Shame: Definition, Causes, and Tips to Undo Shame
What is shame and why is it such a difficult negative emotion to deal with? Here, we'll talk about the science of shame to help you understand where it comes from and how to feel less ashamed.
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What Is Shame? (Shame Definition)
Shame is defined as a self-conscious emotion arising from the sense that something is fundamentally wrong about oneself. With shame, we often feel inadequate and full of self-doubt, yet these experiences may be outside of our conscious awareness. That makes shame hard to identify and label.
For these reasons, the experience of shame has been linked to depression as well as a variety of other negative emotions including anger, suspiciousness, inferiority, helplessness, and self-consciousness (Goss, Gilbert, & Allan, 1994). Those who tend to experience more shame may also have more interpersonal anxiety and more submissive responses to their anger (Lewis, 2004).
The opposite of shame is often thought to be confidence, shamelessness, or having no shame.
The two types of shame
Shame can be described as a momentary experience that occurs in response to an event. This is referred to as 'state shame' because we are currently in a state of shame, or we are temporarily experiencing shame as a result of some circumstance. Another type of shame involves a long-term experience that some of us have. This is referred to as 'trait shame' because it acts like a personality trait, or something we carry with us wherever we go.
Shame vs Guilt
Many of us lump guilt and shame together. They are both self-focused negative emotions. They both involve interactions with others. And they both can be involved in mental health disorders. But shame and guilt are actually quite different from each other.
Guilt arises as a result of some action we took (or did not take). We may feel regret over having done something bad. Guilt actually motivates us to change our behavior so that we don't have to feel this way again. Assuming the guilt can be resolved and prevented, it is far less challenging to manage than shame.
Shame, on the other hand, arises as a result of negative evaluations from others, even if we're just being ourselves. It's not so much that what we did that is bad, but that who we are is bad. As a result, we may feel small, worthless, or powerless. Over time, shame can lead to something called the 'internalized other'—an image or idea that someone disapproves of us. We may then hold negative evaluations of ourselves through the eyes of others.
Unlike guilt, an action does not cause shame. Shame arises from how others see us (Lewis, 1995). So we have a hard time changing our behavior to reduce this emotion, and shame motivates us to hide or retreat (Tangney, Wagner, & Gramzow, 1992).
Video: The Problem of Shame
What Causes Shame?
Researchers suggest that shame arises from a sense of scrutiny or ridicule from other people who are more powerful than us. Specifically, parents who withdraw their love or express contempt or disgust towards their child increase the experience of shame in that child (Lewis, 1995)
Let's review some examples of how this might play out in childhood.
Shame Example 1: In one study, researchers observed as a mother guided her child to complete a puzzle. She exclaims, "No. What's wrong with you?" as she looks upon him with disgust and contempt. The child experiences shame and then anger as he hurls an object across the room (Lewis, 1995).
Shame Example 2: A child is teased by a group of kids in the schoolyard for being overweight. She feels shame so she runs away to hide in the girls' bathroom.
There a million different experiences that might lead to shame. In fact, researchers argue it could come from any experience where we compare ourselves to our standards for ourselves. But keep in mind that our standards for ourselves are created through our interactions with others. So if others say being overweight is bad, then we view it as bad. So shame really comes from comparing ourselves to other people's standards that we've adopted as our own.
What Psychological Processes Contribute to Shame?
Shame is what is known as a self-conscious emotion. This means it involves self-evaluative processes. This is different from non-self-conscious emotions (like anger, fear, and sadness). When we experience self-consciousness, we reflect on our self-concept and think about how our current situation is related to our self-concept (Tracy & Robins, 2006). Next, we automatically and unconsciously ask ourselves a series of questions that help us decide whether or not to experience shame.
Locus of control
First, we ask "Is this caused by me, or is this caused by something outside of me?" In psychology, this thinking about whether somethings is caused by us or outside of us is called locus of control. For example, if that guy at work is teasing us, do we think it's because there is something wrong with us (internal locus of control), or is it because he's a jerk (external locus of control)?
