When I think about shame triggers and how they bloom, I am immediately taken back to a story of myself in the sixth grade. This was when elementary school went from 1st-6th grade; formal kindergarten was not yet in existence.

shame triggers for women

My family had always emphasized “smarts”, especially my father, so the groundwork in this garden was already firmly in place for the blooming to occur. This shame trigger is about being smart enough, and the difficulty I have in feeling that I am—smart enough.


The story begins with the regular spelling tests given in my class by my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Walker. I was always prepared for them since achieving good grades was already encoded as part of my identity. I remember needing to go to the restroom, which was down the hall, and you had to ask permission to be excused. So I did, and and of course was allowed to go.

When I returned, Mr. Walker told me in front of the entire class that I had missed the pop spelling quiz he decided to give, and would receive a “0” for the test. I was shocked the he would do such a thing, but this was compounded by the fact that soon after my initial tearful embarrassment, he announced this was a joke, and that I really had not missed a test. He had gotten the class to play along with his “joke.” So after being brought to tears in front of the class, and being made to feel the shame of that, plus the idea of having a poor test score in my grades, I was the butt of a very cruel joke for valuing the idea of being smart. I believe that event strongly shaped and intensified the shame underlying the idea that I held that being smart was terribly important, and that you would be valued so much less if you were not.

My sixth grade mind at the time did not know that the teacher was demonstrating poor judgment in his cruel attempt to change me. The message I received from him was that the joke was for my own good so I would lighten up about grades. As you might guess, it did anything but.

I write this for you, not to gain sympathy, but as one example of many shame triggers that are very personal for each of us. They are often part of our core beliefs, and are difficult to shift, but indeed we must do that to achieve our best emotional health. You cannot stop shame triggers from occurring, but you can learn to move through it in a way that is more constructive for you. I recently listened to an NPR podcast called Invisiblia (highly recommend) called “Frame of Reference” which talks about this very issue. It provides a remarkable shift for you when you realize something so elemental about how you see things is deeply affecting your life. I see countless examples of this in my clients’ lives, and it is sadly self limiting.


The ability to shift your frame of reference gives you power: the power to change your story, and the power of choice when you see the other’s frame. Today I can see that this teacher may have had a valid goal he was trying to achieve with me; he just went about it in a very clumsy and cruel manner.

We all have shame triggers in many areas of our lives. Here is a short list from Brené Brown, who has completed extensive research on the topic of shame:

Any mental health diagnosis
Any stigmatized illness
Domestic violence
Sexual assault
Child abuse
Violent death
Criminal activity or incarceration
Serious debt or bankruptcy
Non-mainstream religious beliefs
Low educational achievement

You cannot still be reading this without recognizing some of these issues in your life, or that of a friend or family member. And these are just the biggies. Reaching out to others that you trust to speak your shame is helpful. And it takes a great deal of courage.

I am here and ready if you are.

Resources: I Thought It Was Just Me (but it wasn’t), Brené Brown