Secrecy and shame: How shame creates secrets

By Motlagae Konyana

We live in a society and often come from communities whose rules, values and standards are predefined by other people.   Many of these rules and standards can be difficult to live up to and the general tone of others is that if one does not fit in, cue ostracisation and judgement. Shame, in these instances, is not only something used as a way to perpetuate this, but also something is experienced and hidden by many people.

As Brene Brown says “Shame is, ‘ I am bad’, guilt is ‘I did something bad” Shame is linked with withdrawal/ escaping/ avoidance whereas with guilt one may focus on behaviours that attempt to repair – “making things right” 

Living with or in shame is not easy. The stigma of breaking a family or community rule or acting in a way that does not align with a family legacy, virtue or expectation can impact the trajectory of a person’s life. Shame can be the reason people choose not to take steps towards healing. Shame is also something that leads to secrets which in turn breeds more shame and continues this unhealthy cycle.

“Some may argue that there is negative shame and there is positive or healthy shame. However, I am of the opinion that shame is generally not positive or helpful”  says clinical psychologist Teboho S Monyamane.

The Impact of living in shame and secrecy

People who live with shame often feel worthless, depressed, and anxious.
Shame can be a contributing factor in Mental Health conditions such depression,  anxiety and low self-esteem that may cause more emotional imbalance.  People who are constantly ashamed live out a difficult emotional and mental battle daily.

People who live with shame and secrecy suppress their emotions and feelings.

Shame is associated with suppression of emotions, particularly in women.  For example in the Indian Community being a divorcee that is dating is seen as taboo and people see you as bringing shame to your ex-husband’s family and to your family so these woman generally suppress how they feel] People who feel ashamed of who they are or ashamed of something that happened to them often keep their thoughts and feelings wrapped up inside.  Fear of being judged or ostracisedadds to this burden.

People who live with shame are more likely to relapse back into problematic behavior.

Research shows in the Japanese Journal of shame and guilt that people who struggle with drug abuse are more likely to relapse back into taking drugs if they experience shame. People who are ashamed of their behavior sometimes purposefully continue that behavior because they don’t believe that change or healing is possible. People who live with shame believe they are worthless, and so they often begin to treat themselves as though they are worthless by engaging in behaviors that they know are bad for their health and well-being.

People who live with shame are less likely to take healthy risks.

People who deal with shame sometimes only make decisions about jobs, relationships, and school that they feel certain will end well. One way that shame has been conceptualized is as a defense against being devalued by others.” Shame keeps people from making decisions that would lead others to devalue them. Sometimes this leads to avoiding healthy risks.


People who live with shame often avoid relationships and community.

Research shows Japanese Journal of shame and guilt that shame leads people to hide and self-conceal. People who feel ashamed hide from community and friendship which then makes them feel unloved and without a sense of belonging. They avoid vulnerability and never share their true selves with the world.

A Way Out of Shame

  1. Enter relationships that allow vulnerability in a way that is safe. Do everything in your power to find community where you can relate and where you won’t be judged. Shame begins to disappear when it is shared in a safe place where you feel loved and like you belong.
  2. Be kind and patient with yourself, develop self-compassion. Consider what you would say to a friend who was feeling the same things you feel,  don’t judge yourself. Begin to respond to yourself with love and care and concern, just as you would respond to others with love and care and concern.
  3. Take one small risk. Attempt something that might end in failure according to the community or yourself.  Do something for yourself.  Do something that is difficult. You will either succeed and find hope that you can do more than you thought. Or, you might fail and realize that failure isn’t the end of the world. Either way, you begin to find healing for your shame.


One of the best places to take these steps is with a qualified mental health care practitioner or a support group. The first step is reaching out.


Shame and guilt are both unpleasant emotions. Shame involves a negative self-evaluation where you have failed to meet the standards of your ideal self” says clinical psychologist  Monyamane 

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