How Shame Prevents Empathy


How Shame Prevents Empathy


Shame prevents us from feeling and healing on a deeper level. Explore ways to move away from shame in your relationships and personal life.

Shame is a common condition, if a somewhat mysterious one. We relate shame to guilt because shame often arises when we’ve made a mistake or had an experience of rejection. While guilt can be a useful emotion that tells us we’ve done something we’d rather not repeat, shame is a condition in which we feel there is something fundamentally wrong with who we are at our core.

While guilt can teach us something about how we want to be in the world, shame sends us into a sort of painful paralysis; a feeling that we are fundamentally bad and don’t deserve to feel any better.

The Purpose of Shame

While shame feels awful, it serves a very important purpose. It usually appears in childhood when something painful or confusing happens, especially when we are not in control. Shame helps us understand that we are the problem, not the caregivers we need for our survival. It helps us internalize that feeling of wrongness so that we can maintain connection with the people we depend on.

While this can be useful in the moment, shame tends to stick to us and recur whenever something confusing or painful happens in our lives. We maintain that sense that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, that we are somehow worse than other people. When we are adults and more in control of our lives, this shame hangover can cause its own problems.

Though shame may exist to maintain connections with people who have power over us, it can really get in the way of our connections as adults. When a friend doesn’t text us back right away, when we get dumped, or when we get constructive feedback at work, we can sink right back into that old familiar feeling that we are completely worthless and that there’s no point in trying.

While guilt may help us improve our behavior, shame tends to cause us to sink within ourselves, to give up altogether, and to stop trying. It also prevents us from empathizing with what others might be going through because we have already reached the conclusion that we are bad and there’s nothing to be done about it. Couples therapist Esther Perel writes, “Shame is a state of self-absorption, while guilt is an empathic, relational response, inspired by the hurt you have caused another.”

Shame as an Emotional Block

Shame can also act as an inhibitory emotion. It can protect us from feeling more intense core emotions like anger and sadness, partly because these emotions might require change within a close relationship. Rather than facing those feelings, we sink back into old, familiar shame.

This process can prevent us from addressing those important core emotions and making necessary changes within our relationship. When we are so obsessed with what’s wrong with us, we don’t have the capacity to pause and consider what the other person might be going through.

Healthy relationships involve conflict, and while that can certainly trigger painful emotions and difficult patterns, it’s also an opportunity to understand each other better and to deepen and improve our relationships. When we always fall back on shame, we miss that opportunity and stay in relationship with our most hated, most isolated selves.

What to Do With Shame

One thing we can do when shame arises in a relationship is to become aware. Get familiar with the signature sensation of shame and the stories that come up for you when shame is triggered. Acknowledge it, and thank it for trying to protect you. Then take a breath, and look for empathy. Offer understanding to yourself and your natural human limitations.

Then turn your attention to the other person in the relationship. Consider what they might be going through and the stories about themselves that their shame might be triggering. Do your best to access space for love and compassion for both yourself and another, and let that guide you in your next steps.


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How Shame Prevents Empathy

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