“Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem” – Book Review

An elegant, experience-informed and evidence-conscious substantial approach to a rather unpopular, yet always-present self-development factor, “Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem” by Joseph Burgo, PhD is what you need to read if you want to discover a fresh way of thinking about what many of us hurried to consider one of our biggest everyday enemies: the feeling of shame in all its forms.

The idea that when it’s being seen as a family of emotions rather than one big, toxic, scary, and often numbing feeling, shame can become an ally in your process of getting to know and understand yourself and a guide for your personal growth efforts, is rather new to the self-development [book] industry. ‘Fighting the big scary monster’ approach that pretty much dominated the theoretical views and techniques related to shame is sensibly being challenged by Burgo’s new book whose stated goal is to explain how we grow to feel good about ourselves, and particularly “how we develop authentic and lasting self-esteem at every stage of life”.

To conceptually differentiate the two takes on the topic of shame, the author uses different labels throughout the book: SHAME – the emotion’s toxic and rather insular version and shame (lowercase) – an overarching category of specific emotions that share “a painful awareness of the self” (including embarrassment, guilt and self-consciousness) and which occur in our everyday life without necessarily being toxic.

It is this larger sense of shame that Joseph Burgo believes to hold a valuable role in an individual’s development, it is this wider range of emotions that we need to understand, listen to and learn from in order to grow and achieve our goals. He also draws the attention to the importance of dealing with shame in a social context, rather than only considering it on an individual level, shared joy and pride in achievement being core ingredients of self-respect and self-fulfillment.

Before setting out to fully explain and illustrate how shame can be turned into a resource that can help us become who we want and need to be, Burgo addresses the main preconceptions most of us hold regarding SHAME and which, if left unchallenged, can hinder our personal development efforts and connected achievements. There is also a SHAME Awareness Survey the reader can take to gain a better perspective on their own experience with emotions pertaining to the shame family.

“Shame” contains twenty-two chapters clustered into three parts – The Shame Spectrum, Masks of Shame and From Shame to Self-Esteem.

The Shame Spectrum covers the theoretical basis for understanding the shame family of emotions, the difference between guilt and shame, popular conceptions about shame, the masks we often use to deal with this variety of emotions, the value shame holds for our personal growth, the main paradigms related to shame (Shame as Unrequited Love, Shame as Exclusion, Shame as Unwanted Exposure and Shame as Disappointed Expectation), and  how shame relates to pride, joy, and self-esteem.

The second part of the book is dedicated to the rich illustration via case-studies of the main defensive  (and mostly unconscious) ways people use to deal with shame – avoidance, denial, and control. Burgo labels these defenses Masks of Shame and explains how they prevent us from listening to and learning from the specific situations that trigger these uncomfortable emotions. He also differentiates between ‘core shame’ – a profound perception of the self and the world as being terribly flawed or wrong, and the lower intensities and less pervasive forms of shame that we all encounter in our everyday life. Here is also explained that whether we are affected by core shame or the lesser, everyday versions of it, we all use the same defenses to exclude the related emotional pain from our awareness. Joseph Burgo’s 35 years of psychotherapy practice inform the many case studies* presented in this segment and cover topics such as social anxiety, indifference, promiscuity, addiction, performance anxiety, shyness, procrastination, artistic block, the idealized false self, superiority and contempt, blame and indignation, fantasy life, self-mockery, self-hatred, masochism, and self-pity.

*The case studies follow a mashup format, in the sense that to better illustrate each mask and defense the author built each client story from relevant elements pertaining to more than one real-life psychotherapy client. This also helps protect the identity of the actual clients.

The third and last part of “Shame”, From Shame to Self-esteem, addresses the steps one can take to build authentic pride and self-esteem. From shame defiance and narrow identity to shame resilience and expanding identity, we get to learn from these uncomfortable emotions and disarm our defenses. In Burgo’s perspective, building authentic pride is closely linked to personal responsibility, living an examined life, the choices we make, the need for achievement and sharing joy. And it all stems from the understanding that “shame and self-esteem are not opposites”.

“Shame” offers not only a great reading experience but also the opportunity to kickstart, monitor and enhance your own personal development efforts. From the spontaneous self-analysis moments that can arise while reading the case studies or the in-text examples of our everyday encounters with the emotions in the shame family, to more complex exercises the author suggests throughout the book. I did not complete the exercises, since I was reading the book with the main intention of writing this review, thus creating a rather tight timeframe for myself, but you can take your time, decide whether you would like to expand your personal development experience on the topic of shame and engage in the activities recommended in each chapter.

