Shame

A reader recently wrote in to our community about feeling depressed and having some self-injury issues, and fairly frequent suicidal thoughts, so I write back and forth with her a little bit as I have been doing, trying to understand things better. Repeatedly, she refers to herself as being "stupid"; "Nothing is wrong" in her life, to justify the way she is feeling and behaving, she thinks, so her conclusion is that she is stupid. Apparently only people who have been grossly abused are allowed to feel badly for themselves. It's an unnecessarily high standard to hold yourself to, I think to myself.

In fact, the reader's writing is pretty good and she's in college, suggesting someone who is reasonably intelligent. Obviously, her coping repertoire is not optimal if she's cutting on herself, but that is not at all the same thing as being stupid. And besides, no matter how you slice it (pun intended), the word stupid always implies an insult; it is never a respectful way to talk. I suggest to her that maybe the word "stuck" is a better term to use than stupid, but she has rejected that alternative and less judgmental formulation of the issue. It seems she is invested in putting herself down for the time being.

I'm thinking to myself, where does this sort of need to put yourself down come from? I know that it is normal to think this negative way when you are depressed, but it is also the case that thinking this way can make you depressed. Feeling "stupid" in the manner the reader is using that word is perhaps another way of saying that she believes she's failed to pass the test for being an acceptable human being. Believing this about yourself can make you ill. And it brings up the issue of shame pretty squarely, at least for me. Because shame seems to be the right word to describe what this young woman is experiencing right now. She's feeling pretty low, and punishing herself for feeling this way. She feels she is not an acceptable person.

Shame is a Social Emotion

Let's talk a little bit about shame, then, as shame seems to be a fairly central negative emotion in the lives of many people who visit our website. It's certainly not an issue limited to this reader.

Shame is a common and pretty much universal human emotion but it is not what psychologists call a basic emotion. Basic emotions, such as disgust and joy, are hard-wired into the brain and body, are pretty much present from birth, and are "selfish" in orientation. I do not mean to suggest, through my use of the term selfish, that people who experience basic emotions are acting selfishly. Rather, I'm trying to suggest that all the basic emotions can occur in the complete absence of other people; They are reflections of and reactions to people's own internal states and do not refer to anyone other than the person experiencing them. The contorted face characteristic of disgust reflects a baby's revulsion at tasting something nasty, for instance. The face is about how the baby feels, and about the baby's experience and nothing more. The face communicates emotion if someone is around to see it, but it is not necessary that some audience be present in order for the baby to make the face.

Shame is a more complex emotion than disgust, because unlike disgust, shame is an inherently social emotion that depends on an awareness of social relationships before it can occur. It is impossible for a newborn baby to experience shame because a newborn has no concept of a social world yet. There's just the baby's needs and that is pretty much it. Only through gradual interaction, frustration and slow social-emotional development does a baby eventually realize that it is a separate being from other people. It is only after this realization of self as part of a web of social relationships that shame can occur.

Shame as a Failure to Measure Up

Consciousness of others is a necessary part of shame. Most definitions of shame suggest that shame is the emotion that is experienced when people realize that they have failed to measure up to some social standard that has been set out for them by other people to achieve. This meaning is present in the Wikipedia definition, for instance where:

"Shame is the consciousness or awareness of dishonor, disgrace, or condemnation."

and also in this definition from Merriam-Webster

1 a: a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety b: the susceptibility to such emotion 2: a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute : ignominy 3 a: something that brings censure or reproach; also : something to be regretted : pity b: a cause of feeling shame

When you haven't yet figured out that there are other people in the world who matter (as is the case with newborns, narcissists and sociopaths), you do not yet recognize that such a thing as social standards exists (or are important) and thus there is no solid basis present for shame to occur.

I guess part of the point I want to make here is that shame is often talked about as a problem of self-consciousness, but it is additionally inherently also a problem of other-consciousness (of the consciousness of the self as a social object). Self-consciousness and other-consciousness are two sides of the same coin when it comes to shame, and neither can be discussed without also talking about the other.

How does Shame occur?

Shaming happens when one person judges another person in a negative fashion. Because at least two people are involved in the process, each has a role to play in making shame happen. First, one person has to communicate a judgmental message to the other person which says in some fashion that they have failed to meet an important social standard. Then, the person receiving the message needs to accept the judgment of the sending person. In this sense, shame is a message or a communication. If the person receiving a shame message accepts that message, he or she will feel ashamed. If he or she rejects the message, however, the feeling of shame may be avoided.

