We feel shame when we think of poorly of ourselves.
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
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
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, self-blame, feeling
guilty, humiliation, dishonored, feeling ridiculous, 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.
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
pessimistic self-talk. If you are
confident you have done your best, there is no reason to feel shame.
Benefits and Dangers of Shame
Shame is the inevitable result of self-awareness,
introspection, and self-appraisal. Shame is
an intrinsic punishment for bad behavior. It provides an incentive (as a
negative sanction) to work to increase stature. 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.” ~
- “Stop ‘should-ing’ on yourself!” ~ Albert Ellis
- “Shame is: ‘I am bad’ while guilt is: ‘I did something bad’”. ~
Passion and Reason: Making Sense of Our Emotions,
by Richard S. Lazarus, Bernice N. Lazarus
On Apology, by Aaron Lazare
Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, by Paul Ekman
The Cognitive Structure of Emotions, by Andrew Ortony, Gerald L. Clore, Allan Collins
Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, by Daniel Goleman
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
Violence, by James Gilligan
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