Joseph Burgo’s 35 years of clinical practice lent the book a high-relevance quality, placing the interpersonal approach of dealing with shame-inflicted emotional wounds at the core of the personal development process. There’s elegance in the technique, consideration, tenderness, and love for each individual who finds himself in a difficult personal situation, patience and understanding when it comes to expectation and gradual results. Just like a psychotherapist’s personality plays a significant role in their client’s efforts to re-establish their well-being, it’s Burgo’s personal style that has the highest chance to trigger the reader’s increased interest in the growth opportunities the author’s method holds.

It may seem a bit strange that I recommend a book that is not rooted in rich scientific data, but in clinical experience in the realm of psychodynamic approaches, yet it made sense to me to do so since I could find no elements of theory or practice that I believed had the power to do anything but support one’s understanding of their own cognitive and emotional processes and aid the mental and behavioral transformations linked to enhanced well-being. Frankly, shame is a lens. Most of the content can also be seen as assertiveness-related. And that is right up my alley. Burgo’s lack of rigid adherence to his initial training and the sensible modeling of his methods helped my decision.

And I will be honest with you and say that I almost declined the collaboration because I do not cover clinical psychology or psychotherapeutic work on Psychology Corner and  “Shame” is based exactly on that. But the thing is that I saw the cognitive context it actually addressed: it shows healthy ways to think about shame. It’s reframing in a large sense. Of course I will promote a resource that assists the creation of a mindset that allows the person to break free from a toxic mental context and gain better emotion regulation.

I think Joseph Burgo’s book is a great fit for both professionals in the field of psychology and the general public. There is a lot to be learned and a lot to be experienced. I had a very pleasant experience reading “Shame” and found myself many times reflecting on subjects of personal significance while using the main lens provided by it. The author himself shares elements of personal life that were marked by the presence of  emotions in the shame family and this helps the context come together as one of trust and mutual sharing and support.

There is no shame in wanting to read about and learn from something that makes you feel uncomfortable. In fact, that is most of the time the best place to start your self-development journey.

I highly recommend “Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem’ by Joseph Burgo to anyone who is interested in finding out how to turn even the most unlikely elements of your everyday life into reliable personal growth allies. 

Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem is available in Kindle, Hardcover and MP3 CD formats starting November 6, 2018. You can Look Inside or buy the book here:


P.S. This is not a commercial endorsement. I get no commission from the sales of this book. A representative of St. Martin’s Press invited me to read and honestly review the book for Psychology Corner. My review is based on an advance copy of the book.

Photo Source: Copyright (C) St. Martin’s Press, St. Martin’s Essentials. Used with publisher’s permission.

1 thought on ““Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem” – Book Review”

  1. My daily lead-ball-and-chain existence consists of a formidable perfect-storm-like combination of adverse childhood experience trauma, autism spectrum disorder and high sensitivity, the ACE trauma in large part being due to my ASD and high sensitivity. Thus, it would be very helpful to people like me to have books written about such or similar conditions involving a coexistence of ACE trauma and/or ASD and/or high sensitivity, the latter which seems to have a couple characteristics similar to ASD traits.
    While Joseph Burgo’s SHAME: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem is definitely informative and useful to me in other ways, it nevertheless fails to mention any of the three abovementioned cerebral conditions, let alone the potential obstacles they may or likely will pose to readers like me benefiting from the book’s information/instruction.
    The Autistic Brain, for example, fails to even once mention the real potential for additional challenges created by a reader’s ASD coexisting with thus exacerbated by high sensitivity and/or ACE trauma. As it were, I also read a book on adverse childhood experience trauma [Childhood Disrupted] that totally fails to even once mention high sensitivity and/or autism spectrum disorder. That was followed by The Highly Sensitive Man, with no mention whatsoever of autism spectrum disorder or adverse childhood experience trauma.
    I therefore don’t know whether my additional, coexisting conditions will render the information and/or assigned exercises from such not-cheap books useless, or close to it, in my efforts to live much less miserably.
    While many/most people in my shoes would work with the books nonetheless, I cannot; I simply need to know if I’m wasting my time and, most importantly, mental efforts.
    It’s no big secret that ACE abuse/trauma is often inflicted upon ASD and/or highly sensitive children and teens by their normal or ‘neurotypical’ peers — thus resulting in immense and even debilitating self-hatred and shame — so why not at least acknowledge it in some meaningful, constructive way?

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