Core Shame: How It Shows Up and How Therapy Can Help

Many of us have experienced moments when we’ve felt a deep sense of disappointment in ourselves, moments when we’ve grappled with feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. It’s natural to feel shame when our actions don’t align with our values or when we unintentionally cause harm to others. However, there are times when this shame can become a constant companion, quietly shaping our thoughts and actions without us even realizing it.

While everyone experiences shame, the phenomenon of core shame causes people to fundamentally feel bad about themselves. This type of shame can affect every aspect of your mental and physical health, and it can result in relationship struggles, self-harm, low self-esteem, and deep inner pain.

You may not be able to prevent shame, but you can untangle yourself from shame-based messaging and build a more positive sense of self-worth. Let’s get into what you need to know.

Do You Have a Core Shame Identity?

Everyone feels negative emotions about themselves from time to time. We tend to feel shame when we act in ways that clash with our values or hurt other people. Ideally, healthy shame motivates you to reconsider your behavioral patterns and make different choices.

But a core shame identity speaks to an undertone of consistent toxic shame underlying your everyday life. This kind of shame acts as a filter, but you may not even be aware of its presence. It might feel so embedded into your psyche that you fail to recognize it.

Signs that you may experience core shame include:

  • Feeling like you’re a bad person no matter what
  • Assuming most people don’t like you or will hurt you
  • Avoiding most forms of vulnerability due to how others might perceive you
  • Feeling like you don’t really have an authentic sense of who you are
  • Being unable to set boundaries in your relationships
  • Dissociating or maladaptively dreaming often
  • Engaging in compulsive or addictive behaviors as a means of self-relief
  • Feeling an incessant drive toward overachieving or being perfect

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Where Does Core Shame Come From?

This particular kind of chronic shame doesn’t happen overnight, and it is often rooted in traumatic experiences. People with core shame may have had patterns of unstable or inconsistent relationships. They may have also experienced abuse from people who were supposed to look after their well-being.

Childhood abuse: There’s no doubt that physical abuse, neglect, or sexual abuse can erode a child’s sense of safety. If your caregivers were not attuned to your needs or frequently criticized you, you may have internalized this into your own shame response.

Adverse childhood experiences: In addition to abuse, other experiences in childhood may drive shame. These can include financial stress, parental substance abuse or mental illness, the loss of a loved one, or experiencing a relative’s incarceration. You can learn more about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) here.

Other mental health conditions: Shame can coincide with other mental health symptoms like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, PTSD, and more. Shame may exacerbate those symptoms, and those symptoms can exacerbate shame.

Feeling different or inferior to others: We all value a sense of social belonging, so when we think we’re falling short or not fitting in, shame can emerge. For example, as a therapist who specializes in providing LGBTQ+ therapy, I often see the role shame plays in maintaining a sense of immense inner conflict.

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How Do You Work Through Shame?

Most people try to hide shame from the outside world. We conceal as a form of self-protection, but doing so comes with steep costs. Omitting your truth can stunt vulnerability and impact your ability to be honest with people who care about you. Working through shame is a slow process that requires self-reflection and patience. Here is how the process may unfold:

Build an inner sense of safety: You can’t properly work through emotional pain when you don’t feel safe. This discomfort often brings people to therapy. However, if you can find a trusted person to be honest with, you can externalize the shame and bring its related negative feelings outside of you.

Practice tolerating emotional distress: Managing shame often means being aware of its impact and pausing when such discomfort arises. Remember that you don’t need to immediately act on any urge. In this type of mindfulness, you can simply note what it feels like when shame emerges in your body.

Practice self-compassion: Self-compassion helps break up shame because it permits you to treat yourself with more kindness. Self-compassion isn’t about enabling unwanted behaviors or being complacent with yourself. Instead, it’s about honoring your humanness and reacting with compassion over intense judgment (as you likely would do with a loved one).

Consider if you’re taking someone’s opinion as fact: People often feel toxic shame when they believe old messages that were passed down to them. These messages tend to first appear in early childhood, but they can be reinforced over time. For example, maybe your father belittled your intelligence, and now you experience negative self-talk about your capabilities at work. Remember that nobody can define your worth.

Practice being more vulnerable with others: Vulnerability can be an antidote to shame. When we broaden our capacity for emotional expression, we no longer hold all the negative thoughts inside. Remember that vulnerability isn’t an all-or-nothing, and practicing it with even one person can make a meaningful difference.

Seek trauma-focused support: Pervasive shame and guilt often speak to unresolved traumatic experiences. A trained mental health professional can provide you with the resources and tools you need to recover from this trauma and improve your overall quality of life.

Therapy for Unpacking Shame and Managing Negative Emotions in Seattle, Washington

As a trauma therapist, I am deeply aware of the interplay between early relationships, current feelings, and how shame shows up in the body.

I provide therapy for adult clients who want to better understand their emotional states and develop a more authentic sense of self. I offer EMDR for shame and guilt, PTSD, and related experiences. My goal is to provide you with a compassionate space where we can break up shame together. If you think we might be a good fit, I welcome you to contact me today.

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