Understanding negative emotions: shame
Shame is built in our bodies based on the experience we have had with other people, such as our caregivers, relatives, friends and teachers. Shame is morally, socially and evolutionarily relevant, because it favours the integrity of human groups, helping increase their survival rates. When we stick together, we tend to live longer and healthier lives. While behaviours such as altruism, treating each other well, being empathetic, sharing and helping each other favour the quality of our relationships, acting in an exclusively narcissistic, selfish, aggressive and anti-social manner threaten their unity. Fortunately, shame is an emotion that is there to regulate such behaviours, so that the interests of the group prevail. For that reason, shame may feel like “emotional punishment” for not respecting the integrity and harmony of a group, or the rules that make us identify with each other and work in cooperation.
The role of shame
Shame warns us when we have broken the rules shared by a given group. Because those values or set of social rules vary according to cultural context, what is shameful for a certain group may be acceptable for another. While guilt tells us that we have done something wrong, shame points the finger directly at us, as if saying: “You are wrong”. Therefore, shame has the potential to become extremely toxic to self-esteem, because it causes us to feel rejected and even a failure. Moreover, since it is a “learned” emotion, it can become an internalised self-sabotaging mechanism or a bad emotional habit through which we constantly criticise and judge ourselves. When that occurs, we feel vulnerable and tend to isolate from others.
Feelings related to shame
Embarrassment, inadequacy, worthlessness and regret, as well as feeling mortified or dishonoured, are all shame-based feelings (If you need help identifying feelings of shame, please click here).
How shame is felt in the body
Interestingly, shame, as a “moral feeling” (Michl et al, 2014) is triggered by the frontal, temporal and limbic areas of the brain (linked to rational thinking, learning and fear and survival, respectively). As you can notice below, the bodily sensations associated with shame prepare us to disconnect, avoid and even hide from the other:
- Heavy body: head, torso, legs and arms
- Elevated heartbeat
- Shoulders rolled forward
- Tucked pelvis
- Eyes look downward
- Lack of movement
- Heated head and face
Adaptive and maladaptive shame
Because we value a sense of belonging, adaptive shame can stop us from acting against our best interests, as damaging the relationships we value. The same applies to our life goals and achievements. When a friend catches you out watching TV in the afternoon, when you had planned to study for a big exam, for instance, and, consequently, you feel inadequate, shame helps you stay focused on what is important to you in the long term (qualifications, better chance of employment, etc.). In such contexts, shame is adaptive because it favours goal attainment and psychological wellbeing. In that context, shame does not “run the show” as the sole motivator, but it arises in specific contexts to remind a confident and responsible individual to choose the behaviours that match his or her objectives. Maladaptive shame, however, does not contribute to personal and professional growth gracefully, but it has a hindering and lasting, self-destructive effect. When behaviour is dictated by shame, incredible harm is done to identity and self-esteem, which creates a great distance between our ourselves and our essence. Maladaptive shame is considered the most toxic of emotions, since its effect is extremely debilitating to one’s ability to connect not only with his or her own self, but also with others, making it impossible for one to feel contentment, as well as a real sense of love and joy in life.
What your shame says about you
As we have already noted, shame tells you when there is something supposedly wrong with your way of being or behaving. If you relate to your shame in a functional way – listening to its message from a balanced perspective – you take what you need (if anything) from it, and use it to recentre or reach a better state of alignment between your values and true identity. By doing so, you act with self-esteem and grow from the experience. That pragmatic attitude towards shame, and your ability to judge and regulate it, reflect a high level of self-awareness, respect and love for yourself. Shame that cannot be shaken off that effectively, but it seems to resonate with negative core beliefs such as, “I am not good enough” or “I am damaged goods”, however, lingers for longer than required to create a healthy sense of awareness. In that case, its purpose is not to inform and help you regain focus on what enhances wellbeing and development, but humiliate and denigrate you. Recurrent feelings of toxic shame is often a sign that you need to take better care of yourself emotionally and psychologically.
Due to its harmful effect on the psyche and body, toxic shame is connected to an array of mental health problems such as unresolved childhood trauma, as well as personality, anxiety and mood disorders, amongst others. If you are not satisfied with the relationship you keep with your shame or ability to control it, I highly recommend seeking professional health. Facing your shame head-on, with energy and courage, remains the best away to weaken its power over you and improve self-esteem.
Michl P., Meindl T., Meister F., Born C., Engel R.R., Reiser, M., Hennig-Fast K. (2014). Neurobiological underpinnings of shame and guilt: a pilot fMRI study. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 9(2): 150–157. http://dx. doi: 10.1093/scan/nss114