Shame Stimuli in Adulthood

Well, life is just ram-packed with shame-stimuli. As well as figuring out who you are and what you really want to do with your life, you have to juggle the demands of a social life, relationships, housing, maintenance, a career, hobbies, finances, family, travel, appearances and health. There’s plenty to remind you that you’re not quite where you want to be, and various disconnections could always be around the corner.

Along with the materialist culture we live in, there’s the pressure of achievement.

Not achievements like enlightenment of course, or knowing yourself, or loving someone (or yourself!) whole-heartedly.

Achievements like climbing the competitive career ladder, filling your head with knowledge that you’ll never use, or earning enough wealth to buy all this junk.

Along the way towards those ever elusive lofty goals, you’re not good enough. You haven’t done enough, you don’t know enough, you haven’t earned enough.

There’s a general culture of shaming and blaming, put-downs, mocking and gossip – all caused and spun by the epidemic of shame that already exists. We notice things by their difference, so things that stick out for not being perfect enough become targets for other people’s attention.

Most of this of course isn’t just a cause for shame – its caused by shame.

Because by now, all the shame you’ve gathered in life has been ingrained for years – protecting itself, trying to salvage whatever self-worth it can (even if it means knocking down others), being critical, fault-finding, hiding behind other’s imperfections, forming relationships that won’t really challenge us in the way we’re afraid (but often need).

One person shames another to make themselves feel more powerful – then that wounded person goes and shames another, and so on.

If this all sounds a bit dramatic and far-fetched, then you might be extremely surprised the more you begin to spot shame doing its thing.

Relationships and Marriage

Being able to truly love and accept love is quite an achievement – and something I suspect only a minority of people are really able to reach. To truly love someone, you have to escape yourself.

“We don’t see the world as it is, but as we are.”

Put simply, its so easy for our own bullshit to get in the way of being able to truly know and understand someone.

Where feelings of shame exist, fears of rejection, abandonment and disconnection can easily lead to defensive behaviours. Suspicions, jealousy, anxiety – starting small, but eventually growing into destruction and distancing.

If both people are dominated by feelings of shame, then the results can be explosive. It takes just one moment of a shame-trigger to launch a shame-effect, which then becomes a trigger for the other person, and so on until a horrible argument is exploding. We’ve all seen it, and probably experienced it one time or another.

Feelings of shame can be threatened by various things – shifts in power, status, wealth, confidence, attention from others, distance…

Its not hard to imagine the situation where a girl suddenly gets promoted or has a burst of confidence with a new idea – only for her partner to suddenly start unconsciously punishing her… becoming distant, maybe even cruel – threatened by the shame felt inside, a fear of not being enough.

The same dynamic exists in controlling relationships – where someone controls their partner as part of their shame-based defensiveness. Anything to prevent threats to the shame levels.

I found this on a page for a counselling site:

Are you in a shaming relationship?

Does a significant person in your life (such as a spouse, parent, adult, child, sibling, or supervisor) criticize you often?

Are you in a relationship in which you feel respect is lacking?

Do you feel that a significant person in your life is trying to make himself or herself feel superior at your expense?

Do you often feel publicly humiliated by a significant person?

The obvious effect of a shaming relationship is that both partners will eventually be burdened by shame.

On the other hand, with proper communication and effort at self-awareness, people have a great chance to really alleviate their shame levels and practice shame resilience.

Love conquers all – but only if you allow it to get past those robust defensive walls.


Good friends can be amazing – but poor ones can be total shit. Not only might you find yourself on the bad end of some undercurrent shaming, but you might also find yourself just not being cared or thought about at all.

There’s nothing worse to make yourself feel undervalued and not good enough than friends who just sit around waiting for you to call or invite them out all the time.

The problem is that sometimes we can unconsciously attract people like this into our life because deep down, we don’t feel that we deserve any better.

I read a brilliant thing somewhere on the internet about this recently. It asked the reader to think about three traits from each of five of their most familiar friends. Where those traits overlapped, it was more than likely that it would be a trait that you also share. Something along those lines anyway, but it was fascinating. Basically, your friends reflect you more than you think.

If you surround yourself with people who have limiting self-beliefs and low life expectations, then two things are going to happen:

1) They’re never going to inspire, motivate or encourage you to progress or move forward past boundaries that they themselves would feel threatened by

2) They’re more likely to somehow discourage you from progressing past their limits. The idea of it would make them feel uncomfortable, which they’d project onto you.

I had this housemate once who had some huge anxiety and self-consciousness going on. I once came home with some new glasses, and purposely chose some brazen black rimmed Clark Kent style glasses. I thought “if I’m going to get some new glasses, I’m damn well going to get some glasses, and screw the trendy modern minimalist shit!”

