07/02/2013 12:45 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

Letting Go of Shame

The concept of shame is familiar to all of us. We know what we mean by it, but find it a bit tricky to describe. It's not exactly guilt or embarrassment, nor is it shyness or modesty.

I've formulated my own simple definition of shame as follows: "The unwillingness or inability to accept our imperfections." The shameful person cannot tolerate his flaws and mistakes. Rather than tell himself, "I made an error," his inner critic screams, "I made an error and I'm worthless!"

As a psychologist, I've worked with hundreds of clients, ranging from celebrities to maximum security prison inmates, group home youth, middle aged couples and recovering addicts, who suffer from the negative pattern of shame. Like all negative patterns of thought, emotion and behavior, shame knows no socioeconomic, racial, or religious bounds.

In my clinical practice, I'm tipped off to the presence of shame in clients through their description of themselves as bad, defective, unworthy, undeserving, wrong, or not good enough, in addition to a display of blushing, lowering or averting the eyes, hiding the face, or isolating from others.

Sadly and ironically, these "flawed" clients are often decent and likeable folks suffering from a negative self-image based on messages received in childhood that shaped their views of self and world. As a case in point, I remember walking down a supermarket aisle years ago and seeing a boy, no more than three years old, sitting in a shopping cart pushed by his mother, berating himself in a loud voice: "Jimmy is a bad boy. Bad!"

Jimmy was clearly echoing the messages relayed by his mother who was likely repeating what she had heard from her parents when she was a child. And Jimmy's mother is no different from the countless other parents who raise youngsters in the same way which they were raised.

These early shame experiences stay with us. According to my colleague, George Gleckler, MFT, "We have a library of shame memories in our brain, and when we've been effectively triggered, the library unleashes the old memories in the form of judgment. It combines with present experience and becomes overwhelming to us."

Let's be clear: Shame has its uses. If we didn't have shame, we would break rules with impunity. We would be mired in savagery. But an excess of shame is harmful, too. In the words of author John Bradshaw, it is "toxic." The problem is not in the existence of shame, but its intensity and frequency. Constantly berating ourselves wears us down and harms our relationships, spins us into anxiety and depression, prevents us from reaching goals and limits our success, and may even take a physical toll on our immune systems.

How to correct this overdose of shame? One, we must build self-esteem. This can be accomplished by acknowledging our strengths while working to diminish our negative patterns -- those things we feel shameful of. The use of positive affirmations helps to counteract negative self-talk (e.g., telling yourself you are okay when you are feeling down about yourself is a tried and true therapeutic intervention).

Two, the act of confession to a therapist, spiritual advisor, 12-step sponsor or close friend can be healing. Instead of hiding our shameful thoughts and deeds, we bring them into the light. Sharing true thoughts and feelings with others is a powerful antidote to hiding and covering up. While it is risky to reveal oneself in a therapy group or 12-step meeting, the alternative is to stuff upsetting emotions and memories. Such suppression can result in drug or alcohol abuse, risky behaviors, depression, unease, or unhappiness.

Three, laughter and humor about oneself is a wonderful healing tool. Instead of calling yourself "a clumsy idiot" when you stumble or make a mistake, try laughing instead. Our ego hates to feel embarrassed, and yet accepting our foibles and errors without self-recrimination is a climb up the ladder of humility. It feels good.

We must recognize and address the negative pattern of shame, which tells us that we're no damn good, an indictment made by our own judge and jury in the form of our inner critic. We are flawed and imperfect, but let's not forget that we have our strengths, talents and virtues. And let's accept our imperfections and negative patterns with compassion for ourselves as we work to diminish them.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.