Rejecting a shaming message is difficult to do, because most people derive a large sense of their self-esteem and identity through their relationships with other people. Even if those relationships are not intimate; even if they are contentious or jealous in nature, so long as people look up to others or need them in some emotional fashion, it will be hard for them to not take seriously what those respected or needed people have to say.

We can draw an example to help flesh these ideas out from my essay on the long term effects of bullying. A bunch of kids run after you as you exit the school bus, knock you down and proceed to kick and punch you for a while. There isn't any explicit message, but what comes across is something like, "You're weak and vulnerable". "We think you are pathetic", "You're not one of us", "We're powerful and you aren't", "We're having fun and you're in pain". These are the messages being sent which communicate that you've failed to meet a social standard. It is very difficult to not take these messages seriously; to not internalize them and start believing them when the evidence that you are not wanted by others is so concrete.

Shame is not always communicated through physical abuse. It can also communicated through sexual abuse and other forms of abuse such as neglect; through name calling and insults; through exclusion from a group, and (when it comes from someone you care about) through stern judgmental talking, or through a refusal to talk or to forgive. The social standards that are communicated in shame-inducing interactions can be very subtle and may never be spoken out loud. Alternatively, you may be literally hit in the face with them.

Why do people shame one another?

As near as I can determine, people shame one another because shaming is an effective way of gaining power over others and altering and shaping their behavior. Shame communicates who is outcast and who is elite; who is one-down and who is one-up. Most people can't help but care a lot about their relative social standing. They derive a whole lot of their own self-esteem from how other people treat them, and if other people start treating them badly (or otherwise communicating outsider status), they will start to question their own self-worth.

Shaming is not all bad. Some shaming has a teaching and socializing purpose. When shame communications come from people who love you, they often take the form of teaching corrections designed to make you aware of how your actions impact others. You may be acting thoughtlessly and hedonistically (as many of us do) and your parent or loved one may come along and tell you "don't pick your nose", or "stop beating up your little brother", and you become embarrassed and ashamed in front of your parents or loved ones and others because it never occurred to you before that what you were doing was unacceptable or you thought you'd gotten away with it at least but no, you're busted instead. In this case, shame functions to expand your social and emotional awareness by making you aware that your needs are not so special (that other people have needs too), and this knowledge ultimately helps you to grow as a person and enter into successful and long lasting intimate relationships because you stop acting like an entitled immature person.

When shame comes from people who don't care about you, however, the message is destructive rather than constructive. Abusive people communicate through their abuse that they are using you like an object for their own pleasure and that puts strong pressure on you to start thinking of yourself as an object (a punching bag, a slut, an object of ridicule, a nothing). The more you buy into the proposition that you are an object for others to take advantage of, the more easy it becomes for those abusive people to take further advantage of you because you start cooperating with them in taking advantage of you.

Case in point. In college, I knew a girl whose father incested her repeatedly from the time she was a young teen. Her reaction was to make herself unattractive as possible, but she never called the cops on him. She became grossly overweight, and didn't wash much. Her father's abuse of her; his use of her as a sexual object; communicated to her that her needs were not important; that she was an object to be used up; that she was dirty; that she was not able to control her environment. Her active attempts to make herself ugly may have been a way for her to make her internal impression of herself (as dirty) become the external impression other people would get. It may also have been a passive way for her to try to ward off further rape. If that was the case, it wasn't a very effective coping strategy.

Institutional uses of Shame

The use of shame as a strategy to control people's behavior is by no means limited to small one-on-one or group interactions. Shame strategies are widely used to influence people at every level of culture, including religion, shopping and politics. Consider the case of "original sin" for a moment. Religions which affirm the doctrine of original sin suggest that people are corrupt by nature, a condition which can only be made right through wholehearted uncritical acceptance and active practice of the religion itself. This practice would be innocent enough if it was done in a purely teaching mode (e.g., in a way similar to how many parents end up shaming their children as a method for socializing them), but some religious leaders use the process of religious shaming to enrich themselves, or project and amplify their political views by saying that they speak for God when they endorse one candidate or one policy over another.