He was visibly uncomfortable with the idea of my glasses, as if he was having to wear them himself. I asked what he thought, and he said “well I wouldn’t wear them”. No shit, Sherlock.  (I’ll add here that plenty of other people I knew thought they were great and suited me – so I wasn’t brought down by his opinion!)

Its a small example, but you catch my drift. I’ve encountered the effect many times – discouragement where people are threatened by their own shame levels. My dad telling me I couldn’t change the brakes on my own car. A friend of a friend telling her that she couldn’t, and shouldn’t, quit pot because “it just wasn’t her” not to smoke. How ridiculous is that? A friend actually identifying someone to their drug habit.

I remember when I was about to go to University, my girlfriend at the time was offered a place at Oxford. I found it really hard to feel happy for her, because I felt threatened by her stepping across a line that was beyond my own expectations. I remember saying “well… are you going to accept it?” and she said “Of course I am!” as if I was stupid to ask. That was a shame trigger for sure – and another example of where shame issues can get in the way of us truly being there for each other.

Its tempting sometimes to recognise that friendships aren’t really working out for us – its a case of take take take without much give. Tempting enough to want to disconnect – as a way of protecting ourselves from further barriers, further drain and further one-way effort.

But then the downside is we’re one step closer to that deep fear of disconnection… Which eventually catches up.

Now in my mid-thirties, I sometimes get really haunted by friends I’ve either consciously not really bothered much with for various reasons, or apathetically let slip through my fingers. It haunts me for a bunch of reasons. The feeling of disconnection is a huge one – I’m not as sociable as I was in my twenties, but then priorities change. I was more desperate for approval and attention back then, and I think that drove a lot of it. Also, I get haunted by how narrow-minded I might have been towards some old friendships. Did I make enough effort to really know them? Did I get put off by their own defensive shame effects, misunderstanding them as many people do? Perhaps they weren’t just lazy, but withdrawn because of how they felt about themselves. Perhaps the people who always talk about themselves and never ask questions are just not very socially aware, and lack empathy, because of shame. Maybe my distancing to free up time and mental energy was actually a horrible thing to do – adding to their shame levels rather than offering true acceptance as a caring friend.

Things happen in the ebbs and flows of life, and its inevitable that some choices and patterns will come back to haunt us. I guess the only real solution is to use the greater awareness in the present, to make sure that mistakes are avoided.


Another minefield of complex relationships, hierarchy, shaming behaviours, pressure and shame-triggers.

Here are a few things which became shame triggers for me during various jobs:

  • If I did good, hard work, I ended up feeling like an exploited slave, and not good enough for being weak.
  • If I messed about and got distracted into small-talk like everyone else, I felt weak and bored for not working more. I used to hate the drive home after days like that, feeling like I’d just truly wasted the day.
  • I would get caught up in analysis of the hierarchy, thinking it unfair that frontline staff worked harder whilst management would be lazy and rest on their laurels, but get paid much more.
  • The lack of recognition and feedback my team got about performance made us feel undervalued and disrespected – adding to shame levels as being just a small, forgotten cog in a bigger machine.
  • Whilst stuck in traffic jams with all the other schmucks on the way and on the way home, I felt shame for just selling my days.
  • I had a big problem with selling my time. Not feeling challenged enough, being in the wrong career, not knowing what I really wanted to do… I felt shame for all of this, as if I wasn’t good enough, not like everyone else, to get my life all sorted out.
  • The shaming behaviour, gossiping and massive criticisms that were thrown about made me feel awful. Sometimes people would just look out of the window and randomly rip into a total stranger walking down the road. It was all done in the spirit of fun, but in hindsight it was pretty horrible and I doubt anyone came out of those situations feeling better about themselves.

The workplace is rife with shame causes and triggers, and probably deserves a page of its own!

Later in life

Just when you think you’re getting somewhere, able to mask the fearful shame levels well enough with all your fabulous earnings, zany distractions and recognised achievements… life takes a turn.

You start losing your hair – not masculine enough.

Start relying more and more on makeup or surgery to look “beautiful” – not feminine enough.

Start getting wrinkles or getting joint pains – not young enough.

Start getting fat – not attractive enough.

Start seeing the consequences of your own children’s shame levels – not a good enough parent.

But hopefully not.

There’s still time to practice shame resilience, to become more self-aware, to practice empathy, to get to truly know people better, to listen more than talk, to talk more honestly and openly about feelings, to feel good enough for being just who you are.

Really, there’s still time.

Share your story

Hopefully you can relate to some causes or triggers of shame in your life… and might feel courageous enough to tell us about it. Join the discussion and share your story!

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