My Account

How to Deal with Shame

What story from your life makes you go into hiding?

Share this post:

How to Deal with Shame

Shame is a debilitating feeling that takes over the mind and body. It can make you feel small and incomplete while building walls around you to keep out compassion. Despite wanting to be seen and known, shame causes people to hide behind masks instead. 

Healthy shame vs. toxic shame

Shame is felt universally across countries and different cultures. Homes and schools use social shaming to ensure expected behaviors. While healthy shame is necessary to keep society intact and ethical, this isn’t what causes distress and pain in so many people. Healthy shame guides toward self-correction, making amends, and growth. 

Toxic shame, on the other hand, can be very harmful psychologically. It’s deeply absorbed in the nervous system (meaning, you feel it in your gut). Toxic shame is self-punishing and lingers on. Oftentimes, it uses negative self-talk such as, “I am such a bad person, I give up” (instead of “I did something bad. How can I fix it?”), “I am not good enough” (instead of “I am worthy just the way I am AND I can work on improving myself”), and “I am a failure” (instead of “It’s okay to fail. I am learning. I can try again.”). You learn these negative beliefs through shame-inducing caregivers, teachers, bullies, partners, friends, etc. This leads to feeling alone, disconnected, and more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors. According to Brene Brown’s research, shame is related to violence, aggression, depression, addiction, eating disorders, and bullying.   

How to step out of shame 

Here’s the truth about shame: the less you talk about it with someone safe, the more control it has over your life and psychological well-being. The fear behind shame is usually the belief that sharing your story and being who you are will make people think less of you. It fights against the human need for acceptance. 

Inner feeling of safety

One aspect of healing is creating an internal sense of safety so you can share your shame in the first place. If you don’t feel safe, you can’t share. You need to tell your story to safe people who will listen and not judge. Such safety is necessary to feel vulnerable. 

Talking to a therapist with whom you connect can start this process of feeling internal safety. If done successfully, all of this will lead to externalizing shame. Instead of “being shame,” shame becomes something external that you picked up and now are choosing to let go of. Externalizing shame is so empowering. Through it, you can develop more compassion for yourself and others in this process. 

Shame disappears when you tell vulnerable stories in safe environments. 

According to Dr. Stephen Porges’s Polyvagal Theory, safety is critical for humans to function well, be creative, and connect with others. When people are gentle, this creates a space for co-regulation. For the connection between two people to be supportive and promote co-regulation of physiological state, the expressed cues need to communicate safety and trust. These cues of safety help calm the autonomic nervous system.  The calming of physiological state helps create safe and trusting relationships.

When your nervous system detects danger, you move from connection into states of protection. Shame tries to protect you from others because it falsely believes that they won’t like you otherwise. Your job is to show your nervous system that it’s safe and okay to share your story and that you are still likable and worthy. However, when you try to step out of shame, you may experience internal resistance in a form of negative thoughts and bodily reactions that tell you it isn’t safe to do so, even when you are around safe and supportive people. This is a trauma response and you need skills to soothe and manage it.

Distress Tolerance Skills

Another part of healing is developing distress tolerance skills—managing the uncomfortable emotions that arise when you choose to express your shame. To free yourself from shame, you need to share it and process it. Sometimes this is hard to do, even with safe, supportive people. The mind and body try to keep you safe by reminding you of all the things that could go wrong.

When you are dysregulated, it is difficult to be rational. Many of the coping strategies you use when experiencing overwhelming emotions only make your problems worse. Some of these unhelpful coping methods can include ruminating about past problems and mistakes, worrying about the future, isolating yourself, numbing with substances, or taking out your feelings on other people by getting angry and blaming them. As you can see, none of these are helpful.

Final Thought

What healthy coping skills do you have that soothe you when you are upset? Therapy can help develop these skills so that your journey of stepping out of shame is more tolerable. There are many distress tolerance skills you can learn with a licensed mental health professional, as well as processing the origins of your shame. 

