How To Control Shame


There’s a common misconception that shame inevitably has a negative impact.

But for Burgo, if has a valuable place in our experience. ‘In my 35 years of practicing psychotherapy, the most important lesson I have learned is the road to authentic self-esteem passes through the land of shame and never entirely leaves it,’ he says. How? Our encounters with shame provide us with opportunities for growth, development and self-fulfilment. Indeed, Burgo believes shame has a central role in our everyday lives; we just disguise it with other names such as anxiety, low selfesteem or depression. But, however it reveals itself, avoiding shame has a price…

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From an evolutionary point of view, shame evolved to prevent antisocial behaviour and promote the survival of the tribe.

On a personal level, however, ‘our sense of shame may hold us accountable, encouraging us to behave in ways that conform to our own ideals and to those of society,’ says Burgo. Ignore the lessons it has to teach us and we are in danger of forgetting our own internal values. Shame has the potential to remind us of who we are and who we want to become.


Take your mind back to the last time you felt a sense of embarrassment or humiliation. Perhaps you re-gifted an unwanted Christmas present to a friend only to discover she gave you something really thoughtful, or maybe you rushed a work job because you wanted to go to the gym before if got really busy. Feeling shame, and the accompanying guilt that comes with it, helps pave the way for an alternative scenario – next time buying a gift from the heart or committing to do your best at work. ‘When you fulfil your goals, even small ones, you usually feel good about yourself,’ says Burgo. ‘You develop self-respect by living up to your own values and expectations, and self-respect is the antidote to feelings of shame.’


The development of self-esteem has three elements according to Burgo: purposeful behaviour; pride in achievement; and shared joy. This latter aspect is particularly important. When we share positive feelings, our self-regard, the antidote to shame, increases. As Burgo says: ‘Our pride in our achievement goes deeper when we share our joy with the people who matter most to us.’ Something to bear in mind when making plans for the new year?

WORDS: Eve Boggenpoel PHOTOGRAPHY: iStock

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