The Burden of Shame

Aug 16, 2023
Fingers pointing at woman feeling shame

The Burden of Shame

Shame is a hugely toxic emotion, perhaps the most toxic and harmful of all. It involves self-loathing, where we hate ourselves for who we are, rather than for something we have done (which is technically guilt, not shame). We can feel ashamed and guilty about something we have done, but true shame runs really deep and is very corrosive.

In her wonderful book, ‘The Atlas of the Heart’, Brené Brown points out that there are four emotions which are closely related, and for which the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. But they are different, and here are the definitions, as Brené Brown outlines them:

Shame – “I’m bad” – this is about you, the person, and not about your behaviour. Consequently it is hard to excuse, and leaves you feeling unworthy of love, belonging or connection. The example she gives is that you get back a test and have done badly in it and your self-talk is ‘I’m so stupid’. In the context of alcohol, shame is ‘I’m an alcoholic’ or ‘I can’t control my drinking’.

Guilt – “I did something bad” – here the focus is on the behaviour, and we tend to feel it when we realise that what we have done or failed to do goes against our values. Here the example she gives is that you do badly in a test and your self-talk is ‘going to the party instead of studying for this test was so stupid’ (as opposed to ‘I’m so stupid’). In the context of alcohol, guilt is ‘I offended someone last night after too much to drink’.

Humiliation – “I’ve been belittled and put down by someone” This can leave us feeling unworthy of connection but the key difference between shame and humiliation is that humiliation feels unfair, whereas shame is justified. Brené’s example for humiliation is that the person sitting next to you sees that you got a really poor mark in the test and makes fun of you, in front of the whole class, for being stupid. Everyone laughs, and you are left feeling dumb and outraged.

Embarrassment – “I did something that made me uncomfortable, but I know I’m not alone. Everyone does things like that”. Brené’s example is that the teacher is handing out the test results and you come back from the loo with toilet paper stuck to your shoe.

This blog is about the most uncomfortable of these emotions, shame, and how to overcome it.


Most alcoholics feel a deep sense of shame about their drinking.

They, or rather, we, (for I was, for many years, a person with a drink problem), feel shame for being weak, and for giving in when we feel the desire to drink, even though we probably vowed only a few hours earlier that we wouldn’t do it – not today. We fear being judged, and we can become increasingly secretive about our drinking – drinking on our own, hiding bottles and lying to our loved ones about where we have been and how much we have had to drink. None of this behaviour is in accordance with our personal values, and so it serves to reinforce our belief that we are “bad”.


A fear of judgement lies at the heart of shame.

We fear that if anyone were to know what we are truly like, then we would be rejected. People wouldn’t love us any more. They wouldn’t even like us. We would lose our sense of belonging. We are social animals, and we need to belong and to connect with others. When we feel shame, we fear that others will judge us and no longer want to connect with us. So we keep things under wraps.

But here’s the thing…


Shame is universal. We all feel it.

We can feel shame for a myriad of things. One of them, for sure, can be that we know that our drinking is out of control. But there are so many other things we can feel shame about. In ‘Atlas of the Heart’, Brené Brown lists some of the examples of shame given by respondents in some research she conducted:

  • Shame is hiding the fact that I’m in recovery
  • Shame is raging at my kids
  • Shame is bankruptcy
  • Shame is getting laid off and having to tell my pregnant wife
  • Shame is my boss calling me an idiot in front of the client
  • Shame is not making partner
  • Shame is my husband leaving me for my next-door neighbour
  • Shame is my partner asking me for a divorce and telling me that she wants children, but not with me
  • Shame is my DUI
  • Shame is telling my fiancé that my dad lives in France when in fact he’s in prison
  • Shame is internet porn
  • Shame is flunking out of school. Twice
  • Shame is hearing my parents fight through the walls and wondering if I’m the only one who feels this afraid

I am sure that you can add more of your own, I know I can. So that is the first thing to know about shame – it is universal.

And we are all afraid to talk about our shame.

And the less we talk about it, the greater the hold it has over us. As Brené Brown so wisely says:


Shame hates being spoken.

And if you do speak of it?? Well, talking about it actually removes its power, it’s like puncturing a balloon. It’s important to choose a confidant who has empathy, but provided that is the case, you will find the burden of shame is lifted. An empathic  listener will show you compassion and make you feel that you are not alone and that you are still worthy of their friendship.

But there is an important step to take, before speaking to anyone else about your shame.


Lifting the burden of shame starts with self-compassion.

Self-compassion is easy to say, harder to master.

As is my wont, I’ll refer you to another excellent book on the subject, ‘The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook’ by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer. They explain that self-compassion involves showing yourself the same kindness that you would show to someone else. If you wouldn’t say it to a small child, don’t say it to yourself. And it is amazing to observe how much harsher we are in our self-talk than in our conversations with others.


Rule #1 in self-compassion is to treat yourself as you would treat a vulnerable child.


Rule #2 in self-compassion is ‘common humanity’

‘Common humanity’ is the opposite of isolation. It means appreciating that suffering and falling short of your ideals is part of being a human being. It happens to all of us. When I am coaching people who are seeking to regain control over alcohol, one of the most common things people say is what a relief it is to find that they are not alone with their struggles.


Rule #3 in self-compassion is to be mindful about your feelings

Mindfulness is about observing your thoughts and feelings as they are, without judging yourself for them and without trying to deny those feelings or to let them define you. It is really important to accept your feelings, and not ignore them. Thoughts and feeling just are what they are. It’s what you do with them that makes the difference. Ignoring them won’t help and nor will getting swept away by them – the trick is to accept them, mindfully, and learn what there is to be learned from them.

Let me illustrate this point.

If you are trying to stop drinking and have gone a few weeks, and then have a drink, what would you call that?

  • A relapse? I’m not keen on that, as it sounds like the unwelcome return of a potentially fatal disease.
  • Falling off the wagon? Not so bad. As long as you survive the fall, you can always climb back on.
  • Slip up? This is ok, but it does rather trivialise something that is actually pretty important to you. 

The trouble with all of these terms is that they don’t involve any learning. They recognise the ‘fault’ but don’t get you any closer to a solution.


I like the term ‘data point’ - we can learn from data

A data point is an opportunity to learn.

It is how This Naked Mind (the organisation I trained with), refers to a slip-up. A data point on a graph is there to illustrate the data that lies behind it. And applying that logic to a drinking data point is really helpful. What can I learn from it? What was the situation, and how was I feeling? What in my mood was I looking to change? And did the desired change happen? What could I do differently next time, in order to arrive at a different outcome?


If you are feeling shame about your drinking, and struggling to regain control over alcohol, please get in touch. I offer FREE Discovery Calls – just book via the link below, and let’s you embarked on your journey of self-compassion, free from alcohol and free from the burden of shame.


If you have got this far, chances are that you are concerned that you may have a problem with alcohol. Let's talk - you have absolutely nothing to lose and so much to gain!



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