Shame and Emotional Intelligence

Art Sponseller, JD, PCC, Senior Executive Coach,

“I am ashamed of myself!”  

How often do you hear those words in the executive suite? You will hear “It’s a shame” or “That’s a shame” but rarely “I am ashamed.”  

We all feel shame. We all feel it when we know we’ve done something wrong, messed up, or made a mistake. For some individuals, feelings of shame can be so strong as to cause the feeling “I am the mistake.” Shame can contribute to success, strong values, and hard work.

The good news is that shame gives us a sense of humility. It helps us admit when we are wrong. And, when we have wronged others, it helps us to own up to it and to stay in relationship with that person(s). This vulnerability is difficult for most of us but is essential to maintaining effective relationships with our family, friends, and colleagues. It is shame that helps say “I am sorry.”

Without shame we would come off to others as not accepting responsibility for our contributions to an issue or situation. We would be the Teflon person to whom nothing sticks.

Too much shame can lead us to assume responsibility for everything that goes wrong around us. In other cases it can lead to meet an impossibly high set of values we impose on ourselves and those around us.

When we feel guilt or culpability, when we feel embarrassed, disgraced, or mortified, we are feeling shame. Asking ourselves, at the moment, why we are feeling this way can help. Understanding why can help us sort out our actual responsibility. Advice from trusted others can often help us sort out our level of actual responsibility. 

Some techniques to manage significant feelings of shame include —

  • Notice you are caught in a negative thinking pattern.
  • Get up and move, take a walk, go out for fresh air.
  • Say your negative self-talk out loud — helps to you to see you are not your negative thoughts. 
  • Call a friend or change your focus in a way that is tactile, work with your hands.
  • Recall and acknowledge something you did for which you are pleased.
  • Practice gratitude; think of three things for which you are grateful.


Source: Learning in Action, Bethesda, MD 20816