Beyond Shame – Shame, Self-Esteem & Happiness

By Lorraine Le, October 29, 2023

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Beyond Shame is a mission-driven column, aimed at destigmatizing difficult human experiences, offering insights and strategies to empower personal growth, healing, and deeper connections.

In the ever-evolving discussion around self-esteem and happiness, it's meaningful to trace our own, individual origins of shame. 

From our early, impressionable days, we’re often handed a menu of societal expectations: a mix of subtle glances, well-meaning advice, the occasional side-eyed comment and – perhaps most profoundly – generational traumas and familial norms around expressing our emotions that set the foundation of how we will respond to emotionally charged experiences later in life.

Our shame sensors, you see, aren't part of the factory settings we're born with. They're cultivated, nurtured, and – ultimately – imprinted on our core beliefs when we fail to gain perspective and awareness.

I often wish we could internalize the wisdom of Fred Rogers, who once so beautifully quipped, "Anything that is human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable."

Yet, as I reflect on the enigma of our deepest struggles, I'm constantly reminded of an unsettling truth; those very battles that consume us, the ones we most desperately need to overcome, are often left unspoken, tucked away behind the 'me' we show up as in the world. Are they not an integral part of the shared human experience?

If our connections form our foundation for happiness, and the depth of our connections are determined by the level of open and authentic communication we engage in, I can’t help but wonder – in a world that seems to confine what's ‘mentionable’ to a carefully curated list of society's approved themes – just how happy can we truly be?

And so, the conundrum of shame emerges. While various factors shape our individual experiences, psychologists generally agree that our instinct to avoid situations that trigger shame is a protective mechanism linked to our pleasure-pain response. In simpler terms, we tend to avoid discussing our sources of shame to safeguard our happiness.

Over time, however, unprocessed difficult life experiences and traumas can erode our self-esteem, hindering our ability to experience life in a way that is fulfilling and true to our authentic selves. In more extreme circumstances, this can even lead to further adversities and struggles with our mental health.

So what exactly are some of the difficult life experiences we should seek to understand on a deeper level? I’ve included a few below.

Punishment, Neglect or Abuse

Our early life experiences can leave lasting imprints on how we perceive ourselves. Punishment, neglect, or abuse during childhood can result in emotional and psychological scars, leading to negative self-beliefs. When children face unpredictable, extreme punishment, abandonment, or mistreatment, they often develop a distorted self-image.

Struggling to Meet High Parental Standards

Constant criticism or a focus on weaknesses rather than strengths can also take a toll. Parents, caregivers, or family members who habitually criticize, rarely acknowledge successes, or tease and belittle their children can contribute to negative self-perception.

Feeling Like an Outsider

Being the odd one out within the family or at school can deeply affect self-esteem. Children who possess unique interests, talents, or skills that differ from their siblings or peers, yet go unnoticed, might come to believe they are strange or inferior. Meanwhile, the accomplishments of others are celebrated, further fueling negative self-perception.

Peer Pressure & Physical Appearance

During late childhood and adolescence, interactions with peers play a pivotal role. Societal emphasis on physical appearance can lead young people who don't meet conventional beauty standards to believe they are unattractive or unlikeable. Teasing or ridicule from peers about their appearance, such as body weight or skin problems, can reinforce negative self-beliefs.

Bearing the Brunt of Family Stress

Families facing stressful situations may inadvertently shift their focus away from their children. In such circumstances, children may experience frustration, anger, anxiety, or negativity from their parents or caregivers. These experiences can contribute to lowered self-esteem.

The Social Perception of Your Family

Our family's standing in society also affects self-perception. If your family or social group is stigmatized, ostracized, or subjected to prejudice, it can influence your self-image.

A Lack of Positive Experiences

An absence of positive experiences can erode self-esteem. Whether due to a lack of attention, praise, warmth, or affection, such experiences can mold negative self-beliefs. Emotionally distant parents, physically unaffectionate caregivers, or a lack of emotional nourishment can shape self-perception.

The Weight of Trauma

Traumatic experiences, which are often shrouded in pain and distress, can have a profound impact on how we perceive ourselves. Whether stemming from accidents, abuse, violence, or loss, these events can leave deep emotional wounds, imprinting negative self-beliefs and hindering self-esteem. The weight of trauma can cast a long shadow on our path to self-acceptance and genuine connections with others.

It's crucial to understand that people react to experiences in diverse ways. While certain events, like trauma, might not greatly affect one person's self-esteem or emotional well-being, they can be profoundly distressing for someone else.

What truly matters is how these events have affected you personally. If you find yourself burdened by a profound sense of shame or struggle to open up when reflecting on specific life experiences, it's a good indication that there may be underlying emotional wounds requiring your attention.

Happiness is not the absence of pain or difficulties in life; rather, it is a state of well-being and contentment that comes when we develop the resilience and coping skills to navigate difficult experiences in effective and healthy ways. 

Research shows that people who face and address their emotional wounds, past traumas, and sources of shame tend to enjoy higher levels of happiness, as they develop a deeper understanding of themselves, stronger emotional connections, and greater self-acceptance.

This capacity to embrace both joy and suffering, and to live a life that openly embraces both the positive and difficult, is essential to finding genuine happiness in our lives.


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Lorraine Le is the Founder of Mental Health platform Inward Living, and CEO of The Kindness Dealer, a confidential and bespoke consultancy that specializes in in-depth sessions for people to gain a 'birds-eye view' of their struggles and the influences that have and continue to shape them. 

To get in touch or follow her advocacy and work, contact Lorraine through the WeChat ID: growwithlorraine or follow @growwithlorraine on Instagram, and @growwithlorraine on YouTube.

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[Cover image courtesy of Lorraine Lee]

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