Low confidence and shame: Understanding what holds us back

Everyone is looking at me. It is as if I am small and want to hide. My mind just freezes and I cannot think of anything to say... These are just some real-life examples of stories involving shame. It is one of our society's most pervasive, insidious feelings.


The effects of shame can hinder how we relate to ourselves, others and the world. Shame puts people into a place of low confidence and disconnection. The good news is that we can turn shame into high confidence, self-compassion and connection. The first step is to understand what our shame is trying to tell us.

In this article, you’ll learn about the mechanisms behind shame and how to start breaking the stubborn strongholds of shame. 

Definitions of shame

There is no universal definition of shame. Researchers, psychologists, and therapists have identified a wide range of feelings, thoughts and behaviours to portray shame. Let’s look at three of these to understand what shame is and how it affects our mental well-being.

  • Brene Brown defined shame as "a fear of being perceived as flawed and unworthy of acceptance or belonging". When we experience this fear, we stop projecting the skills and strengths that make us unique, and our confidence takes a hit. How can we take challenges in our stride if we are engulfed in worries about being seen as defective?
  • Paul Gilbert has argued that shame is "a damage limitation strategy". It attempts to de-escalate a situation we unconsciously find dangerous and conducive to other overwhelming feelings. Understanding shame through these lenses helps to remove negative labels and develop self-compassion. We only did the best we could with the psychological signals we had. It does not make us unworthy.
  • Finally, Heinz Kohut saw shame as "a broken connection between self and society". When we feel shame, a painful chasm forms between who we think we are and who we ideally want to be, so we become disconnected from our social community. We will look at concrete examples of this disconnection later in the article. 

The power of shame

Physical memories

Research has shown that we first tend to feel shame as a physical sensation – before we come to the cognitive realisation that we are feeling something unpleasant. That is one of the reasons why shame is so powerful. Physical cues range from throat closing, feeling heat, heart pounding, brain freeze, and even shaking.

These cues stem from earlier experiences of shaming situations which we do not necessarily register as narrative memories. We keep them as physical or emotional memories, and when we go through an event that evokes them, we first respond physically and emotionally as if we are reliving the moment in the here and now. We do not realise that we are, in fact, remembering previous events and we respond as if we should be feeling ashamed in the present moment. We do not perceive that we are remembering that we weren’t well then, in the past, but we appraise that we are not well now. When we are reliving that experience, we become enthralled in a web that triggers severe responses, thus making it very difficult to escape.

Safeguarding against shame

Low confidence, absence of self-compassion and disconnection from others. These pillars, when activated, lead to unconscious safeguarding strategies designed to help us keep shame at bay. Let’s look at three of these from the perspective of short client vignettes:

These clients are not actual individuals. They represent a composite of people I worked with. Their names are fictional.


Becky is an aspiring professional in her mid-twenties. She wants to have a flourishing career in music consultancy after realising her degree in Law does not bring satisfaction. Becky is reluctant about voicing her desires, but she musters the courage to bring it up with her partner. She confesses how helping emerging artists become household brands would be purposeful to her. Her partner responds by deriding her ambitions, expressing ridicule towards what he sees as a childish dream that entails no income security. He tells her she should stick to what she studied in university as that will make money, and quit the silly fantasies. Becky becomes silent, feeling it is inappropriate to respond in any way, and leaves the room. She starts thinking that she is frivolous for thinking about it and that it is better to comply with the current state of affairs. 

We see Becky isolating herself after experiencing the wound of shame. She moves away from her partner because the conversation can become too much for her. She reaches a point where she deems herself unworthy of her aspirations and seeks to please others around her. 

Attack self

Maria is a lively project manager working for a small agency. She routinely has team meetings in which she needs to give a status update on current projects. Maria gets asked by the team lead if there is any news on a report she was supposed to produce. Upon realising that the report is halfway done but forgot to mention it, Maria says “Sorry, that’s me being a total scatterbrain! The report will be ready by tomorrow. It’s just me being dumb and forgetting about things”.

No one can ever shame us as much as we can shame ourselves, and Maria seems to have intuitively understood this. The team lead had no thoughts about her being anywhere close to daft and scatterbrain. Maria regularly gets glowing reviews from management. Her self-deprecation humour can be a strategy to get on top of those shaming feelings before anyone else could potentially attack her. 

Attack others

Lucy is a young mother of a beautiful two-year-old son. She stays at home with her son whilst her husband is working a full-time job. On a sunny Saturday morning, Lucy popped some toast in the toaster and went to calm her son who was crying. Because that took longer than expected, the toast started burning and the smoke triggered the smoke alarm. Lucy ran downstairs in a panic, thinking she might have started a fire. Her husband rushed to the scene and said “Let’s be careful with these things”. Lucy starts to scream angrily at her husband for not understanding how hard it is to be a mother of an active toddler. She admonishes him for being insensitive to the needs of the family. They get into a row that leaves them not talking to each other for hours. 

We sometimes need to shame or humiliate others to release our own shame. Lucy shifted what she perceived to be a blame game towards her husband. That helped her regain a sense of control. If she focuses on her husband being hard-hearted she can soothe the painful unconscious feeling of being a bad mother who forgot the toaster on. 

Alleviating the shame is possible

Despite these stories being fictional, they contain seeds of real pain I have worked with in my counselling and coaching career. I also experienced them first-hand in my own development journey. As someone who has grappled with strong shame feelings, I understand that shame is not an irrecoverable state of being defective. Shame helped us survive because the alternative would have been much worse.

In my coaching work, I help my clients understand their relationship with past shaming events so they can recognise how the emotional memory is evoked in the here and now. We curiously and compassionately explore the needs that remained unfulfilled in the past, leading to shame. I then collaborate with clients to fashion corrective experiences aimed at feeling the joy that comes with winning over shame.

If you want to find out more about how I can help you overcome the piercing pain of shame, get in touch to book a free discovery call

Practical questions

Did you see a bit of Becky's pain in your life? Perhaps Maria spoke to you? Did you feel Lucy's frustration? If so, take some time to answer the following questions:

  1. If you could finish the sentence, “I would be extremely uncomfortable if people thought I am…. “ with any term, what would you choose? 
  2. How did you reach that conclusion?
  3. What do you do when you think people will perceive you like that? 
  4. What are you missing out on when you're showing others you're not like that?

I would love to hear what you came up with. Get in touch to share your answers. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Life Coach Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Surbiton KT6 & London EC2R
Written by Madalina Galie, MAC, life coach with a therapeutic focus.
Surbiton KT6 & London EC2R

Hi, I'm Maddie. I work with women to claim a sense of power over their relationship dynamics. I help them understand what their life movement is so that they handle the next hurdle with courage and grace.

Read more about me: https://talktomg.com/about-me-life-coach/
My Pinterest: https://pin.it/2okg2QF

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