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Shame – The Hidden Destroyer

Written by: Mark Newey, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


When we feel shame – about our failures, our bodies, our sexuality, our addictions, our parenting styles, how we show up at work—what we are really feeling is fear: fear of being found out as imperfect, fear of rejection, fear of not deserving the love and belonging we all crave. But underneath our grown-up masks, we all have within us a frightened little child, afraid that nobody will accept us for who we really are. We are a social species, and our sensitivity to each other and our ability to avoid behaviour which might offend others are necessary skills. But over-sensitivity brings feelings of insecurity so that we can react defensively to even minor criticism; some of us are so nervous of social interaction that we isolate ourselves. We also see endless signs of the desire for the trappings of status behind which people try to hide their insecurity.

men and women covering their faces and eyes

Today, we live in societies in which worries about how we are seen and judged by others (what psychologists call ‘the social evaluative threat’) are one of the most serious burdens on the quality of life in rich developed countries. The costs are measured not only in terms of the additional stress, anxiety and depression, but also in poorer physical health, excess consumption of drink and drugs to alleviate anxieties, and in the loss of friendly community life which leaves so many people feeling isolated and alone. These insecurities are cancer in the midst of our social life.

Having reached a standard of living unthinkable a couple of centuries ago, we now worry much more about maintaining standards in relation to others. Our concern with living standards is closely related to the anxieties around self-worth and social comparisons. There is, for example, a substantial body of research showing how well-being and satisfaction with our own pay depends substantially on how it compares with other people’s pay rather than whether it provides us with what we need. We worry about so much with regards to social status ‒ everything from anxieties about exams, jobs, money and promotion, our house, our car and what these things say about us.

Part of the reason for our increased anxiety about what others think of us is that most of us no longer live in settled communities with people who have known us all our lives. Instead, we are surrounded by relative strangers. The result is that, whilst how people saw us was once formed over a lifetime, there is now a sense that who we are, and how others see us, is less fixed and therefore in constant need of attention. In a society of strangers, outward appearances and first impressions become more important. Growing up is a matter of learning to behave and live in ways which other people find acceptable; we seek the constant good opinion of those around us. It means that shame is constantly hovering over our shoulder.

In her wonderful book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown tells us that there are three things that we need to know about shame:

  1. We all have it. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. The only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection. Here’s your choice: fess up to experiencing shame or admit that you’re a sociopath. Quick note: this is the only time that shame seems like a good option.

  2. We are all afraid to talk about shame.

  3. The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.

Shame is the fear of being cut-off from others; we are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually hardwired for connection, love, and belonging. Connection with others is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Shame is the fear of disconnection of not being worthy or good enough for love, belonging or connection. We tell ourselves we’re unlovable and that we don’t belong. When we experience shame, we feel disconnected and desperate for worthiness, but when we are hurting, we are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviours.

Shame vs. Guilt

We often get shame and guilt mixed up. Guilt is about something bad that we’ve done while shame is the belief that there is something bad about us. Guilt doesn’t tend to go away until we’ve admitted our mistakes and asked for forgiveness. When acted upon, guilt can produce a positive result.

With shame, it helps to share our vulnerability and talk to someone we trust. However, shame is often used as a tool for controlling people and their behaviour, typically at school and at work. We’ve all been shamed at some point by a parent, teacher, peer in the playground or work colleague and, because of childhood programming, the experience imprints into our psyche and nervous system and becomes part of our ongoing reality.

Much research shows that shame is correlated to addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders and bullying. There are no positive outcomes for shame, so it’s hardly an appropriate tool to control behaviour. When we feel shame, or even the anticipation or fear of it, we are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviours or come out fighting and blaming others.

Men and Women and shame

Men and women experience shame differently and for different reasons. The biggest source for women is how they look. The damaging power of the fashion industry, combined with the rise of social media and influencer culture, is still leaving a negative mark on women, despite the emergence of body positive movements and education over the past 20 years. Interestingly, it tends to be women who put this pressure on each other. Most women will admit to making more of an effort to dress up for their female friends than their male counterparts. Motherhood comes a close second for shame for women. You can never be a good enough mother! Today, it’s compounded because society promotes an aspirational (and, for the majority, unrealistic) ‘have it all’ culture, expecting women to work and to be perfect in all areas of their lives. We must not underestimate the corrosive effect on women’s mental and physical health from this overwhelming need to look and be perfect.

For men, shame is failure: failure at work, in the bedroom, on the sports field, and financially. For men the message is clear: you cannot be weak (or vulnerable). The biggest insult for a man is to be called a ‘wimp’. The need for men to be seen as ‘macho’ and strong is overwhelming. This is particularly the case at work because men are expected to take on ‘masculine’ roles, not caring or creative work. In this respect, some of the bravest people we know are male nurses. Boy, are they being authentic!

Interestingly, for the last 20-30 years women have been saying that they want men to be sensitive, vulnerable and open. The truth, however, is quite different! Women can’t handle men being weak and vulnerable; they find it repellent. In some respects, it’s hardwired. Evolution dictates that men have to be strong to protect the home and secure the food. (Although, we could also argue that many of these expectations were by design and not necessarily ‘nature’.) Typically, men will shut down or react aggressively to a woman’s disappointment or repulsion of their sensitivity and vulnerability.

