We feel shame when we think of poorly of ourselves. It is our sense of our own incompetence or powerlessness. Shame is the emotion that encourages us to do our best. When we are ashamed we may feel vulnerable and even helpless. Shame reflects a decrease in stature while pride is the emotion reflecting an increase in stature.
- Feeling badly about yourself.
- Dissatisfaction from your assessment of a decrease in stature
- Disapproving of your own actions or accomplishments.
- Failure to meet my own standard of behavior.
- Absence or deficiency of self-love. [Gil]
- Feeling inferior.
- Believing you are a bad person.
- Loss of honor.
- Blaming yourself for making a mistake.
- Knowing you did wrong when it was possible to do right.
- Not meeting your responsibility to yourself.
Root: from Indo-European: skem-, from *kem- “to cover, to veil, to hide”
Shame is closely related to, but distinct from guilt. While shame is a failure to meet your own standards of behavior, guilt is a failure to meet other's standards of behavior. Shame tell us “you have not done your best” guilt tell us “you have harmed another, you have not been compassionate, you have ignored the golden rule.” Shame is personal, while guilt is public. Shame is “I am bad” while guilt is “I did something bad”. Shame reflects on the “human being”, and guilt reflects on the “human doing”. Shame results in internal sanctions—I feel badly—while guilt results in external sanctions—I will be punished.
Many words in our vocabulary describe forms of shame. They often differ in the intensity of the shame they express, but the basic archetype is the same. Here is a partial list, in approximate order from the most mild to the most intense: uncomfortable, uneasy, embarrassment, chagrin, inadequate, self-blame, feeling guilty, humiliation, dishonored, feeling ridiculous, mortified, self-condemnation, self-reproach, mortified and “toxic shame”. Honor is the absence of shame.
The proverbial red face is an unmistakable physiological response to shame, often called embarrassment. People who feel ashamed want to withdraw or hide; they often look down or look away.
Don't blame yourself disproportionately; understand all the factors responsible for contributing to the loss. Fully appreciate the full scope of your worth and achievements. It can also be helpful to distract your self and to quiet, reappraise, reprogram, or dispute your pessimistic self-talk. Talk about the source of your shame outloud rather than ruminating silently. Rationally refute any unfair or disproportionate self-blaming. Become reassured that your true friends continue to accept you as you are. If you are confident you have done your best, there is no reason to feel shame. Learn to trust and believe in your own goodness.
Benefits and Dangers of Shame
Shame is the inevitable result of self-awareness, introspection, and self-appraisal. It makes us aware of our limitations. Shame is an intrinsic punishment for bad behavior. It provides an incentive (as a negative sanction) to work to increase stature. It has the potential to spur us on to our greatest human achievements. We may fear criticism, rejection or abandonment as a result of our shameful behavior. If this spurs us on to constructive action, it is helpful. If it becomes overwhelming and prevents us from talking about our feelings or taking action, then it is dangerous.
Shame lurks in the gap between what is and what ought to be. By alerting us to times when we failed to do our best, it can help us improve. However, if we ruminate on our shortcomings, it can distract us from taking constructive action. This can lead to a cycle of self-destructive behavior. Please get competent help if you are caught in such a destructive cycle.
The Paradox of Shame
While pride is our emotional reward for doing good, shame is our emotional punishment for doing bad. Unfortunately, if our shame is too intense, or if we become depressed or obsessed with our digression, it can be debilitating and counterproductive. Consider shame as a slap on the wrist, examine what you did wrong, and take constructive steps to improve and move forward.
The Dangers of Shame
A question was posed to a violent criminal in prison: “What do you want so badly that you would sacrifice everything in order to get it” The answer given was “Pride, dignity, self-esteem . . . and I would kill every [person] in that cell-block if I have to in order to get it.” [Gil] Shame and humiliation often motivate violence to others and to the self.
People become ashamed that their original shame is caused by such a trivial matter. The more trivial the cause of the shame, the more shameful it becomes to acknowledge that is what you feel ashamed about. [Gil]
The Paths of Shame
Understanding what can trigger our shame, what separates shame from guilt, and how we can resolve our shame helps us to cope with our feelings. The following figure illustrates choices we have and paths we can take to either prolong or resolve our shame. Use this like you would any other map: 1) decide where you are now, 2) decide where you want to go, 3) choose the best path to get there, and 4) go down the chosen path.
You may wish to print out this one-page version of the Paths of Guilt and Shame map.
This diagram is an example of a type of chart known by systems analysts as a state transition diagram. Each colored elliptical bubble represents a state of being that represents the way you are now. The labels on the arrows represent actions or events and the arrows show paths into or out of each state. You are at one place on this chart for one particular relationship or incident at any particular time. Other people are likely to be in other places on the chart. This is similar to an ordinary road map where you plot where you are now, while other people are at other places on the same map. Begin the analysis at the green “OK” bubble, or wherever else you believe you are now.
