How to Deal with Shame: A Sports Psychologist’s Playbook

Hey there, sports enthusiasts and anyone ever caught in the grips of shame! 

Today, we’re diving into a topic that’s often sidelined but crucial in the world of sports and beyond: dealing with shame. 

But first, let’s break it down from a sports psychologist’s perspective.

What is Shame and Why Do We Feel It?

Picture this: You miss an easy shot, fumble a pass, or slip up during a crucial moment in the game. Your cheeks flush, you want to disappear, and you’re convinced everyone is judging you. 

That, my friends, it is shame. 

It’s this intense, gut-wrenching feeling that you’re not just flawed in your actions but as a person.

So why do we feel it? 

Shame is like an alarm system. 

It’s rooted in our social instincts, telling us we might be losing our valuable connection to the team or community. 

It’s natural, but oh boy, it can sting.

What is Shame, Really?

Think of shame as an internal red flag, signaling that we perceive a threat to our social standing or self-image. 

It’s a complex emotion, entwined with our sense of identity and our desire to be accepted and valued by others. 

When we feel shame, it’s not just about a specific action or mistake. It’s a profound feeling that we, as individuals, might be fundamentally flawed or unworthy.

This emotion can be incredibly intense, often manifesting physically – a hot flush on your cheeks, an urge to hide, or even a sense of shrinking, wanting to become invisible. 

Psychologically, it can send us into a spiral of negative self-talk and self-isolation.

Why Do We Feel Shame?

Shame is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. 

As social creatures, our ancestors relied on group cooperation and acceptance for survival. 

Being valued and accepted in the group meant access to resources, protection, and mating opportunities. 

On the flip side, the threat of being ostracized or looked down upon could have serious consequences for an individual’s survival.

Fast forward to today, and while the stakes might not be as high as in our ancestral environment, the mechanism of shame still operates in a similar way. 

We are hardwired to seek acceptance and fear rejection. 

Whether it’s in a sports team, at work, within a family, or any social circle, our brain is constantly monitoring our actions and how they’re perceived by others. 

When we sense disapproval or rejection, shame kicks in as a signal that our social standing might be at risk.

In sports, this can be particularly intense because of the public nature of the performance. 

Athletes not only grapple with their own expectations and self-perception but also deal with the scrutiny of coaches, teammates, fans, and sometimes even the media. 

This amplifies the feeling of shame when mistakes happen or performance falls short of expectations.

But here’s a crucial point: while shame can be overwhelming, it’s also a universal human experience. 

Realizing that everyone – yes, even the top athletes – experiences shame at some point can be a powerful step in managing this tricky emotion. 

It’s not about eradicating shame entirely (which is pretty much impossible), but rather about understanding it, recognizing it, and learning how to navigate through it with resilience and self-compassion.

Healthy vs. Toxic Shame

Not all shame is created equal. 

There’s a fine line between healthy and toxic shame. 

Healthy Shame

Healthy shame is like a gentle tap on the shoulder, telling you, “Hey, maybe that wasn’t the best move.” 

It keeps you in check and can be a springboard for growth and learning.

Healthy shame, though uncomfortable, serves as a constructive force in our personal and athletic development. 

It’s a signal that we’ve stepped out of line with our values or the norms of our group, prompting introspection and learning.

Imagine you’re playing a sport and you lose your temper, leading to an unsportsmanlike conduct. 

Healthy shame would be that feeling of regret and the internal acknowledgment that your behavior wasn’t up to your own standards or those of your team. 

This type of shame is proportional to the situation, and it encourages you to apologize, learn from the incident, and strive to do better in the future.

Healthy shame is grounded in reality. 

It’s about specific actions or behaviors, not your entire being. 

It says, “I made a mistake,” not “I am a mistake.” 

This form of shame is manageable and transient, and it doesn’t linger to erode your self-esteem or self-worth.

Toxic Shame

Toxic shame, on the other hand, is like a sledgehammer to your self-worth. 

