Shame: An Explainer

I am walking down the street on a gorgeous spring day, and I am feeling shame. I am able-bodied, healthy, and happy. I’m not in pain and I’m not in a terrible mood and I’m not even PMSing. I have a successful writing career, a great family, and a great life. I am 45 motherfucking years old and I’m smart and I look pretty damn good, and I know what the fuck is up for the first time in my life, and I am covered in shame and full of shame and swimming through shame on my way to more shame.

I never even noticed that I felt so much shame until this sunshine-y day a few months ago. I was walking to pick up my kids from school, next to a line of cars driven by parents waiting to pick up their kids. I found myself imagining that one of the parents driving the cars was looking at me and thinking, “That woman is a mess.” I imagined that this parent was thinking, “Why does she walk that way? Look at her sloppy ponytail. Why doesn’t she shower more? Why doesn’t she learn how to dress? Why is she so smug about her ugly self? Who does she think she’s fooling?” I was sure this was what anyone with eyes would be thinking if they looked at me, and it seemed reasonable and not unfair at all.

As an advice columnist and culture critic who’s always been a little allergic to catchphrases and psychobabble and canned wisdom served up by the guru du jour, I’ve never loved the word “shame.” It always felt like a catch-all term to me, a way of saying that humans are too soft and squishy to survive, like a word someone weak would use to explain why the world was too harsh to bear. “Shame” sounded like a term that people who are self-conscious and easily embarrassed use to blame someone else for the fact that they were neurotic chickenshits.

Which is a pretty clear snapshot of the thinking of someone with a lot of shame on board. Shame isn’t just a bad cognitive habit of the psyche — your bad brain telling you that you’re failing or fucking up or falling behind. Shame is an onboard navigational system, one that’s intent on keeping you small and apologetic indefinitely.

Shame springs from the belief that people who feel their feelings are weak and pathetic. Shame is also the sensation that everything you do is wrong, no matter what. Shame is the sense that you’ve never understood anything, and you never will. Shame is the result of hearing the same message for years: Everyone else knows better than you what you should be. What you are is suspect. What you feel is embarrassing.

Here’s how it works: You grow up, and everything natural and real that comes out of you is greeted the same way: “Stop that.” Stop making that sound. Stop crying. Stop talking. Stop saying that. Stop being that way.

Shame grows out of these messages. The things that you do, the things that you say, the way you feel inside: these are unacceptable. You’re doing it wrong. (This, by the way, goes back to the time of Adam and Eve: Those two ate a little fruit from the forbidden tree and suddenly they noticed they were naked. They were bad and they didn’t even know it! Just for having a snack! Just for standing around in their own skin!)

People who feel a lot of shame tend to shame each other. “That’s not how you do it,” they say. Speaking your mind is embarrassing. Spontaneous expressions of affection or anger are shameful. Asking an open-ended question is shameful. Not already knowing the answer to a question is shameful. Not anticipating and addressing the imaginary criticisms of imaginary people is shameful. You need to know — already, preemptively — exactly how weak and terrible you are.

Coolness is shame incarnate. The blasé are full of shame. Shame is believing that if you’re not winning, you’re a loser, and if you’re not in love, you’ll never be loved, and if you’re not perfect, then you’re disappointing and flawed in permanent ways that anyone can see just by glancing at you.

It’s only been a few months, but the realization of how much shame I carry around with me has radically altered my experience. Suddenly, I see how often I explain myself unnecessarily. How I apologize for everything I do. How I always assume I’m about to step on someone’s toes or say the wrong thing. And my efforts to fix my inherent faultiness have made me even less authentic. I try too hard. I operate under the premise that there is something deeply wrong with me, that there’s a “right” way of being that I just need to figure out and memorize and ape. I think that, in some twisted part of my brain, I saw this wrongness as something precious, something without which I would cease to be original. I was jealously guarding my broken pieces, as if it was honorable to be a wreck.

So how do you address all of your shame, and get rid of it? You start by noticing it. You look at it. You mention it to your friends. The more you talk about it, the more you’ll see that almost everyone around you feels shame all of the time, too. Hiding it is just another way of holding onto it.

Once you’re honest with yourself about how much shame you feel, and how much you built your social life around that shame, you can start chipping away at it. And when you start to do that, your life will feel so much lighter. Because shame stands in the way of everything good: joy, creativity, intellectual freedom, real connection, great sex, fulfillment, and pride, in who you are and what you’ve accomplished.