As another example, consider how cover models used to sell magazines are photoshopped (digitally altered) so as to look impossibly thin and young. Notice how in the July 2007 Redbook photo cover of singer Faith Hill, what was photoshopped away was her crow's feet eye wrinkles and her arm fat (not that there was much arm fat there to begin with). In these subtle ways, an impossible cult of female youthful perfection is foisted on the public, who are then primed to do whatever they can do to look more that way, including purchasing the makeup and skin products heavily advertised in the magazine. This is a non-verbal shaming process that is very deliberately orchestrated for commercial purposes. An interesting twist on this particular variety of shaming is that the actual shaming message (e.g., that you are fat and old; that this is unacceptable; and that you'd better use makeup products to make yourself presentable) is never explicitly spoken. The message is just so prevalent in the culture already that the marketers don't have to hit anyone over the head with it; it's already there latent in women's minds just waiting to be activated by a photoshopped image.

The Urge to Keep Shame Secret

The antidote to shame is fairly simple in theory but hard to do in practice. People who are feeling ashamed need to become aware of that shame in a conscious way, and then they need to reject it or eject it from their minds and bodies. It's hard to become aware of what we feel ashamed about, however, and it is also hard to reject that shame. There are several reasons why this is so.

Shame is highly anxiety provoking, for one thing. We avoid thinking about things that make us anxious. Why would we want to think about how we are fat or old or slutty, or going to hell or vulnerable if we can avoid doing that? It is much easier in the short term to push shaming beliefs away from our consciousness rather than to look at them squarely.

Another reason is that when we are ashamed, we think we will make our shame worse if we share that shame. Remember, shame is a social emotion. If we are feeling bad about ourselves because of a message that was communicated to us by one group of people, we are likely to think that if other people knew about our secret shame, they'd look down on us too. By sharing our shame, we'd be magnifying it and spreading knowledge of it around so that more people would judge us negatively, is what we often think.

Recall how important other people's opinions of us are to most of our self-esteems, however, and you will see that the process of sharing shame could go either way. It could make us feel more ashamed than ever before (because now new people are looking down on us), but it could also make us feel much better about ourselves (because now there are people who know our secret and don't look down on us, but instead accept us). This is the power inherent in therapeutic witnessing, and also the danger.

Recovery from Shame and some Traps that people fall into

The way out of shame feelings is generally to talk about them with other people who will not reject you for whatever it is you feel ashamed about. But it is anxiety provoking to do this because of the risk that such other people will reject you. For this reason, great care needs to be taken in terms of choosing who you speak to about the things you are ashamed of. A therapy group or a therapist's office is often a helpful setting in which to share shame memories, because the people who are to be found in such settings are generally understanding and unlikely to turn on you. vSome people are so ashamed of themselves that when they share their secret shames with other people and those people do not reject them, they can't believe that could be happening. Rather than see this acceptance as evidence in favor of there being no good reason to believe the shame, many ashamed people instead turn on the people who have just accepted them and find fault with them. They may say, "these people who have accepted me; they are losers because only losers would accept me". They may say, "these people who have accepted me don't really know me, because deep down I am really a bad person. If they really knew me, they would reject me." They then may feel a compulsion to go out and do something shameful to sabotage themselves so as to reconfirm their negative self-image. These are psychological traps some people fall into, particularly when they have been abused and deeply believe in their own awfulness.

I knew a woman who had been out on the street prostituting herself and getting high on heroin before she came into our substance abuse treatment program in New Haven, CT. She lasted about two weeks and then relapsed, in part because of the pull of the addiction and the cravings, but I think also because she really believed she was a bad person, and though she really wasn't a bad person, she needed to prove to herself that she was a bad person. Prostituting herself and using drugs was consistent with her deepest self-image.

I'll end this essay, as I have many others, with an appeal to you, the reader: Please contribute a story or comment about your own experiences dealing with shame. Having reader input appended to this essay makes the essay much more useful to other readers who will come upon it later, because it is then not just some guy lecturing about shame; it is also then a human document filled with experience and wisdom that other people can really relate to. Please help us by contributing your own story.

  • How did you come to experience shame in your own life.
  • How has that shame affected you?
  • How have you dealt with that shame? What has helped to reduce it? What parts of it are you stuck with. What makes it difficult to cope with?