Why Shame Is So Damaging and How to Overcome It—A Therapist’s Take


By Jeannie Moran, MSW LCSW

Stephanie Ray Peters bravely kicked off The Plaid Horse’s anti-shame campaign for our May-June cover story. To continue the conversation, we spoke with Jeannie Moran, MSW LCSW, a therapist with a unique perspective. Moran’s daughter, Nicole Motes, is a hunter-jumper trainer in Maryland, and the two often work together, with Moran counseling clients in the ring while they take lessons with her daughter. With this understanding of our sport, Moran explained what shame means for horse people—and how to overcome it. 

Shame is a feeling of being flawed or defective in a specific area(s), or in general. It can be associated with the feeling that one has not attained some ideal goal. This may be reinforced through comparison to others with resulting additional feelings of inferiority. The result is discord and disappointment within one’s Self. Defining shame requires a basic understanding of the relationship between the cognitive, emotional, and physical processes involved in this painful emotion.

Thoughts of shame are critically self-focused and often repetitive. Those perceptions can translate into feeling “not good enough” and may then negatively influence the person’s ability to imagine themselves having future success in similar situations, thereby perpetuating the shame cycle. Some physical effects of shame include eye contact avoidance, slumped body posture, body tension, and palpable urges to quickly remove themselves from the shame inducing circumstance, potentially leading to future avoidant behavior.

Riders may experience shame for various reasons. Someone may be burdened by an unresolved humiliating past experience, equine-related or otherwise, that has left them questioning their abilities. When a circumstance occurs in the present that is reminiscent of that event or period of time, it may trigger the past shame which then magnifies the present sense of being flawed. This process can occur quite rapidly and the rider may not be aware of this connection. Other sources of shame may be physical elements such as weight, body type, body restrictions or aging issues. Disparity in income/lifestyle with other riders may cause shame discomfort resulting from feeling “less than.” Skill level comparisons can certainly produce shame.

Shame can impact riders in several ways and to varying degrees. For a novice rider, the shame factor may preclude continuing the pursuit of lessons, thus denying themselves a potential opportunity for years of enjoyment. A harmful and pervasive shame consequence for a seasoned rider occurs when the person’s true joy of riding, and all that encompasses becomes noticeably diminished. Fear is frequently attached to this. This can lead to sadness and confusion around the reason for the loss that may not be recognized or understood by the rider. Other effects of shame may include experiencing slow or no progression of skills as shame leads to anger toward Self, performance issues in the show ring, somatic complaints from sustained tension in the body, and possible higher risk for injury if one is routinely distracted by shameful thoughts, especially when leading to self-blame.

Now let’s take a breath … literally and figuratively. Exploration of healing of shame is essential to finding the understanding and self-compassion that opens the door to change. Awareness of the origins, and your reactions and defense mechanisms surrounding shame is critical. Know that we all have some human limitations and that acceptance of that is part of healing from shame. Be mindful of how you communicate with yourself. Would you make some of the negative harsh comments you say to yourself to anyone else, let alone someone you love? Remind yourself of your accomplishments as you ride and review them when finished, even if you are struggling a bit. Take 4-5 deep breaths to reset the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system to reduce anxiety. Set realistic goals for yourself. The use of guided imagery can be quite helpful in building your confidence, thus decreasing your shame. And remember to connect your mind and body to the true joy of riding! Talking with a therapist could prove very beneficial.