You’ll also find that you have more compassion for the people around you. You’ll see through their shame. You won’t think that they’re either tough or weak, capable or pathetic, winners or losers. That’s the binary thinking of the shamed. People who live without shame understand nuance. They understand the courage it takes to admit that you’re fragile. Those are the people you want to know. And that’s how you want to be: Compassionate, open, accepting, free. You care deeply about this world and the people in it. You know your heart. And when you walk through the world without shame, you make space for other people to let go of their shame, too.

It feels good to be a regular person. It feels good to move through the day without making assumptions about what other people think and see and believe. It feels like a relief. It feels respectful. I’m just me. You’re just you. You’re just doing your best. There’s a lot to celebrate. There’s a lot to love. There’s a lot to feel grateful for. And there’s nothing at all to be ashamed of.

Heather Havrilesky writes New York’s Ask Polly advice column and is the author of How to Be a Person in the World, which will be available from Doubleday on July 12th.

Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis; Elizabeth is wearing a Saks Potts kimono robe and Arme De L’Amour earrings.


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  • Amelia Diamond

    I have sent this to so many people and it’s only been live for 14 minutes.

    • Haley Nahman


      • Ramey Dallimonti

        Happy recipient!

  • Cinamaron

    I think it’s also important to consider anxiety and other mental health issues when we talk about feeling shame. Feeling like you are being constantly judged or assuming there are all these invisible bars you are falling short of (I.e. your appearance, behavior, ideas are not good enough) are definitely components of anxiety and depression. As a person with an anxiety disorder it took me a really long time to realize constantly feeling like this wasn’t normal and that there were ways I could combat it.

    We also definitely experience shame and similar emotions in ways that aren’t tied to mental health issues, but I just wanted to bring up anxiety as I feel like it’s often talked about as more of an issue that happens with school or work or deadlines and not as something that can just sit constantly with you and make you pick yourself apart.

    • Senka

      Same here. Life long battle with anxiety that made me feel constantly judged and analysed and somehow wrong or guilty. It’s still there. Just recognising it helped me overcome it to the level where I can become somewhat functional albeit weird individual. I feel awkward pretty much doing any every day life situation and no outfit or make up or act can help it. But it can cover it up a little bit.

      • Simeon Morris

        My thoughts on shame and anxiety are they are totally connected. Anxiety can be seen as a response to shame: it’s the fight or flight mechanism kicking in, only the ‘threat’ is your own shameful feelings, which you can’t run from. I didn’t realise I lived with shame and anxiety for decades until I was able to unpack all those feelings and see how they had sat just underneath all my anxiety and coping mechanisms: alcohol, sex, rage, manipulation, etc. Shame also seems to be a special problem for girls and women, as it’s almost a birthright. Little girls face impossible dichotomies of behaviour from the get go. Boys have their own set of rules that I think lead less easily to shame, at least in the short to medium term but of course, can still end up there. It all boils down to one simple thought ‘you are not ok, just as you are.’

        Which is the biggest lie.

        • Senka

          Yes, shame exists in both sexes, but to women it’s more inherent. I can attest to that living in a still pretty patriarchal balkan society. My parents were fair and accepting enough but that can’t prepare one for the society we live in, so one keeps constantly feeling like too much or taking up space, or appologizing for inconveninecing anyone. It’s very weird here. Customer service is almost nonexistant for that exact reason, because people are too ashamed to complain about bad product, rude sales person, or overchargeing.
          On the other hand men have their own set of shame which is showing any emotion other than anger, because all else is sign of weakness. World is a weird place, but balkan happens to be the exaggeration of it.

  • scriptgrrl

    Bravo! This needs to be read by everyone.

  • Harling Ross

    This resonates so much. Shame, for me, is so attached to my “muchness” — Too much hair. Too much body. Too much inserting of myself into space. That’s why I blush when I’m saying something in front of a large group, or when I’m the center of attention. I have a physical reaction to being noticed, like shame is coded into my freaking DNA! I want to read this post again and again and let it seep into my chromosomes.

    • Amelia Diamond

      I want to read this comment again and again!!

    • Roos .

      And isn’t that so paralel to how advertising depicts women? As hairless, thin, fragile, weak, childish humans? With big eyes and school girl uniforms or long lean limbs and smooth skin.

      You know, men have this other way of being depicted: strong and big and hairy. Which can also be not the nicest message to receive unconsciously: you are not enough, not muscly enough, not hairy enough, not virile enough.

      Yet I think it is more aggressive to tell a person they are too much than that they are too little.

  • Harling Ross

    Also Heather’s twitter account is my favorite twitter account in all the land.

  • Unfortunately, if you show the world and its husband you are not cringingly self-ashamed all the time and all those shiny happy people around you are, they may try to punish you. Exclude you. Because you show saneness that is surely above your station.

