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Hurdles to Self-Awareness: Shame

This Halloween, we’ll address a scary demon that is holding you back: shame.

When you progress toward self-awareness, it’s like opening up your permanent record and reliving your life history. You face everything from your relationship with your parents, to your GPA in high school, to your dating life. The awards you’ve won, the tests you failed, the lies you told, and the jobs you’ve had are all on full display. The good, the bad, and especially the ugly stare you in the face, daring you to stare back.

If you’re able to stare back, then you’re becoming self-aware. You’re able to go to a place of vulnerability, look yourself in the eye, and use what you see to help you move forward. You are able to “always learn” and “never lose.”

However, if you can’t bear to look—if you slam the file shut and shove it into the back of the filing cabinet (or, you know, burn it), and your mind is convinced that you have a pile of “losses”—then you’re not coming from a place of vulnerability and self-awareness.

You’re coming from a place of shame. 

Shame

Shame is, at its core, a sense of low self-worth. It’s the belief or the fear that something in you is inherently flawed, so much so that you’re doomed to a life without love or belonging. That might sound extreme, but that is truly where shame takes us. 

Shame is a very human emotional state. Though we may experience it at different times, in different ways, and for different reasons, it’s something that almost all people do experience.

In fact, Brené Brown, a well-known shame and vulnerability researcher, points out in her widely-viewed TED talk: “The only people who don’t experience shame are people who have no capacity for human empathy or connection.” In other words, sociopaths.

(By the way, her TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability,” is the fourth most-watched TED talk. Ever. It dives deeper into the dangers of shame and the ways that it drives disconnection. We recommend giving it a watch if you haven’t already.)

Looking at it this way, it’s good that we are capable of feeling shame (you don’t want to be a sociopath, do you? Happy Halloween!). The problem, however, comes when we don’t know how to navigate our shame in a healthy and productive way. Instead of wading through it, we let it drown us. We give it too much control.

When shame is in control

Giving shame too much control can have disastrous consequences. In fact, in another TED talk, Brené Brown says that shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, eating disorders, and suicide.

This list reveals that shame drives us to seek power and control in our lives, in whatever way we can. Of course, the list also reveals that in our quest for that power and control, we actually end up losing power and control, giving more of it over to shame.

How does that happen? It happens because shame is at the heart of addiction and eating disorders. Shame drives violence, aggression, and bullying. It deepens depression, and in the worst cases, motivates suicide.

Why is shame’s impact so strong? Because it attacks us at our core. Shame creates feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and loneliness. And as we try desperately to rid ourselves of those feelings, we turn to harmful behaviors that numb us to the pain. In the process, we become blind to our true selves and our true worth.

Guilt and shame

It is important, here, to draw a distinction between guilt and shame. Some people may argue that shame motivates change, as it helps you feel bad about something and want to be better. What actually motivates change is guilt. When a person feels guilt, they recognize the mistake that they made, feel sorry for it, and determine to do better next time. 

When a person feels shame, however, they internalize the error, deciding that the problem was not what they did, but who they are. Blaming your very nature for the mistakes you make is not going to make you want to “do better next time.” Rather, it’s going to make you want to curl up into a ball and never try anything ever again…and maybe eat some ice cream, too. 

We’ve been there—ice cream and all. The important thing isn’t that you never feel shame; it’s that you know what to do with it when it shows up.

Because here’s the truth: no matter how low you feel, your worth is intact. Always.

Shame and self-awareness

It’s very difficult for self-awareness to grow and thrive with shame holding it back. That’s because shame feeds us thoughts that trigger shutdown, withdrawal, and/or numbing behaviors, rather than introspection and discovery. These shame-filled thoughts include things like:

“You never do anything right.”

Shame would have you believe that any mistakes you’ve made in the past will stick with you forever. When you feel shame, you feel as though you make mistakes not because you’re human, but because you’re a bad human. And if you’re a bad human, then you’ll never be able to make different choices or live a better life. You lose hope in yourself. Without that hope, examining your mistakes or weaknesses hurts too much, and when you’re unwilling to honestly examine your behavior, you’re effectively blocked from self-awareness. 

“You don’t deserve happiness.”

This argument gets at the heart of what shame is all about, and it is one of shame’s most powerful tools for getting you to abandon self-awareness. If you believe that you don’t deserve happiness, you aren’t going to try to find it. You aren’t going to see the potential in yourself to be happy. You won’t even want to look for your strengths, because you’ll feel so sure that you won’t find them. Your relationships will suffer as you feel like other people couldn’t possibly love you. In a nutshell, if you believe this lie and tell yourself that you’ll never be happy, you’re probably right—because the lie itself will hold you back from becoming all that you could be.

“Who do you think you are?”

This is arguably shame’s strongest defense mechanism. The moment you start to make progress toward a goal, expect this thought to pop into your head, courtesy of shame. This thought can inspire what’s called Imposter Syndrome. This phenomenon results in you feeling fraudulent, like you’ve fooled yourself and everyone else into thinking that you could actually accomplish something.