Shame is at the bottom of all midlife crises. Men feel disconnected from life and the fear of failure seems to be around the corner. Women are exhausted as they begin to realise that being perfect is not possible. Shame is the fear of disconnection, which is why people start avoiding and hiding through affairs, addictions and crazy working hours.

Because emotions drive our behaviours, we need to pay more attention to understand the connection so that we can live a more conscious life and choose to thrive. We particularly need to look beneath shame to avoid falling into negative behaviours, which can affect others as much as ourselves.

Shame-driven ‘Negative’ behaviours

The deeply engrained sense of shame that most of us have leads to some very negative behaviours.


Where there is perfectionism you will find shame and failure—perfection is a concept that doesn’t exist. It can never be reached which means that, by default, we ‘fail’ and that in turn leads to shame. Perfectionism is about self-protection. We believe that if we are perfect then nobody will judge us and think poorly of us, thus protecting us from feelings of shame. Unfortunately, because we can’t possibly be perfect the drive for perfection inevitably brings us exactly what we are trying to avoid: shame. Perfection is about trying to earn the approval and acceptance of others. But it’s not the answer. We need self-acceptance and self-esteem. Unfortunately, the more we fail (aren’t perfect), the more we seek perfection; the more we seek it the more we succumb to its addictive nature—a guaranteed journey towards depression and anxiety.


Our competitive culture continually requires us to compare ourselves with others; in fact, many of us, whether through parenting or schooling, have been raised that way. Our culture also teaches us to conform, not to stand out. So, we compare ourselves with others and aspire to be better than them. That way we can feel good about ourselves. But, due to the aspirational nature of society, we need to be careful with whom we compare ourselves: we tend to compare ourselves with those we believe to be better than us, leading to more shame.

Being cool and in control

Being cool and in control is all about pretending; it’s another way to mask our emotions in order to fit in ‒ a sure way to stifle our authenticity. We think this will minimise our vulnerability and keep us safe. The trouble is that people can see straight through our attempts to be cool and keep control which makes us look uncool and shameful! It’s a bit like perfection—the more we try to act cool, the more inauthentic we are and the more we expose ourselves to ridicule. We get caught in a negative loop.

Self-Esteem: The antidote to shame

Self-esteem is the magic bullet (if ever there was one) for mental wellness. If you go around hating or even disliking yourself, you change how you create your reality ‒ your world is inevitably a much darker place. Self-esteem simply means being comfortable with who you are and being comfortable in your own skin.

This doesn’t mean being cocky or arrogance. In fact, contrary to how it may appear, the bully in the playground is probably the most insecure child in the school.

‘Be who you are. Say what we feel. Because those who mind don't matter. And those who matter, don't mind.’ ‒ Dr. Seuss

When I first read this quote, I had tears in my eyes. Being comfortable with who you are—the good, the bad and the ugly—is the secret to mental wellness. Consider the people in your life for a moment. How many of them do you think have good self-esteem? How many of them are comfortable in their own skin? Seriously: how many?

I've been asking people for over 15 years. On average, the answer is between three and five. And so, out of all the people we know, three to five are actually comfortable in their own skin. Okay, it's not scientific data, but how horrifying is that? We have a massive issue around self-esteem. The main reason is that we are brought up to constantly worry about what people think about us. In my day it was ‘What will the neighbours think?’ Who cares what the neighbours think (unless they are your friends and they matter). Social media has, of course, amplified this problem.

Here’s the next serious question for you: how many people in your life actually matter? Consider your immediate family and friends; those who genuinely have your back and would put their lives on the line for you. The average is somewhere between 12 and 15 for those who actually matter in our life. And yet, we’re constantly worrying about what everybody thinks about us, even though most of the time it’s the people who don’t actually matter to us!

Here’s a challenge for you: give me one good reason why you shouldn’t be comfortable with who you are.

Yes, we’ve all failed at something, hurt those we love and done things we regret. But that doesn’t mean to say that we can’t be comfortable with who we are. In fact, if we want to be successful, live a good life and create loving relationships, it’s essential that we’re comfortable with who we are. In over 15 years of challenging people on this, I’ve never been given a single good reason.

This is not about being arrogant or over-confident, it just means that we need to stop being worried about what people think about us. Worrying about what people think relates directly to shame, poor self-esteem and self-loathing. It is a massive issue in modern society. Building self-esteem may sound like a mountain to climb, but when you have built a reasonable sense of identity you’re already half way to being comfortable with who you are. Having self-esteem is not difficult, but it is the key to mental wellness and living a good life. Self-esteem gives your life a positive glow in terms of how you create it—consciously and unconsciously—rather than the grey clouds generated by self-loathing.

If you would like a no-obligation virtual 30-minute coffee break chat to explore further how Radical Self-Discovery can genuinely transform your life and your business, please don’t hesitate to contact me from my website. You can also follow me on LinkedIn.


Mark Newey, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine Mark Newey is a Protagonist and Disruptor, empowering small business owners to totally transform their company's biggest asset: themselves. Running a business is stressful, especially in today's environment: if we are stressed, our cognitive capacity drops by 40%, which means we are operating at 60% efficiency. Mark has distilled 22 years of experience from his own breakdown and working with 3000 clients (of whom 1200 were small business owners) into a foolproof system: The 7 Steps to Radical Self-Discovery. Only 10% of companies thrive and grow coming out of a crisis. The difference between the 10% and the 90%? The mindset of the entrepreneur.



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