    So while not being ashamed is great, pretending to be can sometimes save you. 🙁

    • Amelia Diamond

      but not if we all don’t pretend!

      • Well, you need people who realize being ashamed is a feature some people have and others don’t and who are able to question it, like Heather does in this brilliant text, or at least in, like, two simple sentences. And not people who believe everyone around them should be basically like themselves or go and eff off and stop making them all nervous about themselves and the world.


    I think this woman is overthinking. Frankly I have no idea what she is going on about. What does she have to be shameful for? Why does she feel so shamed?

    • While she is mostly describing what she imagines others are thinking about her, I can support her story from the other side: there are many people who spend time thinking about others and if they notice you are basically unaware of what is wrong with you, they will tell you. Even more, if you are (still) visibly unashamed because of these things.


        Shame is purely constructed by the human mind. No one need feel ashamed of anything, and no one has to tell them they need to feel ashamed.
        These thoughts seem to be driven by self hatred on both sides, which is unhealthy because it often comes with poor self image and the recourse is usually to divert attention to one’s imagined deficiencies and focus on the imagined deficiencies of someone else.
        You can’t love anyone else until you love yourself first.

        • That’s what Heather says, too: that shame is our own mental construction and we should love each other and ourselves more :-).
          It is only that I doubt spreading the information and telling everyone we should all stop feeling shame will help. For too many people, this is too much of a change.

          Like the fact we all seem to know: trolls and their real life equivalents will attack others just to feel better about themselves. So when we encounter such behaviour, we need not ask ourselves whether things told about the attacked person are true, but only: what is wrong with the attacker? I always assume this is known and cannot stop wondering about people attacking others senselessly and (seemingly?) not knowing they are only telling the rest of the world they have a problem with themselves.


            Oh the troll identity is a bit more complex. it’s not only self hatred. Though that is apparent. There is also immaturity.
            Sometimes you’re actually dealing with a silly twelve year old who knows swear words and tries to be a smartarse.
            Because this is a discussion channel there are other aspects like dissecting others point of view by going on to demolish an argument. And you can also change sides all the time. This is what happens in law court and also in classes where the subject is logic or rhetoric.
            I’ve been called a troll by people who disagree with my view but then found they have the same issue with nearly every second person, so there is a funny situation where the Moderators themselves are the trolls and not those who are supposed to be the trolls themselves.
            In real life different people have different way of arguing and seeing the same issue and its just more apparent because its written down. So just because they oppose you doesn’t make them automatically a troll. They will probably agree with you on another point, if not this one. And someone who agreed now will not agree on some other issue.
            But one thing I strongly feel is there is no ‘avatar’ actually though people think they are avatars.
            The behaviour offline and online is mostly the same, except for some fantasy element and sometimes exaggeration. And so are the communication skills. Some are bad communicators in real life and hiding behind the avatar unfortunately doesn’t improve that quality.

          • Simeon Morris

            It’s interesting that you start by saying you don’t understand what she is talking about, before then demonstrating clearly that you do understand!

            (said with a lightness of tone!)



            I was saying I don’t understand it with people who keep thinking they re the centre of everyone else’s thoughts. It is clear to see that everyone thinks they are the centre of their own private universe and the problem arises when they see someone taking their attention and apparently (since its ‘only in their head’) vying for that position.
            Otherwise I was answering the question here about trolls not illusions about one’s self image.

          • Simeon Morris

            I don’t entirely agree with you. Saying everything about who we are is ‘in our head’ isn’t entirely true. To my mind, who we are is made up of the relationship between our physiological/psychological selves, and the relationship we have with the world we inhabit. So, shame is in fact a by product of the breakdown of that relationship: people raised in healthy families/societies will not experience shame so much, or at all, imo. While the shame itself is felt only in the body of the person who felt it, it is still connected to the world that helped create it. It isn’t something you can just get over, or stop feeling just because it’s ‘only in your head.’ It will need a re-appraisal of the world that taught you to feel that, and a shift in a persons paradigm about themselves and their world. Peace. 🙂

    • You’re very lucky then. We live in a world where with lots of social expectations – that everyone should look an act a certain way and if you don’t live up to these standards you end up feeling shame.
      For example she doesn’t feel like she’s the mother society wants her to be because she doesn’t look as put-together as some of the other mothers she knows.


        But that’s only in her head. If you see cases of anorexia and bulimia you’ll see very nice looking people start to look horrible and more horrible. On the other hand I’ve worked in the entertainment industry and i have seen that the most successful ones are just above average lookers with great talent but lots of charisma. And that comes from self confidence and good body image and you’ll also notice a lot of changes if the same above average person becomes very successful. They get a larger aura and actually start to GLOW.

