Stigma and Shame

‘Shame relentlessly repeats a very convincing story about how a person is not acceptable as-is; that in order to belong and be lovable, they have to be other than how [and] who they are.’[1]

Few things compromise our mental and emotional well-being as severely as the feeling of shame and when the cloud of shame hangs over our lives, its effects can permeate into all aspects of our being: how we view ourselves, how we believe others view us, how willing we are to engage socially, our sense of professional competency, and even our capacity for sexual intimacy can be effected.

Shame really is a powerful emotion, one that will continue to impact those in its hold until it is overcome. The good news is that it can be overcome, once the person feeling shame understands the nature of this powerful emotion and where its roots lie.

Though commonly believed to be similar to guilt, shame differs in that it is a much more encompassing emotion. Guilt generally arises in response to a single event or series of events of wrongdoing, where the individual knows better and feels regret for having committed a given act. Shame, however, leads the individual to believe that they themselves are inherently ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’.

The Impact of Shame on Mental Health

Shame, if left to ferment, can create personal difficulties and place obstacles in the way of fully living our lives. When shame is unresolved, the ashamed person is subject to experiencing a range of psychological issues, like anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.[2]

Along with these associated issues, shame itself can lead people to go to great lengths to avoid intimacy and vulnerability. Instead of being open and vulnerable, people who experience shame are more likely to hide themselves away from other people.[3] This tendency towards self-concealment creates a sense of loneliness and isolation, which exacerbates the feeling that one is unworthy of love, acceptance, and community in the first place.

Shame can be detrimental to our mental and behavioural health. Research has pointed out that shame contributes to relapse in people struggling with alcoholism.[4]

When afflicted with shame, an individual believes they are worthless and that any attempt to change themselves is futile. With this lack of faith in the potential positive outcomes of efforts to change, the person is likely to continue on a path of destructive behaviour.

Where does Shame come from?

Our early years are highly formative. If during these important years of development we experience a traumatic event – like abuse, parental neglect, or insufficient attunement between our infant selves and our caregiver – the idea that we are unlovable or unworthy can become instilled in our minds and stay with us as we become adults.

In terms of abuse, be that verbal, sexual, or emotional, the young child is far more likely to view the abuser as being incapable of doing wrong and inherently ‘good’ (if the abuser is a parent, another family member, or close family friend). This means the child turns the intuitive sense of wrongness on themselves, considering themselves as inherently ‘bad’.

Shame can also come from cultural views on what is acceptable, or normal, and what is deemed as ‘weird’ or unacceptable. One area where shame can have a significantly destructive impact is in the context of mental illness.

Shame and the Stigma of Mental Illness

While shame itself can lead to and exacerbate mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, even suicidal tendencies, it can also be a huge obstacle in taking the first step to recovery. Those who are already suffering from poor mental health or have diagnosable illnesses are unfortunately often subject to discrimination and exclusion. Rosalyn Carter, former first lady of the United States, wrote a book titled Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis in which she described the harmful consequences of society’s stigma towards mental illness. Stigma, Carter writes, is ‘the most important damaging factor in the life of anyone who has a mental illness. It humiliates and embarrasses; it is painful; it generates stereotypes, fear, and rejection; it leads to terrible discrimination.’[5]

We Must Be Mindful of Our Use of Language

Shame is an emotion that can be overcome by building resilience, which is a skill that can be learned with the help and guidance of a professional therapist. However, shame, considered a ‘silent epidemic’[6], often prevents people from seeking help in the first place.

It is possible that many of us are contributing to the prevalence of shame due to stigma surrounding mental illness, which is why awareness, understanding, and compassion are so important moving forward. People who suffer from mental illnesses are very often reluctant to open up to others about their condition, out of fear of being seen as inadequate, weak, or unable to function with daily life. Someone you live with or work with could be suffering, yet may avoid talking about their struggle, which only makes their situation more difficult.

Many of us participate in the use of problematic language, not giving it a second thought. What we mean by this is the use of terms like ‘psycho’, ‘crazy’, and ‘mental’, just to name a few. All too often we use or overhear others describing a person who behaved in a manner outside of the social norm using terms. It may seem harmless, given that these terms are often used away from the subject of the conversation, but others who overhear may be experiencing symptoms and behaviours associated with a mental health condition relating to those amongst the conversation. This could cause them to withdraw into themselves for fear of being referred to in the same way by others.

We can all help reduce the stigma around mental illness and decrease feelings of shame in affected individuals. We can start by taking the first step of being mindful about the language we use around other people relating to behaviour.


[1] Tartakovsky, Margarita. “When You Feel Shame About Your Mental Illness.” World of Psychology, 8 July 2018, [Accessed 13th July 2020]

[2] Gilbert, P. (2000). The relationship of shame, social anxiety, and depression: The role of the evaluation of social rank. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 7(3), 174-189.

[3] Tangney, J. P., Stuewig, J. & Mashek, D. J. (2007). Moral emotions and moral behavior. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 345-372

[4] Randles, D. & Tracy, J. L. (2013). Nonverbal displays of shame predict relapse and declining health in recovering alcoholics. Clinical Psychological Science, 1(2)

[5] Carter, Rosalynn, et al. Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis. Rodale, 2010.

[6] Brown, B. (2008). I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Telling the Truth about Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power. New York, Gotham Books.

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