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What is Shame?

Updated: Aug 1, 2020

Gabor Mate wrote in his book When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress that “Shame is the deepest of the ‘negative emotions;’ a feeling we will do almost anything to avoid.”

Shame is one of the ‘self-conscious’ emotions, which are those affected by how we see ourselves and how we think others perceive us. From that definition, we could think that shame is not a primary emotion and that it appears as soon as we start having awareness of our role among others.

Erikson Developmental Stages and Shame

Erik Erikson considered shame to be of high importance including it as one of the failures on the development of the personality (and identity). In the description of his eight developmental stages, he explained that each stage has a particular goal and that successfully completing each one results in a healthy personality and the acquisition of basic characteristic strengths that could be used to resolve crises in the future.

He assigned shame as the failure during the second stage --which happens at age 1 1/2 to 3. The goal during that stage is to achieve autonomy, and if the kid doesn’t achieve it, then shame happens. Stage II focuses on developing a sense of personal control over physical skills and a sense of independence. Success in this stage leads to the virtue of will. If the child is encouraged and supported in his/her increased independence, s[h]e will develop confidence and security in his/her own ability to survive. If, in the contrary, the kid is criticized, overly controlled, or not given the opportunity to assert him/herself, feelings of inadequacy will develop, and the child will become overly dependent upon others, lacking self-esteem, and feeling a sense of shame or doubt in his/her abilities.

Freud and Shame

Freud defined shame as “a painful affect concerned with sexual matters and with the evacuation of the bladder and bowels — precisely to the extent that these things evoke, or threaten to evoke, the disgust and contempt of others, and to the extent that such a consequence is something to be feared.”

Maybe because of this way to see shame, therapists ignored it for so long. Freud said that guilt is a type of anxiety, and shame is a result of anxiety — hence anxiety will be considered first, then guilt, and finally shame.

The Emotion of Shame

From my understanding of emotions —they all happen to signal something important for us to consider; shame is the one that carries the message of “if you do that, you could be rejected.”

So, shame has attached a physiological reaction that serves as an alarm system for us to stop saying/doing something that will put us at risk.

Gershen Kaufman, Professor Emeritus in psychology at Michigan State University, and a pioneer in the study of shame fines shame as “the most disturbing experience individuals ever have about themselves; no other emotion feels more deeply disturbing because in the moment of shame the self feels wounded from within.” His explanation really projects the cost of allowing shame to become a pervasive emotion: from the conviction of defectiveness and unworthiness to self-hate.

Shame arises when we believe that we are damaged in some way. Depend on higher order cognitive abilities such as self-recognition and public self-consciousness. It is typically associated with a negative evaluation of the self, withdrawal motivations, and feelings of distress, exposure, mistrust, powerlessness, and worthlessness.

When we are shamed --often in the developing years-- we become emotionally conditioned to feel ashamed in similar situations even if we bear no responsibility.

Shame is considered a recently evolved emotion for some while others consider it a basic emotion. Some scholars argue that it's evident in infants when they perceive themselves to have failed at certain tasks but some people affirm that it develops as kids become aware of their social roles but that it's not present at birth. Shame "attenuates" positive affects such as excitement and enjoyment.

In terms of brain activation, it sets off high activity in the right part of the brain but not in the amygdala. Shame and guilt share some neural networks, as well as having individual areas of activation: frontal, temporal and limbic areas play a prominent role in the generation of “moral” feelings.

Shame as a Destructive Mechanism

I like comparing shame to rheumatoid arthritis (RA). RA is an autoimmune condition, which means it's caused by the immune system attacking healthy body tissue. It’s like an illness that comes from the body attacking itself and making it sick with the intention of protecting the body from illness. A solution that is more harming than the problem.

The same way, shame is a self-attack to the psyche. It has the intention to protect the person from ending up being alone creating terrible aloneness. It creates a sense of defectiveness that makes the person feel the wish to disappear, the impulse to hide, feelings of distress, exposure, mistrust, powerlessness, and worthlessness.

Shame can become a pervasive state of being. Repeated experiences of shame develop negative self-beliefs and future mistakes are more likely to trigger shame-based self-criticism.

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