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You Don’t Have to Live in Shame


I often write about shame because it’s such a misunderstood, potentially debilitating emotion. Recently, I took a webinar on shame resilience through the Relational Life Foundation, an outstanding presentation about both personal and cultural shame. 

What increases shame’s insidiousness is well framed by therapist and author Terry Real as a view of the world in which people are either one up or one down from each other. From this perspective, people lack the same innate worth and are valued only by societally agreed upon standards of beauty, achievement, courage, self-discipline, talent, wealth, etc. This view is so ingrained in us by our families, educational systems, and the media (especially social media nowadays), that we grow up thinking it is the only (and undeniably correct) way to measure ourselves and others. This invalid one-up/one-down construct is both rooted in and results in shame.

Clients routinely come to therapy overly focused on their perceived defects and complaining about feeling less than others, that is, unable to hold the self in high regard as a flawed person. That’s really all self-esteem or self-worth is. For perfectionists, this may seem like an oxymoron, that is, highly regarding something that’s defective. Well, that’s all we’ve got, folks: perfectly imperfect or imperfectly perfect human selves. 

People spend their lives struggling to avoid feeling one down. Viewing themselves as run of the mill doesn’t cut it, so they strive to be better than others, to feel one-up on them (Real’s books provide a finely tuned explanation of the dynamic). We call these folks narcissists and again, the root and result of their self-misperception is shame.

So, if you’re not one-down or -up with people, where are you? How ‘bout squarely on the level of everyone else in terms of inherent worth? This has nothing to do with your achievements or talents or lack thereof. You rid yourself of shame by embracing the joy of knowing you’re no better nor worse than the next person. Try that on for size for just a moment and see how it feels. I love the feeling because it comforts me when I make mistakes and brings me down to earth when I get caught up in exceptionalism. All you need for high self-regard is to be born on this planet. That’s the only ticket required!

To read more on shame, check out:,,