        • Simeon Morris

          I’m not sure what you mean by ‘it’s only in her head’.
          When it comes to who we are it’s ALL in our head.
          Self esteem and confidence are also ‘only in your head’.



            Yeah, you said it right.So you know what I mean. ;P

  • I’ve read this three times now. Steps to better self-understanding are a gift.

    • Verena von Pfetten

      Hi Zanita!! ??

  • Kari

    I love Man Repeller. I really cannot formulate the right words to express my gratitude for this article. I relate to this so deeply, and it’s wonderful to know that others have similar experiences. It’s disappointing to see how much this holds us back (I usually cannot even post comments on MR because I fear they aren’t good enough), but I’m sure reading (and rereading!) this will help contribute to “chipping away” at these feelings of shame.

    • Verena von Pfetten

      Kari! This comment just made my day. We’re all just chipping.

  • Jill Sharp

    I don’t know that shame is wholly our own mental construct, as another comment mentioned. I think sometimes it also comes from how we were raised, whether there was deliberate shaming happening in the household or not. I know a fair number of previously poor folks who have climbed far from their prior circumstances and still feel a sense of shame about it at times. And parents, mothers especially, can be excellent shamers. And especially to daughters, inadvertently or otherwise. I think this (shame) is tied to Impostor Syndrome. And it can be overwhelmingly limiting. And it’s hard, hard work to give it up. I know. I did it. (mostly…) I had to let go of a lot of things, a lot of concepts, societal constructs, people (men in particular) telling me things, in so many ways – both directly and indirectly. I had to learn a lot about myself. I had to be willing to be totally open to a new perspective and then work to accept it (to accept *me*) as acceptable. But…BUT when you can accept yourself wholly, even if you don’t love everything about yourself at every moment, when you know you’re doing your best at any given time, or if you’re not doing your best, you apologize – and only then, not for things like taking up too much space, being too strident, having opinions, taking issue with things, etc – do you lose that fucking shame. And once you leave it, stranded, far behind you, you taste freedom fully for the first time. And you will never want to go back to it. I’m sorry that this is so long and it probably sounds rather fanciful and woo-woo. But losing the shame changed my life more than anything ever has. I hope everyone else who still feels it, can shed it at some point. Excellent post, MR team.

    • Aggie

      I totally agree with you! It is not wholly our own mental construct, something that is very relevant to MR with the example of growing up poor is high fashion: has anyone tried to walk into a Chanel store just to browse knowing that you obviously can’t afford it but would love to take a look at their designs with your own eyes? I know I haven’t because there’s a security guard at the door and employees waiting around and looking at you strangely because they can tell you can’t buy anything. Many times I have felt embarrassed in places I can’t afford. I also feel uncomfortable when I wear too much cleavage or something that is too short because I feel like I will be judged by men AND women.

      • One of the things I have since found out to exist on both sides is the Impostor Syndrome: while it is true that feeling inadequate for no practical reasons exists (in our minds only), it is also true we can be treated as Impostors even if we aren’t. Says an immigrant with a normal level of the official language and a uni degree who people think is anything else but. Cannot be. Should not be. Because if she is, who are we then? Damn smartass, you just pretendin is all.

  • This has literally been me my entire life. Thanks for putting into words what I couldn’t describe even to myself.

  • thebalancingunicorn

    I’m not crying, you’re crying.

    • thebalancingunicorn

      jk i am crying

      • thebalancingunicorn

        On a serious note though, this is possibly one of my favourite articles on MR. I find that sometimes one needs some sort of reassurance or validation, and this article not only did that to me, but it also talked the importance of doing so in life as well (sharing with friends) – I really appreciated this! Heather, you rock.

  • Lilly

    one of the best things i’ve read in a long while, thank you for this!

    “Speaking your mind is embarrassing. Spontaneous expressions of affection or anger are shameful. Asking an open-ended question is shameful. Not already knowing the answer to a question is shameful. Not anticipating and addressing the imaginary criticisms of imaginary people is shameful. You need to know — already, preemptively — exactly how weak and terrible you are.”
    I have never ever thought about this so explicitly before, but this passage describes my thought processing so accurately that I stopped breathing for a bit

  • sugar_magn0lia

    Holy shit I related to this article so much. Thank you for giving a voice to something I feel and deal with daily


    I love this so much. Thank you!