It’s relentless, often linked to deeply ingrained beliefs like “I’m not good enough” or “I’ll never succeed.” 

It’s the kind of shame that lingers and can really mess with your head and performance.

Toxic shame, on the other hand, is a more pervasive and harmful experience. 

It goes beyond feeling bad about a specific action or mistake. It’s an internalized belief that you, as a person, are fundamentally flawed or unworthy. 

Toxic shame is often the result of repeated negative experiences or messages received in childhood or throughout life.

Continuing with the sports analogy, if you internalize a single mistake or loss as evidence of your complete inadequacy as a player, that’s toxic shame. 

This form of shame is disproportionate, persistent, and not connected to specific incidents. 

It often leads to a destructive cycle of self-criticism, low self-esteem, and in extreme cases, can lead to mental health issues like depression or anxiety.

The key difference between healthy and toxic shame lies in their impact and duration. 

Healthy shame is about specific behaviors and is a catalyst for positive change. 

It’s like a coach giving you constructive feedback to improve your game. 

Toxic shame, however, is like a voice that constantly tells you you’re not good enough, no matter what you do. 

It’s not productive!

It’s paralyzing!

Understanding this distinction is crucial. 

Recognizing when shame is serving as a healthy signal for growth, versus when it’s a toxic narrative damaging your self-worth, can empower you to respond appropriately. 

In sports and life, learning to transform toxic shame into healthy, constructive feedback is a vital skill for psychological resilience and personal growth.

Shame vs. Guilt

Now, let’s clear the air about shame and guilt – they’re like cousins, similar but definitely not twins. 

Guilt says, “I did something bad,” while shame screams, “I am bad.” 

Guilt is about your actions. Shame is about yourself. 

Guilt can be constructive, pushing you to make amends or improve. Shame? Not so much.

Delving deeper into the distinction between shame and guilt, it’s important to understand how these emotions, while related, have different impacts on our psyche and behavior.

Guilt: Focused on Behavior

Guilt is an emotion that arises when we believe we have violated a moral standard or hurt someone with our actions. 

It’s about what we’ve done, not who we are. 

For example, if you’re playing a sport and you commit a foul that costs your team the game, guilt would have you thinking, “I shouldn’t have done that,” or “I made a mistake.”

Guilt is inherently action-oriented. 

It motivates us to make amends, to repair the harm we’ve caused. 

This can involve apologizing, seeking to fix the situation, or making a commitment to change our behavior in the future. 

Guilt, in healthy doses, is a sign of a well-functioning moral compass. 

It keeps us aligned with our values and standards, and it plays a critical role in maintaining healthy relationships and social order.

Shame: Focused on Self

Shame, unlike guilt, cuts to the core of our identity. 

It’s a painful feeling that we are somehow fundamentally flawed or inadequate as a person. 

Continuing with the sports scenario, if after committing a foul, you think “I’m a terrible player” or “I’m a disappointment,” that’s shame speaking. 

It’s not about the action (the foul) but about your self-perception.

Shame is less constructive than guilt. 

It often leads to a desire to hide, escape, or shut down, rather than to proactive problem-solving or making amends. 

In the realm of sports, shame can be particularly debilitating, as it can erode an athlete’s confidence and self-esteem, impacting their performance and enjoyment of the game.

The Impact of Guilt and Shame

While guilt and shame are distinct, they often coexist and interact. 

Guilt can lead to positive actions – like working harder, improving skills, or making things right – because it’s linked to behavior rather than self-worth. 

Shame, however, can be paralyzing or lead to negative coping mechanisms, like aggression, denial, or further withdrawal.

In a healthy psychological state, guilt acts as a regulatory mechanism, guiding us to align with social and moral norms. 

Shame, when it’s not toxic, can also serve a regulatory function, signaling when we’re at risk of losing important social connections. 

However, when shame becomes internalized and pervasive, it can be highly destructive.

