How to Move Past Shame and Feel Better

By Stacey Feintuch
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
September 15, 2023

This article is part of a series on how to cope with common feelings that can be tough to experience. Here, experts provide simple strategies for acknowledging and managing feelings of shame.

Maybe you lost your cool and yelled at your toddler, or perhaps you're reluctant to attend a gathering with old friends because your appearance has changed in ways that you’re not happy about. You notice that these incidents bring up an uncomfortable feeling, a self-consciousness that comes with the idea that something about you is wrong (like that you’re a bad parent, or unworthy of love). In other words, shame.

According to Pauline Peck, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Santa Barbara, California, shame is the emotion that arises when we feel like we ourselves are bad. And it can come with unfortunate self-talk. “Shame is a feeling that says you are less than, you are inadequate, and you don’t deserve the good things [like] love, grace, patience, and forgiveness,” Peck says. In turn, shame can lead to feelings of low self-worth or low self-esteem.

Learning to cope is important, especially since shame is a common emotion as we move through life. “We live in a very demanding society that often threatens our sense of self and worthiness, and so some shame will likely arise,” says Vernessa Roberts-Govan, a licensed marriage and family therapist who practices in Sacramento, California. “But how we manage it is key.”

You deserve to be your authentic self without shame. Here are expert-backed strategies to help you cope with shame when it arises.

1. Extend Yourself Extra Kindness

So you flubbed during an important work presentation, stoking an internal belief that you’re incompetent or incapable. If this sounds familiar, know that a moment like this doesn’t mean the negative stories you may create about yourself are true. Instead of drawing conclusions about your self-worth, try to simply accept what happened and move on.

You can do that by being more kind and compassionate with yourself, says Tess Brigham, a licensed therapist who practices in San Francisco. “Get out of your head and start challenging [the negative things] you’ve been saying to yourself,” she says. “Learn to accept yourself and recognize that you are enough as you are right now.”

As Roberts-Govan notes, “shame cannot thrive where compassion exists.”

2. Learn From Yourself

Rather than dwelling in shame after you’ve slighted a friend or harshly criticized your partner in front of others, use that feeling to recognize something’s not quite right and to motivate different behavior down the line. “When you know better (and have seen how your previous choice was hurtful), choose to do better,” says Kathy Nickerson, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Orange County, California. “The goal is always progress, not perfection.”

3. Talk About It

It may help you feel better to acknowledge your feelings and share them with others you love and trust. “Others are really important in dealing with shame because of the tendency to want to isolate,” says Peck. The more we talk about shame, the less power it has over our lives.

A trusted listener may also be able to offer a different, more compassionate perspective on what’s causing you to feel shame.

When to Get Help

Shame is a complex and difficult feeling, and it’s challenging to break through some of your long-held beliefs about yourself without the help of a professional, Brigham says. For some people, speaking with a mental health professional about shame is a good idea.

If you find it difficult to function in your daily life, work, or relationships without dwelling on shame, consider reaching out to a mental health professional.

“At some point, every single person in the world has felt like they weren’t good enough,” says Peck. “If shame is stopping you from being able to be close to others or live a meaningful life, getting professional help would be beneficial.”

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