An internal locus of control (i.e., this thing was caused by me) likely results in more shame than an external locus of control (i.e., this thing was caused by someone or something else, but not me; Tracy & Robins, 2006).
Second, we ask ourselves "Can I change the cause of this event?" Our answer is either, "Yes, this is controllable," or "No, this is not controllable." For example, if that guy at work is teasing us about the color of our shirt, that might feel more controllable because we can wear a different shirt. But if he's teasing us because of the color of our skin or the shape of our body, that will likely feel less controllable because we can't change it.
If we determine that this thing is controllable, then we might be more likely to experience guilt—we might feel bad, but hey, we can do something about it. If we determine that this thing is uncontrollable, then we're more likely to experience shame—we can't do anything about it so it must just be a permanent part of who we are, right? Or at least that's what the brain concludes (Tracy & Robins, 2006).
Third, we ask ourselves, "How stable or permanent is this thing?" For example, if that guy at work is teasing us about being stupid, that might feel like a pretty stable thing because it might be hard to change how smart we are. But if he's teasing us about not putting in enough effort, that might feel more unstable because we can change how much effort we put. If we judge that the thing is pretty stable, we are likely to feel more shame. If there is no changing it, then again, we figure the problem lies with us (Tracy & Robins, 2006).
Depending on how we answer the questions—and remember we do this without awareness—we may or may not feel shame.
Video: Brene Brown on Shame
When Does 'State Shame' Become 'Trait Shame'?
If a kid ridicules us on the playground (or even if an adult teases us at work), we might experience 'state (or momentary) shame'. But if we experience ridicule often enough, the shame starts to internalize—it starts to become a part of us. This is when we might start to develop 'trait shame'.
We develop trait shame through repeated social interactions that teach us that something must be wrong with us (since that's what others keep telling us). Some suggest that this leads us to develop heightened self-conscious awareness. We frequently think about ourselves while knowing that some part of that self is bad or inadequate. It's a real bummer so we can then end up with mental health issues like depression.
So, unlike guilt, there doesn't need to be a causal event for us to experience shame. With trait shame, the cause of our shame can be our own self-contempt. It no longer needs to come from others. The negative evaluations or ridicule now come from inside us (Lewis, 1995).
What Are the Impacts of Shame?
Men are more likely to experience anger in response to shame, women are more likely to experience depression (Lewis, 1995). Others might try to be invisible or become perfectionistic to avoid experiencing shame. But perhaps most notably, shame can stop action. While guilt motivates action (we want to fix what made us feel guilty), shame makes us feel that we are wrong. So the only way to fix 'the problem' is to stop being, existing, or doing anything. This may be why shame often leads to inaction or an inability to respond effectively to ridicule (Lewis, 1995).
If we have developed trait shame, we may also shift from having an internal locus of control (i.e., this thing was caused by me) towards having an external locus of control (i.e., this thing was caused by someone or something else that's not me). This can help protect us from feeling chronic shame. But, it's also likely to result in increased anger, which is not really good for us in the longer run (Tracy & Robins, 2006).
Another effect of shame may be that we have a poor sense of self. We bounce back and forth between seeing ourselves through the eyes of others—our tormentors—and our own eyes. Importantly, we see ourselves negatively through the eyes of others (Scheff, 2003). We may also see ourselves negatively through our own eyes, but this is slightly different (this would be called poor self-esteem). If you have shame but still have normal self-esteem, you may say to yourself, "I feel like everybody hates me, but I don't hate myself."
Why Is Shame So Important?
In general, we humans don't really enjoy the experience of negative emotions, and we don't enjoy other people's negative emotions. So in modern society, this social pressure can make all negative emotions difficult to express and resolve. But interestingly, each negative emotion has its own restrictions. For example, in American culture, men are encouraged not to feel sadness (e.g., boys don't cry), and women are encouraged not to feel anger (e.g., hell hath no fury like a woman scorned).