For athletes and indeed for anyone, understanding and differentiating these emotions is vital. 

Recognizing feelings of guilt can lead to constructive responses and personal growth. 

At the same time, identifying and addressing shame – especially when it becomes toxic – is crucial for maintaining mental health and well-being.

In the context of sports psychology, fostering an environment where mistakes are seen as opportunities to learn (guilt) rather than as reflections of personal failure (shame) can be incredibly beneficial. 

Coaches, teammates, and athletes themselves can work towards a culture where constructive criticism and personal development are prioritized over judgment and negative self-labeling. 

This approach not only enhances performance but also contributes to a healthier, more positive sports environment.

Does Shame Ever Go Away?

The million-dollar question: Does shame ever pack its bags and leave? 

Well, it’s complicated!

Shame can be sticky, hanging around longer than we’d like. 

But the good news? 

It’s not a life sentence. 

With the right mindset and tools, you can show shame the door.

Shame, particularly when it’s linked to deeply held beliefs about ourselves, can be remarkably stubborn. 

For many, it may feel like shame never completely disappears but rather lurks beneath the surface, ready to emerge in response to certain triggers or failures. 

This is especially true for toxic shame, which is often connected to long-standing negative self-perceptions or experiences from the past.

However, the intensity and impact of shame can change over time. 

With self-awareness and effort, what once felt like an overwhelming and permanent part of one’s emotional landscape can become more manageable and less central. 

Healing from shame is often a gradual process, involving understanding its origins, recognizing its triggers, and learning new ways to respond to it.

In the context of sports, an athlete might initially feel a deep sense of shame after a significant failure or mistake. 

Over time, as they work through these feelings, understand their origins, and learn to separate their worth from their performance, the shame may not disappear entirely but can diminish in its intensity and impact.

The good news is that shame can be transformed, though it may never go away completely. 

Recognizing shame and understanding its roots in one’s life is a crucial first step. 

This can involve reflecting on past experiences, identifying patterns, and becoming aware of how shame manifests in one’s life.

Learning to treat oneself with kindness, understanding, and compassion can significantly mitigate the effects of shame. 

Self-compassion involves acknowledging one’s humanity and the universal experience of imperfection and failure.

Many times, shame is tied to deep-seated negative beliefs about oneself. 

Challenging these beliefs, often with the help of a therapist or counselor, can be a powerful way to reduce the hold of shame.

Developing coping strategies and resilience can help in managing the feelings of shame when they arise. 

This can include practicing mindfulness, developing a supportive social network, and engaging in activities that reinforce a positive self-image.

In cases where shame is deeply entrenched and impacting one’s quality of life, seeking help from a mental health professional can be crucial. 

Therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) can be particularly effective in dealing with shame.

In conclusion, while shame may not completely go away, its grip can certainly be loosened. 

Through understanding, self-compassion, and targeted strategies, individuals can transform their relationship with shame, allowing them to live more freely and authentically, both in the arena of sports and in their personal lives.

How to Deal with Shame

Dealing with shame is like training for a big game. It takes effort, practice, and sometimes a team effort. Here are some game-changing strategies:

  1. Recognize and Name It: Like spotting a tricky opponent, recognize when shame shows up. Put a name to it. 

Just acknowledging it can take away some of its power. 

Like catching a ball before it hits the ground, learn to recognize when shame shows up. 

It might sneak in as a sinking feeling in your gut or a critical voice in your head. 

The sooner you notice it, the better you can handle it.

  1. Talk It Out: Don’t let shame fester. 

Talk to a coach, a teammate, or a sports psychologist. 

Sometimes, just airing it out can make a huge difference. 

You know how a problem seems smaller once you talk about it? 

That works with shame, too. 

Chat with a friend, a coach, or a therapist. 

Just getting it out there can take a lot of the sting out of shame.

  1. Challenge Your Shameful Thoughts: Question those harsh self-criticisms. 

Are they really true? 

Would you say that to a teammate? Chances are, you’re being way too hard on yourself.

