Here’s Your First-Aid Kit for Dealing with Shame



Shame literally hurts. It can be as pervasive and paralyzing as physical pain and have devastating effects on our mental health and well-being. It can lead to depression, addiction, and aggressiveness.

Shame is the emotion of disconnection. At the root of shame is the belief that we aren’t enough, that we didn’t live up to our own or others’ expectations of us.

Though we can’t become immune to feelings of shame, we can learn to deal with it in ways that are more empowering and less paralyzing.

Here are three strategies backed by research:

  1. Talk about it openly.

Communicating you are ashamed doesn’t just make you feel better, it also makes you appear more trustworthy and attached to your social groups.

A team of British researchers asked participants to read hypothetical scenarios in which a CEO was apologizing for a chemical spill caused by his company. When the CEO verbally expressed feelings of shame when issuing the apology, participants reported feeling more satisfied with the apology that those who learned that the CEO communicated guilt or no emotion at all.

What is even more powerful is that verbally expressing shame is not necessary — others can read emotions in your body language. We all communicate shame in exactly the same way, by casting our eyes downwards, averting gaze, lowering our head, and a slack posture.  These physical changes appear in people of all cultures, gender, or ages, experiencing shame. They are also reliably recognized by others and distinguished from expressions of similar emotions, such as embarrassment and sadness.

By appearing vulnerable, we appear more attached to social values and the groups we belong to. So, instead of hiding from the people you feel you have failed, communicate your feelings to them.

  1. Focus on behaviors.

After bumping into someone, a person who feels guilty is more likely to say, “Sorry, doing that was stupid”, while a  person who feels shame would say, “I did that because I’m stupid”. The difference between feelings of shame and guilt is that guilt focuses on specific behaviors, whereas shame focuses on the whole self.

Making mistakes is what makes us human, but allowing these mistakes to define who we are has no benefit whatsoever. Indeed, research shows that guilt, when compared to shame, is more likely to lead us to make better decisions, such as driving more responsibly or actively contributing to our communities.

When feeling ashamed, it is important to identify the exact behavior that led to the emotion, so you can take action to remediate it.

  1. Resist the urge to hide.

Shame is such a powerful emotion because it is associated with our fundamental need to be accepted by others.

A fascinating study of Filipino and Dutch salespeople revealed that both cultures experienced shame as a painful emotion, but the way they interpreted and responded to it was very different. For the Dutch, shame signaled a threat to their self-worth, whereas for the Filipinos, it signaled a threat to their sense of connectedness.

The salespeople also responded in different ways to this threat: whilst the self-focused Dutch felt an urge to hide from others to avoid pain, the relationship-focused Filipinos felt the need to approach people in order to repair the relationship.

The most extraordinary finding of this study is that the outcomes related to the two strategies were completely different: a focus on the self resulted in poor communication, low relationship-building behaviors, and decreased job performance; a focus on relationships led to improved customer relationships, more prosocial behaviors towards colleagues, and increased job performance.

Avoiding others might provide momentary relief from pain, but in the long-term, confronting shame and accepting its social nature is the winning strategy.

Shame can be hard to deal with, but when we face it, being open about our feelings, being careful to dissociate who we are from the things we’ve done, and approaching others rather than hiding, can help us make better decisions and improve our sense of connectedness.

Sonia Codreanu
Sonia Codreanu
Psychometrics Analyst at Wonder
Sonia Codreanu is a psychology student at the University of Bath and a psychometrics analyst for Wonder. She's passionate about personality testing and investigates innovative ways in which it can be used to improve human performance and connection. In her spare time, she loves dancing.

5 Infallible Ways to Become Even More Likable

Connection, Social Skills

Loving and accepting yourself is paramount, but being someone others enjoy having around can also help make you happier and more successful.

A Harvard study suggests that, at work, being likable matters more than being smart or competent. Researchers found that most people prefer to work with someone they like than with someone they don’t like, even if the person they don’t like could do a better job.

Scientists also have solid evidence that strong social relationships — a direct result of being able to get along with people — has been proven to increase someone’s survival odds by 50%. That’s twice as much as exercise, and just as powerful as not smoking.

So, while it’s vitally important to have a positive self-esteem, the esteem of others’ goes a long way in your health, success and happiness too.

Now, how do you increase your people skills? Here are five strategies that have been proven to work:

Expect the best
Be a social optimist and expect that the new people you meet are going to love you. You will subconsciously be more open and warmer with those you are talking to, and of course, be much more approachable.

Pay Attention
Is someone talking to you? Then sit upright, put the phone away, and make eye contact. Giving people your undivided attention will make them feel important. And everybody likes to feel important.

Don’t Brag
Are you awesome? Have you just come back from a trip around the world? Good for you, but don’t tell everyone. Research shows that self-promotion tends to backfire, and that sharing stories of your incredible adventures may actually lead to people excluding you.

Ask For Advice
When you ask people for advice, it makes them feel like experts. Never miss an opportunity to ask others for tips, whether it’s for an upcoming trip, a great place to eat, or feedback here on Wonder. They’ll love it that you thought to ask them in the first place.

Be Curious
Dale Carnegie said, “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested you.” So ask questions, try to really get to know people. They’ll be surprised (and delighted!) you want to know more about them.