Shame is distress caused by personal feelings of disgrace. It stems from a perception of one’s self having thought or acted in a self-demeaning manner. When people feel sick with their behaviour, it’s called shame. Withdrawing from social interaction, when one has debased one’s self, is a central motivational force of shame. It regards ceasing action that is damaging to one’s self; behaviour that may be ongoing and difficult to change. Blind people exhibit it, and this suggests it’s innate.
Shame is related to any action perceived as degrading, either directly or indirectly, to one’s self. If people do something that would ultimately corrupt their personality, that deed would be deemed shameful – especially actions that give short-term pleasure with a result of long-term disadvantage.
Expressions of shame have been shown to evoke 1 Overt displays of distress are met with overt attempts to help from both children (as young as eight months) and adults – shown in sympathy-related expressions and physiological responses.2
This shows that innate social expressions elicit innate responses.
Nevertheless, people express shame in front of those who care for them, and not untrustworthy persons, for wise reasons. People can aggravate distress. If shame is shown to someone, embarrassment will typically be felt too. Shame, more so than other forms of distress, is difficult to deal with socially. People commonly withdraw from the situation to escape an overwhelming sense of dread. There are good reasons for such caution. Some people seek to cruelly punish shameful acts, so the withdrawal is not pointless.
Cruel persons seek personal details that relate to others’ shame as a means of corrupt social control. This is done by disseminating the shameful knowledge, to specific people at specific times, to cause social misfortune by humiliation. Uncomfortable truths can be used to blackmail people by threatening them with social calamity if they do not meet specific demands. Malicious talk about others’ shameful private details is used as a weapon to cause a traumatic injury to rivals.
If their professional services are contracted, counsellors, psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists are bound by confidentiality. They have to act in their patient’s best interest. They have a duty of care. Above all, it’s sensible to express shame to others trustworthy in matters of mental health, so at least additional distress is avoided.
Pain is a physical reaction to cell damage which appeared very early in the evolution of species. It’s hundreds of millions of years old. Shame is emotional pain. Things that impact social circumstances can damage people’s ability to succeed. Shame is, however, arguably, only thousands of years young. Shame is associated with the right-ventromedial prefrontal cortex; as this region is associated with high-functioning, human social decisions, it’s considered a sophisticated behavioural reaction.3
When a shameful deed is made public, a person will feel embarrassed or humiliated too. If this damages social reputation, the social prospects of the humiliated person are damaged. Fear of social rejection is highly associated with shame. The internal recoiling is to stop damage to social opportunities in the future.
Other negative emotions are highly associated with shame. Sadness, anxiety, regret and despair can be indirectly experienced through shame. Feelings of failure or loss are implicit, so shame inherently makes people sad. Also, people experiencing shame are contemplating the undue harm they have caused themselves (guilt for damaging one’s self) and damage to their future opportunities (see Anxiety). Shame could be described as guilt from self-harm that leads to anxieties. Shame feels like remorse for one’s lost hopes.
Dreams and opportunities are not automatic things. Hopes are made true from effort. If people destroy opportunities that would lead to their prosperity the result is sadness or despair. The contemplation of how such consequences will negatively affect the well-being of significant others will result in guilt being felt too. Shame is a complex emotion because of all the other emotions associated with it.
To commit a social faux pas – minor social stumble – would lead to embarrassment rather than shame as it’s not a serious degrading of nature. There are hardly any social consequences to such minor mistakes, so they are easily disregarded. Whereas embarrassment always relates to others knowing of someone’s error, shame can be an entirely personal affair that requires no recognition from others. If someone else tries to impose shame, it’s an attempt to humiliate.
When a perception of shame stems from an accurate appraisal of events, it’s far better to accept the feelings rather than avoid them. Yet this can be difficult as the feelings of shame are uncomfortable to own. Often people want to push the emotion out of awareness.
Perceptions create emotions, whether the perceptions are correct descriptions of reality or not. If a perception is believed, the associated emotion is experienced. If people believe a perception about their acting in a degrading way, they feel shame. Pretending that such emotions are not there causes troubling behaviour. Suppressing shame only pushes it out of sight. Behaviour will continue to be unconsciously motivated by the shame without any conscious oversight – a process referred to as acting-out that would be felt as a strong feeling of wanting to withdraw, but without the specific reason that shame reveals. This will also elevate unconscious anxieties associated with cortisol-related stress levels.
Both shame and stress are highly associated with addicts.
The experience of such an emotionally charged state makes for a seriously worrying cocktail of neurotransmitters and hormones. As shame instinctively causes people to socially withdraw, it often places addicts in a position where they are vulnerable to perpetuate, or relapse, on that which they are addicted. Next day, they feel additional shame for what they could not help from happening, and the process begins again (see Helplessness). Their health deteriorates and their psychological and biological systems are increasingly stressed. As the addictive substance usually relieves them of negative experience momentarily, temptation dances in their mind. Withdrawn and feeling overwhelming negative emotions is not a conducive environment to escape an addiction that offers instant relief. However temporary that release may be, due to the overwhelming intensity of negative experience, it’s grasped as a reflex to alleviate the excruciating emotional pain.
Notably, a non-stressful, helpful environment to share one’s shame can make all the difference. When people don’t have to be completely alone with their shame, stress is reduced, and excruciating emotions are less likely to be experienced, so temptation’s promise of relief holds less value.
Theoretically, suggesting that shame evolved in an environment where withdrawal was made from the wider community back into a nucleus of trusted, helpful and compassionate people.
Accurate perceptions of shame are indications that behaving in a specific way will lead to the ruin of hopes. They are important markers of damaging behaviour. There are several reasons it’s difficult to own shame. One is that it will include despair created from any related lost hope. This means it’s uncomfortable for people to accept shameful feelings but of paramount importance that people do. If people ignore their shameful actions, they will be unaware of parts of their personalities that are self-defeating, so anxieties are created that cannot be resolved. Future success depends on being able to accept shame that stems from accurate perceptions as this creates motivations to avoid repeating the behaviour.
The opposite is true for any inaccurate or false perception of shame. People must reject reasoning based on such foundations. Believing that thoughts or behaviours are shameful when they are not will lead people to attribute self-destructive properties to thoughts and behaviours that do not deserve such convictions. This imposes inappropriate boundaries on people and limits their ability to adapt. If this happens many times (e.g. in childhood), it would create a metaphorical straitjacket for their personality. Feeling shame wrongfully can seriously hinder peoples’ progress in life, for it can leave them bystanders who inappropriately watch opportunities pass by.
People’s lives will be adversely affected if they act shamefully, ignore they are acting shamefully, or accept imposed shame. Every aspect of shame relates to the creation of unfortunate circumstances. If people feel personally degraded, and it’s not because of their behaviour, they should not feel shame.
Intensity of shame should be equal to the adverse consequences the behaviour in question has caused or will cause. The most appropriate intensity of shame will be created by accurate perceptions of just how detrimental the behaviour has been.
When shame makes the body recoil from a specific action, it leaves an uncomfortable and powerful memory. Such memory informs future decisions. An internal frame of reference is constructed of the world which informs responses. Shame is encoded into memory with a social footnote saying “Withdraw!”, “Do not repeat!” or “Avoid!” Feeling shame is a painful experience and part of a natural process of avoiding highly specific behaviours.
Proto-Germanic. Skamo = Feelings of guilt or disgrace, to cover oneself.
1. The painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonouring or indecorous in one’s own conduct or circumstances (or in those of others whose honour or disgrace one regards as one’s own), or of being in a situation that offends our sense of modesty or decency.