Even more interesting, shame is the tool that is used to enforce these social rules. More specifically, other people shame us for feeling emotions we are not 'supposed to' feel. We will not express these emotions if we will be shamed for doing so. We might actually want to feel emotions like anger or sadness—and there are known benefits of doing so—but shame stops us because we really don't want to feel shame. Why is that?
Some have argued it's because shame, itself, is taboo. We not only feel ashamed in response to an experience. We then feel ashamed for feeling ashamed. So we deny our shame, pushing it out of our consciousness. If we don't know our shame is there, we can't be ashamed of our shame, right? So our shame is buried, but yet it the key that regulates awareness and expression of all of our other emotions (Scheff, 2003). No wonder we feel so trapped.
How to Identify Shame
One way to identify shame is by reverse engineering it from its outcomes. In other words, look at the experiences that shame causes and see if you can identify if shame is part of what got you there.
The role of resentment
One way to reverse engineer shame is to look at resentment. Shame and anger can combine and turn into resentment (Scheff, 2003). So ask yourself, do you resent anyone? If so, see if you can track that resentment back to any experience of shame.
The role of guilt
Another thing to take a look at is any guilt you have. Guilt can often be a convenient mask for shame (Scheff, 2003). So if you feel guilty about something, ask yourself if there is any shame hiding underneath?
Video: An Example of Working Through Shame
Name Your Shame
Given shame can be largely unconscious, identifying and labeling shame appears to be a key component in resolving it (Scheff, 2003). This tends to be true for emotions, in general, since labeling emotions helps us better understand ourselves, our experiences, and related behaviors (Beck, 2011). So to start, name your shame. You don't have to share this with anyone else. Just write down, "I felt shame when..." Describe a few times when you felt shame. It might hurt to acknowledge it, but once you do, you can start to resolve these emotions.
Try Shame-Focused Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is a useful tool for helping us improve our self-views and combat our inner self-critic. But self-compassion is a tool that's used to view ourselves positively through our own eyes. Given that shame involves having negative views of the self through others' eyes, I suggest a modified approach to self-compassion.
To cultivate this type of self-compassion, write a self-compassionate letter to yourself, but imagine writing it from the point of view of someone who is more powerful than you. It could be from a boss, a parent, a teacher, someone who shamed you in the past, or just an imaginary person. In the letter, make sure their message is kind, supportive, and compassionate. Share words of validation like, "You are a good person worthy of love and success."
Try Shame-Focused Loving-Kindness Meditation
Loving-kindness meditation is a kind of meditation that has been shown in research to increase positive emotions (Fredrickson et al., 2008). In this meditation, you alternate between imagining giving love out to others and receiving it back. To try to undo shame-focused messages from your past, try to imagine giving love out to those who shamed you and then imagine them giving you love back. You might imagine them saying to you, "I wish you all the health and happiness you desire." Check out this activity for more guidance on how to do this meditation.
Try Shame-Focused Visualization
One more strategy you might want to try for shame is visualization. Start by imagining you have a guardian angel of sorts. She is the opposite of the people in your past that shamed you. She might look deep into your eyes and tell you that you are an amazing person. Or, she might smile and look at you adoringly. She might hug you or hold you. Or, she might be your cheerleader, rooting you on in ways that no one ever has.
Try to imagine this supportive angel in as much detail as possible. Really try to feel the emotions of being complimented or adored and be present with those thoughts and feelings for as long as you can hold onto them. If you found this helpful, try to repeat this exercise each evening before bed to begin to retrain your brain to see yourself differently through others' eyes.
Books on Shame
Do you still want to learn more about overcoming shame? Here a few books that can help you dig deeper.
Shame is a complicated negative emotion. Luckily, if we name our shame, we can start working with it and hopefully, start improving our well-being.