Why this matters
We experience shame when we feel a painful sense of being inadequate, flawed or unworthy. Shame is the opposite of pride and it’s very similar to guilt – both involve negative self-judgment.
Guilt occurs when we feel badly about what we have or haven’t done, whereas shame is feeling badly about ourselves as a person.
Embarrassment and shyness may be mild forms of shame. On a more intense level, we might feel disgusted with ourselves.
When we feel ashamed, we might think things like “Everyone probably thinks I’m a fool,” or “I’m such an idiot!” We might also have mental images or memories of a group of people laughing at the way we talk or of our parents showing their disapproval with furrowed eyebrows.
The most common bodily symptoms of shame are blushing and flushed skin. There might also be sweating, increased heart rate and rapid breathing. Shame and anxiety symptoms are similar. Often, feelings of shame kick in when we’re embarrassed or humiliated in front of other people, like during a presentation.
Shame can also happen when no one else is around, like when we realize we’ve made a mistake. But when we’re around other people the feelings are likely harder to bear. Realizing or believing we’re somehow inadequate, incapable or incompetent drives these feelings.
When we feel ashamed, it’s natural to want to hide our face and withdraw. We tend to look downward, lower the head, look away or maintain a crouched posture. We might lose focus on what we’re doing and speak less coherently. Imagine what you’d see when a shy person has to make a speech. You may see them shake, blush and stumble over words. Our natural response to shame is to attempt to escape the feelings by running away and hiding. We might even have an urge to cover our eyes or face.
Explore and reflect
The examples below show situations in which experiences of shame can affect the way we think of ourselves and the way we act. Notice how actions could or would be different if the thoughts were different.
A person at a social event thoughtlessly utters a comment, then realizes others might see it as insensitive. People in the room become silent and stare at the person.
There might be a memory of a parent or teacher shaking their head in disapproval. “Oh no, now everyone’s going to think I’m just an insensitive jerk. Maybe I am. I can’t bear to be stared at any longer.”
- Apologize profusely.
- Try to explain it’s a misunderstanding.
- Avoid eye contact.
“I had no intention to be inappropriate and will rephrase my comment to clarify.”
There’s a meeting about progress on a neighbourhood clean-up project. Most residents have worked overtime to clean their areas. The person who suggested the effort hasn’t started her part yet.
“I’m a bad neighbor and leader. I’m irresponsible and lazy.”
Talk defensively. Make excuses.
“I haven’t started my part, but I know what my responsibility is. I’ll get it done, just as I usually do.”
The annual sales report just came out, and a manager’s departmental results are the lowest in the company.
Mental image of an old boss or teacher frowning at a failure. “I’m a terrible manager. I’d better do whatever it takes to boost sales so I don’t lose face again.”
Don’t tell others about poor performance. Work overtime and sacrifice personal well-being of yourself and your team to increase sales.
“I need to dedicate more attention to increasing sales next quarter. Someone had to come in last. It feels terrible for it to be me, but I’ll get through this. I’ll collaborate with my team on how I can support them to do better.”
During a dance practice, a student demonstrates a move the teacher couldn’t manage.
“They totally upstaged me. I look like an idiot.”
Try to redeem the situation by acting like the student got lucky. Avoid calling on the student for the rest of the class and show only moves you can perform.
“No one I’ve ever met can perform all the moves we practice in this class. No reasonable person’s going to expect me to always be the best.”
An actor starts to cry in a very difficult scene even though the scene doesn’t warrant tears.
“Everyone on set probably thinks I can’t act. I look like a fool.”
Avoid eye contact with the director and the crew for the rest of the film shoot. Deliver a less emotional performance.
“This is a tough scene and I needed to tap into my emotions. I’ve never watched someone cry spontaneously and thought they must be a fool.”
Understanding what contributes to shame can help us identify the feeling when we experience it. This allows us to do something to help lessen these uncomfortable feelings in the heat of the moment.
It’s also important to note that shame, like other negative emotions, isn’t necessarily useless. The examples show that sometimes fear of shame or losing face drive us to improve. We might become more competitive, put extra time and effort into the effort or strive to earn the reputation as someone who comes through for others.
Shameful experiences may lead to greater productivity. But they also set a negative tone for our day-to-day feelings and drain our energy. It’s helpful to be aware of what underlies our feelings of shame. What sort of negative self-judgments do we make or what don’t we like about ourselves? Knowing these things can make us more mindful of the ways we act.
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