The one truth to remember is that everyone can feel shame. You are not alone. Healing is possible.

More than 1 million monthly readers look to The Gottman Relationship Blog for proven advice from mental health professionals to build happy and lasting relationships. Subscribe below to receive our blog articles in your inbox every week.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Share this post:

Anna Aslanian is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the states of California, Florida, and New York. She’s the founder and director of a boutique practice My Therapy Corner. Anna is a Certified Gottman Therapist and a Bringing Baby Home Educator. Additionally, she is a Certified EMDR and Attachment-EMDR trauma therapist. She is trained in a variety of modalities such as Polyvagal Theory, Acceptance Commitment Therapy and more. Her specialties include couples/relationship work, addiction, trauma and anxiety. Anna provides consultations and supervisions to professionals as well as a variety of therapeutic services to clients. Visit her website, follow her on Instagram or like My Therapy Corner on Facebook.

Recommended products

Original price was: $250.00.Current price is: $199.00.

Transform Your Relationship

The Gottman Relationship Adviser is a complete approach to relationship wellness. Measure your relationship health with the research-based Gottman Assessment, analyze five key areas of your partnership to identify your strengths and weaknesses, then start a tailored, step-by-step digital program proven to heal and strengthen your connection—all on your schedule and from anywhere.

The Adviser uses the legendary scientific Gottman Method to help you understand what’s really going on in your relationship—and gives you exactly what you need to improve it.

Original price was: $119.00.Current price is: $79.00.

Research-based Foundations for a Lifetime of Love.  The Gottman Relationship Coach is an inspiring and educational multimedia experience designed to enhance the well-being of relationships. Participants will be guided through research-based tools and communication skills that can transform relationships—all based on the popular Gottman Method. The first program, “How to Make Your Relationship Work”, is now available and includes:

  • The Gottman Method and How to Make Your Relationship Work
  • How do we predict the future of a relationship?
  • How to build a Sound Relationship House
  • What to do when the destructive Four Horsemen enter your relationship

“Buy Now” will take you to GOTTMAN CONNECT to purchase and view this product.


Created by “the Einstein of Love” (Psychology Today), this two-day workshop is grounded on what actually works in relationships that are happy and stable. See for yourself why millions of couples worldwide have benefited from the Gottman Method.

Quote from participant in most recent Live Virtual Workshop:

The Art and Science of Love workshop- where do I begin? It was an absolute stellar workshop. We were looking forward to this for weeks, and it exceeded our expectations! It was well-structured, and well-organized, and provided a wealth of information with real-time demonstrations of how to work through specific scenarios. The outstanding support that was provided throughout the exercises with therapists on standby- WOW! Priceless!

Includes the Art & Science of Love box set.  Please allow time for shipping.  Please Note: This is a live online event. To attend, you will need a reliable internet connection. Our staff will reach out to you with your personal registration and access information.

Related posts

Eating disorder

When Food Hurts Relationships

The Gottman Institute

Learn how eating disorders can disrupt and bring distance between partners ...

Read More

What to Expect in Family Therapy

What to Expect from Family Therapy

Michael Brown

Read this before you consider going to therapy as a family ...

Read More

How to Know a Relationship Is Too Much Work

How to Know a Relationship is Too Much Work

Andrew G. Marshall

Can this relationship be saved? ...

Read More

corona virus communication pandemic

The Right Way to Complain

The Gottman Institute

Learn how to express your feelings without hurting your partner ...

Read More

Help My Spouse Wont Go to Therapy

Help! My Partner Won’t Go to Therapy

Laura Silverstein

Is it possible for one person to improve a relationship on their own? ...

Read More

Little Lies

The Big Debate over Little Lies

Laura Silverstein

Are they as innocent as you think? ...

Read More

Subscribe to Gottman Love Notes

Sign up and start your relationship transformation. Subscribe and get the latest on relationships, therapy, and much more from the experts. Includes a free download and access to special pricing on Gottman products every month