Feb 15

A Brief Observation on Shame

Shame and Identity

Shame and Identity

After reading my last article someone sent me the following comment:

When someone asks me what I do or a living, I feel a certain degree of shame. It feels like I am not only afraid of being judged by others, but I am afraid of judging my own identity.

Shame is a dangerous and destructive emotion and warrants further discussion. First the difference between guilt and shame:


Guilt is painful feelings arising from what we do.


Shame is painful feelings arising from what we are.


If we are feeling shame because of our job or career choice it is because we have identified with it. It is who we are.


Shame can be the result of both internal and external forces. One can be ashamed of their career because it conflicts with their morals, or alternatively because it evokes the disappointment of their parents, for example. One is internal shame; the other is from an external event or situation.


Shame is a much more toxic and insidious emotion than guilt. It permeates us because it is us. It’s much more difficult to untangle from.


It is very different to feel guilty about letting your parents down than to feel ashamed for becoming something they disapprove of.


When we are our job we can feel shame. When our job is instead something we do, but not who we are, at most we can feel guilt.


This is the darker side of the coin because there is no external escape. Eliminating the shame comes only from destroying the identity, and sometimes this destroys the person in the process. At the extreme is suicide, which many times is triggered by shame.


Let go of this identity – but slowly. If the shame is deep enough sometimes we cannot face it alone. Know thyself.
I think it is useful to explore the source of the shame, either on our own or with the help of a therapist. Once we acknowledge something and see it clearly, often it is not as intimidating.


Some people spend their whole lives battling shame without even realizing it.


If therapy and self-introspection are ineffective, we can always turn to the wisdom of Fight Club.

You are not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis. You are all singing, all dancing crap of the world.

-Tyler Durden



Photo: Pixabay


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  1. I feel there’s no shame in what I do, but I don’t like telling someone that I just met what it is that I do for a living. I don’t want any preconceived notion to color the way I am perceived.

    When it comes up in the first ten minutes of conversation, I’ll just say I work at the hospital. But that’s vague, so there’s a pause on the verge of becoming awkward, when I fill in the blank… “I’m an anesthesiologist.” I’m proud of that fact, but it doesn’t define me, and I’d just as soon be known as a homebrewer of decent beer, world traveler, or guy who can’t tolerate country music.

    1. Yes, I know exactly the feelings you describe. My hypothesis is that this is actually a healthy response when it is not rooted in shame. It is the brain rejecting job as identity and wanting to tell the world that it is defined by something else.

      For the record I’m not a huge fan of country music either, but after recently jamming with a few buddies on guitar and playing a few country songs I may have to expand my scope a bit 😉

  2. My business card says, “Writer and physician.”

    Most people are startled. “What? You’re a doctor?”
    And “Why do you put that second?”

    Usually, I hand the card out as a writer. As an emergency doctor, it should be obvious who I am–and if it’s not, it’s usually because the patient was expecting a man.

    I play the doctor card when I have to. I just don’t want it to be my only card. Just like I’m not only my khaki’s–which I don’t own, by the way. Too boring. Love that quote. Excellent article and comments.

    1. Thanks for the comment Melissa!

      I don’t have a business card, but now you’ve got me thinking what I would put on it…

      Philosopher maybe?

  1. […] a little disappointed and the wholesale destruction of our ego. When we are a failure we introduce shame into the equation, and this is one of the most destructive emotions there […]

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