Imposter Syndrome is often talked about in a professional capacity, but it can apply in personal situations, too: like parenting (“Who do you think you are, Carol Brady?”), spirituality (“Who do you think you are, the Dalai Lama?”), or intelligence (“Who do you think you are, Einstein?”). Asking “Who do you think you are?” automatically undermines who you actually are, making you feel immediately inadequate.

These tools make shame a tall hurdle to self-awareness. It is very difficult to be driven to self-awareness when you feel deeply ashamed of what you’ll find.

The good news is this: shame is a liar and deceiver. And while you may not be able to rid yourself of shame entirely, you can learn to recognize it and keep fighting for self-awareness (and self-forgiveness) with some arguments of your own. You are actually in the driver’s seat!

Fighting back

You have it within you to push back against shame and keep it under control. It just requires training your brain to think a certain way—designing your thoughts. Here are some counter arguments you can use to keep your shame from taking over your life. This is where we turn this around in our favor.

Shame says: “You never do anything right.”

Respond with: “My mistakes will make me better.”

The important thing about this response is that it doesn’t deny that you make mistakes. Instead, it acknowledges that your mistakes can be used as learning opportunities, rather than as ammunition to shoot your self-esteem down. This mindset shift will give you permission to move forward, mistakes and all, with a sharper awareness of who you are and what you’re capable of. You’ll be able to forgive yourself for falling short, and discover peace in your perfect imperfection.

At Drawbackwards, the CX / UX consulting and innovation firm that I founded 16 years ago, one of our eight core values is “We Are Always Learning.” This is an acknowledgement that we are going to push the status quo, we are going to move quickly and break things, we are going to innovate and grow, and we are going to fail and make mistakes along the creative process. Our mistakes will make the work we do better, it will make our clients stronger and more innovative, it will make their employees and customers more loyal and excited about the services and products offered.

Now, imagine if we were too scared to do great, innovative work. Imagine if we thought we couldn’t do anything right. If we thought that, if we were deceived by those fearful thoughts, we wouldn’t be able to create the millions of dollars in ROI that our clients receive each year.

Being able to compare the person you are now with the person you want to be—without allowing shame to take over—is a powerful catalyst for change.

Shame says: “You don’t deserve happiness.”

Respond with: “I am deserving and worthy. Happiness is mine to create.”

Both statements in this response are important to shutting shame down. First, you need to remind yourself that you are deserving and worthy. Separate your worthiness from your performance. Recognize that your worth comes from simply being alive. 

Think of a newborn baby. What has that baby done to “earn” its worth? What has it done to “deserve” the care of its parents? It is literally incapable of intentionally doing anything, and yet that baby has immense worth and value, because worth and value don’t come from performance. 

What standard are you holding yourself to that makes you think you are undeserving of happiness, love, or acceptance? It’s time to let go of that standard and realize that no matter what you do, good or bad, you always, always have inherent worth. It’s time to be aware of it!

Additionally, it’s important to remember that happiness is yours to create. This isn’t a bunch of psychological mumbo-jumbo—it’s science. Once you realize that you have within you the capacity to design a life you love, you will start to see evidence that it’s true. You’ll become aware of the strengths you have that will help you reach your goals.

This is a great reason to incorporate positive affirmations into your life. These powerful statements will help you start to rewire your brain, to design your thoughts, and help get you in a more positive and confident mindset. 

Shame says: “Who do you think you are?”

Respond with: “I already know who I am—and that’s enough.”

Shame thrives on secrecy and silence. It wants you to close your permanent record file and make sure no one else ever sees it. It wants you to hide from your own unique abilities and inner greatness. Shame wants the things that you are most ashamed of to stay hidden, so that they can continue to eat away at you. 

If you want to fight this, then it’s time to pull out a mirror and face those inner demons. What is holding you back from acknowledging your weaknesses? Why not admit that you aren’t perfect? Why not share something you’re ashamed of with someone you trust? (Chances are, they won’t judge you for it.) In doing this, you’re answering shame’s challenge to see the worst parts of yourself. You’re acknowledging them and naming them, while refusing to pass judgment on yourself for them. You’re revealing who you are, and you’re letting yourself be okay with it. You kill shame with vulnerability.

Shame also wants you to compare yourself to others—to ideal examples of what you want to be—and to judge yourself as coming up short. But the fact is, such a comparison isn’t fair. You will never be someone else, and you aren’t meant to be. You are exactly who you are supposed to be, which means that as long as you are you, you will always be enough. (We talk more about comparison in our discussion on self-doubt, another hurdle to self-awareness.)


Self-awareness requires vulnerability, but shame does its best to silence vulnerability at all costs. By refusing to listen to the lies shame tells you, you can embrace vulnerability, embrace self-awareness, and embrace yourself for who you are, and for all that you are.

You are not your shame. Your shame is not you. It’s time to separate the two—for good. Learning how to design your thoughts is a great place to start.