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When Mistakes Feel Shaming

I can still remember the shame I felt at 16 when I didn’t pass my driver’s test the first time. Failing confirmed every negative thought I had about myself. The shame was so intense that I didn’t attempt to drive again for three years.

I’m remembering this story now because I’ve seen two young men this week equally traumatized by not passing their driver’s test.

Guilt and Shame

Guilt is knowing you’ve done something wrong. Shame is believing you are something wrong. You can feel guilt without feeling shame, and you can feel shame without feeling guilt. If you are like me, you have felt your share of both.

When many people make mistakes or fail, they see it as an opportunity to learn. They apologize, make amends, and accept the consequences. When people who are shame sensitive make a mistake, they see it as proof of their worthlessness and unlovability. They are devastated and the pain is excruciating.

Shame Sensitivity

If you lack a sense of love and belonging, you try to gain acceptance through the things you do. Any mistake is devastating because you fear imperfection will lead to rejection.

With a weak sense of self, it’s impossible for shame-sensitive people to believe that their loveability is derived not from what they do, but from who they are. They don’t know who that is.

Love and Belonging

In order to decrease shame, we need to increase our sense of love and belonging. We feel connected to others when we are open and vulnerable with those we trust.

Belonging means taking risks and making ourselves vulnerable to rejection. Rejection is difficult for anyone, let alone someone who struggles to regulate their emotions.

DBT Skill: Cope Ahead

Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) helps people learn to understand and regulate their emotions by building Four Key Skills: Basic Mindfulness, Distress Tolerance, Emotion Regulation, and Interpersonal Relationship Skills.

If I had planned ahead for how to cope if I failed my driver’s test, I might have done something other than take to my bed for hours in humiliation. Perhaps I could have made arrangements to call someone right away to talk it through, or decided if I failed, I would take a few private lessons.

If you know that you have a potentially difficult situation coming up, make a solid plan for how to deal with it. It’s always better to plan ahead than to let a bad situation unfold.

I sometimes have a client with an elderly or sick parent who says they know that when this person dies, they will be devastated. I encourage them to cope ahead and develop a strategy so they will not be devastated. It’s healthy to grieve a loss, but we don’t have to accept devastation as unavoidable.

To learn more about DBT, or if you are interested in counselling services, please visit Validity Counselling's homepage,

Author: Jenny DeReis

Jenny is CEO and therapist at Validity Counselling in Prince George, BC. She has a Master's Degree in Counselling Psychology from the University of Calgary.

Jenny has intensive and advanced training in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) from Dr. Charlie Swansen, author of several books on DBT . She has also received DBT training from the Behavior Tech Institute, and from DBT expert Sherri Van Dijk.

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