Shame: where it comes from and how to overcome it


jegna_brandon_jonesShame is an emotional state that can be immobilizing. A more formal definition of shame is a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.

It can keep you stuck. It can keep you worried. It can keep you in negative situations. However, it is something everyone experiences.

Shame may be better understood as an emotion in which one appears to oneself as defective, inadequate, not being good and/or strong enough. It happens to us all.

John Hain/CC 2.0 License

Shame is difficult to admit to. Oftentimes when I work with someone and ask them about the shame they may have felt, I am met with denial. No one wants to own the shame they feel.

However, it is vastly important that we do, both on an individual and communal level. Oftentimes this rejection of shame is linked to feelings of doing something wrong or negative. This is not always the case; sometimes it might be caused by accident or misinformation.

These feelings, thoughts, and concepts can ultimately lead to guilt. Shame and guilt tend to emotionally complement each other and can be a dangerous combination.

Shame in the Black community

As a Black person in American, I find that shame has been indoctrinated into our culture. It plays a different role in different situations. We find ourselves battling with shame in our relationships, families, workplaces, schools, in the media, and in the community as a whole.

Our responses to shame are vast and often determined by our emotional state and the context of the situation. The following are a few ways in which it is presented:

  • Shyness: Black people often avoid people, places, and experiences because culturally it is something that is foreign to us. Therefore, we often limit our abilities to expand our knowledge of the world.
  • Discouragement: Some Black people have internalized racism to the point of submission to temporary defeat and mistrust of our capability.
  • Embarrassment: Some Black people do not like to be associated with being Black in the presence of other non-Black people.
  • Self-consciousness: Some Black people doubt their performance capabilities, their physically appearance, and their behavior.
  • Inferiority: Some Black people have an all-encompassing shame about being Black. This has been commonly referred as an inferiority complex among Black people.

How to handle shame

Shame is a natural emotion of life. We all experience it on one level or another. It happens when we are children all the way up until old age.

Shame is not an easy emotion to manage. It comes with other feelings that often leave us in uncomfortable situations. The following are three ways to handle shame when it appears in your life:

  1. Reduce your expectations of others’ feelings for and beliefs about you. This is easier said than done. What other people think, feel and do to you does have an effect. However, it is up to you to how much of an effect those actions will have. Reducing your expectations is important to maintaining your emotional health.
  2. Own what has been done and accept the results. Sometimes we need to take a loss for a loss. Everything in life is not going to go in our favor. We will experience things that do not go our way. When these things happen, it’s acceptable to simply take those moments for what they are and keep moving forward with life.
  3. Express yourself in a healthy manner. Shame is not an easy emotion to deal with. Often individuals will conceal their shame and find other things to distract them. Shame is uncomfortable.

However, expressing yourself in healthy ways is recommended. Hold your head high, be dignified, and stand by what has happened. In the short term, it might not feel good. However, in the long term this will assist you in being more emotionally fulfilled.


Brandon Jones M.A. is a mental health practitioner. He welcomes reader responses to or follow him on twitter @UniversalJones.