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What Is Shame-Based Thinking And How To Heal It

Updated: Oct 6, 2021

"Humans are most afraid of two things - death and public speaking."

In fact, there was a poll done by The Times UK, asking 2,000 people to rank out of ten how scared they were by a list of phobias. One of the surprising results was that "public speaking" was actually ranked higher than "death of family members".

How can speaking in public be so life-threatening? This interesting result reveals so much about the compelling power of shame, that has been fully authorised by our fear of being judged and ostracised by our own tribe.


In Emotional Healing Therapy, the trapped emotion of "shame" is described as a painful feeling of having done something wrong or dishonourable, resulting in a sense of humiliation and disgrace or regret.

While we may think that the feeling of shame only occurs in major traumas such as sexual violation, abuse or deaths, it is not the case.

Shame can be experienced even in seemingly non-threatening life events such as failing an exam, being caned by parents as a kid or a husband finding out that he is earning less than his wife.

The intensity of shame is not simply measurable by the incident type but by how much the person attaches the shame emotion to the event.

When the emotional attachment of "shame" becomes chronic, not only will it lead to more painful emotions such as guilt and depression, but it will also develop the habit of shame-based thinking, shame-based personality and behaviour.


Shame-based thinking is the thought pattern where one strongly believes that there is always something wrong with oneself. This negative self-judgment often led to the notion of feeling undeserving, unworthy and everything that is done will always turn out bad.

When this automated, subconscious thinking habit is then being constantly applied to work, in relationships and even onto one's own wellbeing, that is where the whole shame-based personality comes alive.

There are no official statistics to show how severe shame-based personality is in our population, but we all know how common it is.

Here are a few signs that shame-based thinking is active in the subconscious mind:

  • Always fearful of how people think about you

  • Worried that you are not treated with respect

  • Often feeling rejected and unwanted

  • Feel used and unappreciated

  • Afraid of receiving love and happiness

  • Uncomfortable to admit your own strengths and values (sometimes even feeling disgusted for claiming you are good)

  • Disbelief that your life will ever turn out wonderful

  • Convinced that you will never get what you want

Some of you may look at this list and felt surprised that these are signs of shame. Perhaps you may think that these belong to emotions such as low self-esteem, guilt, regret, lack of confidence, feeling unworthy or just plain pessimism.

Well, of course, our emotions are not singular but often coupled by multiple feelings. However, if we dig deeper, we will often realise that at the bottom of the root, is the emotion of shame triggered by incidents that had made us felt humiliated and disreputable.


Forgotten but not gone.

Do not be surprised that when we shouted a big "NO!" to a toddler who is trying to grab the flower vase on the table, we can be triggering a shame-based memory in his little mind.

This shame can be diffused, if the parent walks over immediately, cuddle the crying toddler and explain the reason is to protect him from breaking the vase and hurting himself.

However, parents who are less affectionate, may miss this essential step and left the hurt toddler crying. Or worse, continued to shout at him and reprimand his bad behaviour.

This toddler may not be able to recall the incident in his later years, but this shame-experience will remain stored in the implicit part of his memory.

Depending on how repetitive such experiences are, the mind will memorise the shame responses and develop into future shame-based thinking of "I am doing something wrong again".

Hence, do not underestimate your infancy and childhood experiences which may have attributed to a large extent of your resistance to feeling worthy and loved.


Avoid and Approach.

When shame-based thinking becomes a well-memorised pattern in our body and mind, there are two possible outcomes in our behaviour. We either avoid or approach shame or both.

Avoidance behaviour is the strong resistance and fear to leave a self-designated "protective zone". For example, we may be fearful to raise our hand and volunteer ourselves when there is an opportunity at work to lead a new project, believing that we will mostly screw up the task and humiliate ourselves. The possibility of feeling embarrassment overpowers the possibility of feeling glory.

Another example, when entering a new love relationship, we automatically become so uptight and cautious of "not doing the wrong thing". We become overly sensitive and insecure when we do not see affection or approval from our partner.

On the otherhand, shame-based thinking may draw us into more shaming experiences which we call an "approach" behaviour. We can commonly see stories of a sexually abused woman who tend to get into more abusive relationships.

This compelling attraction to approach more shaming is driven by well memorised shame-based thinking. It becomes an automated choice and desire to repeat the experience again and again, despite the pain. In a sense, the chronic shame has turned into an addiction.


Shame-based thinking is one of the most challenging patterns to unwire, but changing it is not impossible.

However, it cannot be simply done on the cognitive level. To unplug, we will need to tap into the implicit part of our memories, to release them from our storage system.

To stop ourselves from reliving our past shame, we need to be able to retrieve past experiences that have inflicted shame-reactions in us.

By doing so, we will be able to bring conscious awareness to this root cause and deprogram them accordingly.

We will also need to look for our automated patterns or procedural memories in our shame-based thinking. Meaning, what are our automated reactions, thoughts, emotions, body sensations when a "shame event" happen?

For example, whenever your manager ignored what you said in a meeting, take note of your immediate reactions across your body, heart and mind. Spot this pattern and you will be able to work on breaking this chain reaction.

Shame and love cannot co-exist.

Finally, the fire of shame can only be put out by the water of love. Working towards authentic self-love is the key to transforming the pain of shame into newfound perspectives of oneself.

This blog is inspired by my recent passion for studying trauma and shame emotion. However, as I go through the symptoms and signs, I realised that shame is more epidemic than we know. I hope this article brings positive awareness in understanding emotional behaviour and therein, enable all of us to be in better control of our emotions, to become emotionally empowered.


Silvia Siow | Emotional Healer & Coach | Certified Emotion Code™ Practitioner

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