John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD


There are few emotional experiences more painful than shame.

When we feel guilty, we realize we have transgressed. We have committed an act that violates our moral and ethical ideals. But when we feel ashamed, we feel as though the entire self is bad, not just one sequence of behavior. We feel inadequate, unworthy, bad to the core.

In therapy, clients frequently have trouble distinguishing between these two emotional states, especially when they're trying to label what they feel. But one way we tell them apart is by the actions that each state engenders. We when feel guilty, we feel motivated to make amends –– to take action to repair the damage. But when we feel ashamed, we feel exposed, vulnerable, and we want to withdraw from others. In extreme moments of shame, we may even try to hide.

Shame is often at the core of many emotional problems. Shame is painful. As a result, our psyches have to find a way to help us deal with this emotion. So we avoid, withdraw from others, engage in various forms of self-attack (self-hate), or other attack (projecting our self-hate onto other people). We might use one or all of these forms of defense. Sometimes, dare I say often, the defense, which was originally designed by our psyche to help us cope, begins to look like a problem. Depression, disordered eating patterns, self-injurious behaviors –- these are just a few examples of problems that may be tied to an underlying self that feels inadequate, defective, inferior.

Whenever I discover a vault of shame in one of my therapy clients, I tread lightly. Too much press makes the person feel more vulnerable than they already feel. And yet, if therapy is to do the person any good, explore it we must. The vault must be opened if the heart, mind and soul are to be restored.