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  • Writer's pictureEdmund Ng

B04a: Shame (Part 1): Surfacing from its Hiddenness

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

Anne, a final-year university student, is still depressed after seeing a psychiatrist and a student counselor for over one year. Another lady by the name of Patty has been for years repeatedly washing her hands as a compulsive behavior after going to the toilet or bathroom. On the other hand, Norman often physically abuses his wife at home. Another man called Alex is addicted to gambling and his family is on the verge of breaking up.

What etiology do the four cases possibly have in common? In the latest scientific research on human emotions, psychologists have now identified the often-unspoken emotion of shame as the root cause of a wide range of mental health pathologies. Among them are depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, physical abuse, and addiction, as highlighted in the above four cases.

What is shame?

So, what is shame? In the field of psychology, shame is simply feeling bad about oneself. Shame is experienced when there is a gap between the true self and the ideal self. A bigger gap means there is a propensity for more shame.

As part of our human nature, all humans are created with a propensity for shame. As we grow up, we will experience further incidents of shame. Similar shaming incidents, without the adequate resolution of their potential damage to the core self, will add to the internal collages of shame in our memories, thus magnifying their effect to an extent in which a further trigger will become so unbearable that the person will unconsciously suppress the unpleasantness of the shame from surfacing.

The suppression is done through the adoption of defense mechanisms. A defense mechanism is basically an unconscious process that protects an individual from inner anxiety-provoking, unacceptable or distressing psychic experiences.

Defense mechanisms against shame

For example, the defense mechanism of withdrawal is a strategy whereby by becoming virtually invisible, silent, secretive, or isolated, one can stay away from the scrutiny and judgment of others, both physically and psychologically, so that the person will not run the risk of being shamed.

However, the unconscious or habitual overuse of the same defense mechanism will result in the manifestation of certain psychological symptoms which are regarded by society as abnormal or dysfunctional by its standards.

In this instance, the overuse of the withdrawal strategy will often give rise to symptoms of isolation and subsequent depression (as in the case of Ann) as one type of its external manifestation. The other manifestations include shyness, evasiveness, loneliness, superficiality, emotionally unavailable, stuttering, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, hyper shame vigilant, highly sensitive to rejection, isolation, low self-esteem, agoraphobia, sexual abstinence, impotence, or frigidity.

The defense mechanism of attack-self involves the intentional derogation of the self to be differential, compliant or submissive to others in order to gain approval, avoid the fear of abandonment, or deaden the inadequate self to annihilate the shame within.

The overuse of the attack-self strategy will often give rise to symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (as in the case of Patty) as one type of its external manifestation. The other manifestations include self-neglect, self-humiliation, deference, self-injury, self-debasement, masochism, bulimia, anorexia, refusing medication, self-mortification, or suicidal ideation

The defense mechanism of attack-other is done through projecting one’s shame onto others and shaming them by becoming aggressive to overpower them or elicit superiority so as to escape one’s own shame.

The overuse of the attack-other strategy will often give rise to symptoms of physical abuse (as in the case of Norman) as one type of its external manifestations. The other manifestations include bully, teasing, insults, rage, sarcasm, hostility, intimidation, aggression, violence, murder, domestic and sexual abuse, exploitation, vandalism, antisocial behaviors, or rape.

The defense mechanism of avoidance seeks to distract or redirect one’s focus through activities, enhanced body image, possessions, or competency to cover up the defective self in an effort to disown or disavow the unbearable feelings of shame.

The overuse of the avoidance strategy will often give rise to symptoms of addiction (as in the case of Alex) as one type of its external manifestation. The other manifestations include arrogance, self-deception, narcissism, grandiosity, addiction to alcohol, sex, drugs, exercise or food, insatiable wealth accumulation and consumer spending, exhibitionism, competitive comparisons, religious mysticism, thrill-seeking or risk-taking behaviors, perfectionism, pathological lying, or inner emptiness.

Hiddenness of shame

So, the abnormal or dysfunctional behaviors that we see in some people are the result of their unconscious and habitual overuse of a certain defense mechanism adopted to suppress the hidden shame within the self so that it will not surface.

There are at least three reasons why we do not want our hidden shame to surface. The first reason is that experiencing shame is unpleasant, and in many cases, the shame can be so intense or acute that it can even be emotionally painful just to feel it.

Secondly, we can be ashamed for experiencing our shame. This shame of shame arises out of our anxiety of being assessed as “less than” others. Hence, we regulate what we reveal about ourselves to be on the safe side to avoid risking ourselves from being further shamed.

Thirdly, the secondary emotions triggered off by shame are often those that we will readily admit, talk about, or rectify. For example, if we feel guilt instead of shame, we can make amends for our guilt by asking for forgiveness. With shame, there is no ready or easy remedy. Thus, we prefer to suppress our shame and not let it surface.

How to surface hidden shame?

Even though shame is the root cause of many psychological problems, the person suffering from the maladaptive or dysfunctional symptoms that arose from it often has no clue what ultimately causes those problems. To address the psychological problem, we must make the connection between the external symptoms and the hidden shame through the defense mechanism. Making this connection will help us surface the shame from its hiddenness for us to attend to it. In fact, it is the secrecy of shame’s hiddenness that maintains and perpetuates its power to torment us. Any other interventions to address the external symptoms will only serve to control or manage them without eliminating the root cause.

Indeed, surfacing the hidden shame will grant insight to the sufferer that it is the underlying shame that is the root cause of the person’s maladaptive or dysfunctional symptoms. With such insight, the person will understand the factors at play and the connection between them. They will then be more open to work with the therapist to surface the hidden shame.

The key to this process is that shame has a social nature connected to our human need for belonging and to be included as part of a social group. When our secured social bond is threatened, shame is evoked within those social contexts. This takes place whether it involves an actual interpersonal interaction or merely a perceived one when we are talking about it to another person. In other words, hidden shame is more readily accessed by our awareness and admitted when our attention is directed at the social context involving some interpersonal interactions, whether real or imagined.


As an illustration, we can help Anne, who is suffering from depression, to see her hidden shame as the root cause of her mental illness by linking it to her defense mechanism of withdrawal. If we frame our question in a social context involving some interpersonal interactions, she will be able to make the connection more readily to surface the hidden shame within her, as in: “You said that you feel isolated, anxious, and depressed when you are unable to understand what is being taught in your classes. What is preventing you from reaching out to consult with your professors or even your coursemates to clarify what you do not understand?” The social context involves the interpersonal interactions with her professors and coursemates.

The same can be explored with Patty, Norman and Alex to help them surface their hidden shame. A more detailed description of the intervention in each of the four cases is given in our following SSC Blog entitled Shame (Part 2): Resolving Hidden Shame Part 2, accessible at

20 Sep 2022

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