OK: This is the beginning or neutral state. It corresponds to yourself being free of guilt or shame. The green color represents safety, tranquility, equanimity, and growth potential.
Transgression: Something happens that can lead to shame. The nature of the transgression forms the distinction between shame and guilt. A failure to meet your own standards of behavior; a dissatisfaction based on your own assessment of a decrease in stature leads to shame. Failing to meet the moral standards of others leads to guilt.
Shame: You feel bad because you have not lived up to your own standards. You may feel humiliation. Examine both your standards and your behavior to decide what has to change in the future. Don't blame yourself disproportionately. Examine the responsibility you have assigned to yourself. The yellow color represents the dangers you can face and cautions about the choices you can make.
Increase stature: Since shame represents a decrease in stature, the only constructive path is to increase your stature. Take authentic steps to improve yourself, especially in areas related to the original transgression. These are the same steps that can lead to feelings of pride. Concentrate on what you can change, let go of what you cannot change. Alternatively, a reappraisal of the situation could lead you to a new appreciation of your actual stature. This increase in your self esteem—what you believe about your stature—could also erase the shame. If you do your best, there is no reason to feel shame.
Rumination: Dwelling on the transgression, blaming yourself, focusing on your errors, and replaying your mistakes over and over in your mind can be carried too far. This is especially true when your thoughts are based on distortions in your thinking. If you are stuck in this loop for very long, it can be harmful and you may need professional help to overcome your unjustified and destructive shameful feelings. This can also lead to “toxic shame”. Concentrate on what you can change and work to let go of what you cannot change.
Denial: Denial, excuses, self pity, and blame only prolong the agony. Why are you feeling badly? Analyze the transgression, decide what you truly believe, assess who you are, gather evidence and accurately evaluate your stature. Then identify areas for improvement, and get on with increasing your stature. If the shame persists, it is probably because you are persisting in denial and are not taking effective action to increase your stature.
Misattribution: You are blaming yourself for events you had no control over; you are upset over things you cannot change, and things you cannot be responsible for. You may be ruminating, blaming yourself and wishing you could change the past. You may be the victim of abuse where you have been blamed so many times for problems caused by someone else that now you believe you are to blame. Or you may be thinking incorrectly about what has happened because of some cognitive errors, basically just faulty ways of thinking. This can lead to a shame so intense, personal, and private that it seems like you have become the shame and there is no way out.
Toxic Shame: This is an intense, personal, and private pain based on blaming yourself incorrectly, unjustifiable, or unreasonably. It is based on unreasonable expectations you have of your own responsibility. This is called “toxic” because it is poisoning your thinking and your being. If you are stuck here for very long, it can be very harmful and you may need professional help to overcome your unjustified and destructive shameful feelings. Get the help you need. An accurate reappraisal of the situation is required. The blue color represents the cold isolation you probably feel.
Reappraisal: Think again, more clearly, rationally, and realistically about what you are blaming yourself for. Take a careful look at what you could have changed and what you cannot. Look at the evidence and avoid distorted thinking. Reassess the responsibility you are assigning yourself. Don't take disproportionate responsibility for the mistakes that were made. Perhaps it is time to dispute your pessimistic thoughts. Seek competent help, including professional help, to work through this reappraisal. Take responsibility only for what you did and what you can change. Knowing what you can change and what you cannot change is the path to inner peace. Choose to forgive yourself. Move forward with your life and return to feeling OK with yourself.
Identifying Changes: Perhaps through your reappraisal you have identified changes you want to make in yourself or in your life. Perhaps you would like to apologize to someone or you want to patch up a relationship. Get on with this healing, change what you can, and move forward with your life and return to feeling OK with yourself.
Westerners often turn away, look down, or divert their eyes when feeling shame.
Nakedness (as distinguished from nudity) often represents shame.
Typical response to shame sends the primal messages of: ashamed, contrite, apologetic, concerned
- “Shame has taken the place of violence as a routine form of punishment in Western societies.” ~ Richard Sennett
- “Stop ‘should-ing’ on yourself!” ~ Albert Ellis
- “Shame is: ‘I am bad’ while guilt is: ‘I did something bad’”. ~ Brené Brown
[laz] Passion and Reason: Making Sense of Our Emotions, by Richard S. Lazarus, Bernice N. Lazarus
On Apology, by Aaron Lazare
[Ekm] Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, by Paul Ekman
[OCC] The Cognitive Structure of Emotions, by Andrew Ortony, Gerald L. Clore, Allan Collins
[Gol] Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, by Daniel Goleman
Understanding Shame, by Carl Glodberg
Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Create Your Life, Your Relationships, and Your World in Harmony with Your Values, by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Arun Gandhi
[Gil] Violence, by James Gilligan
Authority, by Richard Sennett
The power of vulnerability, Brené Brown, June 2010 TED Talk
Listening to Shame, Brené Brown, March 2012 TED Talk
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, by Brené Brown