  • Alessandra

    I have goosebumps reading this

  • Anna Fiore

    I read this article yesterday and loved it so much that I shared it on FB even though I don’t post much. Nobody liked or commented in a few hours. I felt like the internet was silently judging me; I felt a little bit of shame. In reality, probably no one even noticed it midday Wednesday, but it felt bigger than that. Reflecting today, I wonder how much shame is affecting other areas of my life if it is having such a profound impact just on my use of social media.

    Thanks for the great article!

    • Senka

      I thought of sharing it, but decided not to, fearing I’d be too vulnerable. Or judged. At the bottom of it all is a shame. Shame of being the way we are which is just human. It’s insane, but it’s so. I believe people would ignore it on my wall too. Humor is fine, even politics is fine, but something like this isn’t. And it’s not just our shame, it’s theirs. Shame of liking or commentin something that is vulnerable and human.

  • “Shame is an onboard navigational system, one that’s intent on keeping you small and apologetic indefinitely.” smoothing this one over with my cursor a thousand times

  • Lillian

    “I was jealously guarding my broken pieces, as if it was honorable to be a wreck.” whoa.

  • gerald

    You need friends and some family time..Go out with them.

    Christian Louboutin

  • Chloe Fourte

    thank you so much for this 🙂

  • Ian Osmond

    I believe that there are two things — “guilt”, and “shame”. “Guilt”, in small, measured doses, can be useful if used carefully. “Shame” can’t.

    “Guilt” is what you feel when you know that you have a best self, a best version of who you can be, and then you do something that is incongruent with that self. It’s a pain caused by the you-that-is-in-the-world not matching with the you-that-you-deserve-to-be. And if you look at that guilt, and use it to fix that, and you start to express a better version of yourself, you then let the guilt go away.

    I mean, if it’s working right, which is often doesn’t. But, still — that’s what it’s SUPPOSED to do.

    Shame, though, is exactly what you’re talking about here. Shame might START with some useful guilt that you “should have” done something with and used to become better.

    But it usually doesn’t. It usually starts with people lying to you about who you actually are. And so you know about the best-you-that-you-deserve-to-be, and you THINK that you’re not expressing that, and you think that you CAN’T express it — because people have been lying about where you actually are, and you can’t get from here to there unless you actually know where “here” actually is.

    So, you’ve got this guilt that is based on a lie, and because it’s based on a lie, you can’t get rid of it just by being a better version of yourself, and so it stays forever, and guilt that you don’t get rid of goes all rancid and turns into shame.

    And, while guilt says, “I should be better, and so I will”, shame says “I am bad and I can never be better.”

    And that’s not fair. And that’s not true. And that’s usually based on other people hurting you somehow. Maybe your family, maybe messages you got from society in general giving lying messages, I don’t know. For some people, it’s probably their own brain just making the wrong brain-chemicals and making them lie to themselves. I don’t know, and it probably doesn’t matter all that much.

    I’m not actually sure how to get rid of shame. I think it has something to do with realizing which things are lies, and realizing how much closer you are to your best self than the lies tell you you are.

  • Sandi

    One of the best descrptions of shame I’ve read.

  • Natalija Radojicic

    I agree with all the above written, with one exception, which is the fact that people really do judge, comment and ridicule everybody else, especially the ones who are the most innocent, spontaneous and carefree. I know for a fact that the best y in my group are the ones that see no malice or evil in anything or anyone, yet still they are the most mocked ones of all. And it’s precisely for the most sincere reactions of aforementioned kindest people. So although we’d like to think that it’s all in our heads, it actually isn’t. We should be working on liberating ourselves from the constant trying to shield ourselves from mockery and judgment, by creating a positive image about ourselves. We shouldn’t be an accomplice in a deliberate destruction of our self-image, thinking that who we are is wrong in one way or another. I hope this makes sense. I post this only because I feel enpowered by this wise and frank text. I wanted to apologize for the poor use of English in this post, but I won’t 😀

  • Jay

    Stumbled about this post and whoa… it does reasonate with me as well, Harling and everyone else…

    Like I always compare myself. Even when I’m not, like when I’m doing something totally by myself and there is no competition whatsoever I secretely do. I then question what others will think about me. It’s exactly that feeling heather describes of the “nonperfect” hair, dress, makeup, body, talk, way of life…

    And the worst is when being asked “Why?”… seriously, I sometimes think I’m the only one in the world carrying that feeling and it’s totally stupid. So so good to hear I’m not.

    And yeah, I’m trying to work on accepting it the feeling of shame – which is kind of insecurity-related – and move on. Don’t let it get me down.

    Plus, don’t know whether anyone has tried, but I’ve come to be a big believer in writing down stuff about myself I am proud of. Even if it’s only a PR in the gym, a fast run, or the courage to comment in this discussion…