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From Shame to Self-Esteem

shame to self esteemMelissa continues to struggle with the challenges of her new job, vacillating between fear that she won’t be able to master the new skills and contempt for how “stupid and trivial” it all seems to her. We talked about her scorn as a defense: when she can’t bear the fear of failure, when it all seems so overwhelming to her, she take flight into contempt. The indifference she sometimes expresses is, in fact, a variation on this theme, where “not caring” reflects an underlying scorn which is equally defensive. The challenge, as we often find, is believing that she might grow little by little over time and gradually get better at something; she usually believes that she must know everything already or she’s a hopeless failure.

Later in the session, Melissa told me she felt bad about the chaos in her life: the uncertainty as to where she’s to live, the loss of her debit and health cards, etc. When her friends tease her and say, “You’re such a mess,” she laughs in the same light-hearted vein but it really upsets her. It makes her feel ashamed but she doesn’t know what to do about how disorganized and undisciplined she feels. This is the flip-side of contempt and indifference: underneath, she feels a hopeless kind of shame about her difficulties. She talked about the many things she needs to take care of, at home and at work, feeling overwhelmed by them, with no idea about where to begin. I found myself thinking in practical terms — making lists, for example — but didn’t say anything about it at that point.

She went on to talk about her finances and how she would often spend $30 at a bar, knowing on some level that it would mean she might not have enough money to pay her cellphone bill the next week; when I asked her if had a budget, she blushed and said “No, not really.” She added, “It makes me feel so ashamed, admitting that I don’t even have a budget.” At that point, we talked about the fact that she could actually make one for herself. I’m not usually so directive, but I explained how to go about it, then brought up the idea of chore lists, as well. Sometimes Melissa brings out the pragmatic father in me. We talked about her sketchy family background, how little her unreliable parents had prepared her for the adult world.

Toward the end of the session, I linked up the idea of step-by-step growth that leads to real mastery with preparation of a budget that would allow her to make better and informed choices. In both these ways, she could develop authentic self-esteem, instead of the false kind (arrogance) that grows from scorn and superiority. It’s actually possible for her to grow up, little by little, into a person she will respect.

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From Shame to Self-Esteem

Joseph Burgo PhD

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APA Reference
Burgo PhD, J. (2012). From Shame to Self-Esteem. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 24, 2019, from


Last updated: 10 Oct 2012
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 10 Oct 2012
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