Your mind can be a drama queen when it comes to shame!

It’ll tell you things like “You’re the worst player ever!” 

Take a step back and ask yourself, “Is this really true?” 

Spoiler alert: It usually isn’t!

Instead of letting shame write your story, take control of the pen. 

Reframe how you view your experiences. 

You’re not a failure!

You’re a work in progress, learning and growing every day.

  1. Learn and Grow: Use shame as a cue to reflect. 

What can you learn from the situation? 

How can you improve? 

Turn that shame into constructive action.

Did you mess up? 

Okay, no biggie. 

What can you learn from it? 

Maybe you need more practice or a different strategy. 

Treat mistakes as lessons, not as reasons to beat yourself up!

  1. Practice Self-Compassion: Be as kind to yourself as you would be to a teammate in the same boat. 

Remember, everyone trips up sometimes. 

It’s part of the game!

We’re often our own toughest critics. Try flipping the script and be your own cheerleader. 

Encourage yourself like you would a teammate. 

Remember, a little self-kindness goes a long way.

  1. Stay Connected: Don’t isolate yourself. 

Stay connected with your team and support network. 

Remember, shame thrives in secrecy and isolation.

Whether it’s on a team or in your friend circle, work on building an environment where it’s okay to be imperfect. 

Celebrate effort, progress, and bouncing back from mistakes, not just victories and perfection.

Surround yourself with people who get it, who support you, and who lift you up. 

A strong support network can be a game-changer when dealing with shame.

  1. Seek Professional Help If Needed: If shame’s really got you in a chokehold, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. 

Sports psychologists are like coaches for your mind and emotions.

If shame feels too heavy to lift on your own, it’s totally okay to seek professional help. 

Psychologists, therapists, counselors – these folks are like personal trainers for your mental health.


Dealing with shame isn’t a one-and-done deal. 

It’s an ongoing process, kinda like keeping fit or working on your game. 

Some days will be easier than others. 

The key is to keep at it and remember: everyone deals with shame. 

You’re not alone, and you’ve totally got this!

In the end, dealing with shame is about understanding it, acknowledging it, and then using it as a catalyst for growth and resilience. 

It’s about shifting the narrative from “I am bad” to “I am learning.” 

Remember, every great athlete has faced shame at some point. 

It’s not the shame that defines you. It’s how you bounce back from it.

Keep these tips in your playbook, and you’ll be ready to tackle shame head-on, both on and off the field. 

Alright, team, let’s wrap this up! 

We’ve talked a lot about shame – what it is, how it shows up in sports, and most importantly, how to tackle it head-on. 

Remember, whether you’re on the field, court, or just playing the game of life, dealing with shame is part of the journey. 

It’s not about never feeling shame; it’s about learning how to handle it like a pro.

Now, here’s the cool part. 

You don’t have to go at this alone. 

There’s this awesome place called the Success Stories Community. Think of it as your go-to hangout for getting tailored help and support with achieving your goals, sports-related or otherwise. 

It’s like having a team of cheerleaders, coaches, and fellow players all rooting for you.

In this community, you’ll find folks from all walks of life sharing their experiences, victories, and yes, even their not-so-great moments. 

But the best part? 

You get to learn from each other, get tips on everything from goal-setting to bouncing back after a setback, and find that sweet spot of motivation and support.

So whether you’re aiming to hit a new personal best, trying to balance life and training, or just need a pep talk on a rough day, the Success Stories Community is your spot. 

It’s all about celebrating the wins, learning from the losses, and pushing each other towards greatness, one step at a time.

In the end, dealing with shame is just one part of your larger journey. 

Embrace it, learn from it, and use it to fuel your growth. 

And remember, the Success Stories Community is always there, ready to back you up.

Keep your head up, stay strong, and let’s turn those challenges into comebacks. 

You’ve got this! 🌟🏆👊

Stay strong, stay connected, and keep growing. 

The game’s not over yet!