How To Deal With Shame: lessons from a painful emotion

On a mild mid-January day in Los Angeles, over 50 years ago, ten-year-old Joseph Burgo was drawing in his bedroom when he heard his father’s car pull up in the driveway, an hour earlier than usual. 

Excited, he put his pencil down and went out to greet him.

“Get your shorts on,” his father said as he came through the front door. “I’m taking you to the Little League tryouts.”

Joseph blinked in surprise. He was thrilled to be receiving some rare attention from his father. He rushed and put on his shorts and went along to the tryouts. Not surprisingly, he failed miserably.

“I was in tears as we drove home,” Burgo, who is now 63, told me. “I felt my dad was ashamed of me.”

Although Burgo’s Italian-born father worked hard as a builder and financially provided for his family Burgo also felt neglected by his father.

Photo credit: Kat Jayne

“I’ve struggled with core shame my entire life,” Burgo told me. “The residue of growing up with a toxic mother and an absent father.”

This sense of shame, in addition to struggling with his sexuality as a teenager, meant that by the time Burgo entered university at the age of 18, he was deeply depressed and feeling suicidal. Thankfully, he recognised he needed help.

“I went in search of therapy,” Burgo said.

Photo credit: Cottonbro

It may seem superfluous to talk about shame in an era marked by selfies and Instagram posts. Yet it seems that we’ve never hated ourselves more.

Photo credit: Laura Smith

Globally over the last decade, while people are projecting their smiling emojis over social media, the rate of depression and other serious mental health issues has continued to rise, according to the World Health Organisation.

The Macquarie Dictionary defines shame as “The painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonourable, improper, ridiculous, etc. done by oneself or another”.

Harry Hustig, a South Australian-based psychiatrist with more than 30 years’ experience, says that shame can be limiting when we let it get in the way of the bigger picture.   

“Shame and embarrassment about the fact that they need help is certainly one of the barriers people with mental health issues need to overcome,” he told me.

Photo credit: John Hain

“The first thing is to actually have a look at why the person has developed this construct. And then to slowly re-model it. Life is hard and accepting that it’s hard for each of us means that we can work at a solution for the individual.”

Establishing a sense of self-esteem and pride in one’s own achievements is no easy task. Instead of being reliant on how other people view you as a source of self-worth, Burgo, who went on to become a psychotherapist and best-selling author, advocates setting your own achievable goals and allowing yourself justifiable pride when they are reached.

“Self-respect … must be earned,” he says. “It is an achievement rather than an entitlement. When you work long and hard for something that matters to you, when you finally achieve your goal, perhaps after enduring frustration and repeated set-backs, the experience of pride and pleasure will lay down memories that last a lifetime,” he says.

Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio

Clinical psychologist and director of the Mindfulness-integrated Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Institute in Hobart, Dr Bruno Cayoun, says that shame can be a great teacher if we look at it objectively.

“It is important to differentiate healthy shame, unhealthy shame and guilt,” says Cayoun. “Healthy shame is an evolutionary feature embedded within the human psychological make-up that assists in the survival of the species by providing an inbuilt ethical system.”

Cayoun says that we need to be aware of the physical sensations associated with shame because it is these feelings which emerge that give us the motivation to change.

“Our reactivity to shame may take the form of catastrophic and ruminative thinking, social withdrawal, or using alcohol and other drugs to prevent discomfort associated with the experience,” Cayoun says. “Once we are more objective and less emotionally reactive, we need to acknowledge our responsibility for what we did. Taking responsibility is an empowering process.”

Burgo wants his readers to remember that maintaining healthy self-esteem is a lifelong process.

“My oldest son Will said to me one day, ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself’,” he said. “To hear a beloved child correctly call you out for self-pity can be extremely motivating!”  


  • Self-awareness: the first step towards personal growth is to become aware of our present experience, especially how what we feel is only created by our thoughts.  
  • Acceptance: once we are aware of what causes us to feel shame we need to prevent reacting and over-focussing on our self-image.
  • Acknowledging fault: when we are more objective and less emotionally reactive, we need to acknowledge our responsibility and understand the consequence of our action.
  • Being kind to yourself: we are usually more likely to be harsher on ourselves than towards someone else in a similar situation and need to be kinder to ourselves. 

Suvi Mahonen is a Surfers Paradise-based journalist. Her work appears in The Australian, the Australian Quarterly, Mamamia and other health and lifestyle publications. Follow her on Facebook, YouTube and online art-selling platform Redbubble.

Feature photo credit: Gerd Altmann

3 Replies to “How To Deal With Shame: lessons from a painful emotion”

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