fear, but can’t survive empathy. And it rarely survives being shared, because when we are honest about our shame most people respond to that with positive affirmation or kindness. 

And finally, dial up the self-compassion. This is not about letting yourself off the hook, it’s about empowerment. A self-compassionate inner world is a fertile soil for action, growth, resilience, and connection. Shame is barren ground and poisons your internal ecosystem.

This article was originally published in Happiful Magazine (Issue 72 2023). You can order print copies online, or read the e-magazine for free on the Happiful app

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Written by Kat Nicholls
Kat is a Senior Writer for Life Coach Directory and Happiful magazine.
Written by Kat Nicholls
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