The Gift of Shame: A Positive Look at a Negative Emotion

A young professional hides face in hands while leaning against a fenceShame has a bad reputation. Let’s face it: it doesn’t feel good. I mean, who really wants to feel shame? It’s uncomfortable, even downright painful at times.

Here is something to consider, though: shame (closely related to guilt and regret) is an essential part of our survival and functioning and, in fact, is a gift from Mother Nature.

Let’s back up here a bit and first talk about the functions of emotions generally. Emotions are hardwired into our brains and help to warn us, facilitate connections to other people, and work through challenges. “Positive” emotions such as joy, pride, and love tend to feel good, while “negative” emotions such as anger, shame, and sadness tend to cause discomfort. It is easy to want to push away and avoid the “negative” emotions, but it is important to note that both types of emotions are necessary in order to function in the healthiest way possible.

Now let’s get back to our friend, shame. Shame’s function is pretty important. Basically, it helps to keep us in check. Shame is a signal that there has been some sort of action that could harm others or ourselves. This could be an action that hurts a relationship with a loved one, something that could get us in trouble somehow, or a behavior that would be dangerous or harmful to us.

When we utilize shame appropriately and feel the right amount all the way through, it can be corrective and preventative in that it helps us to not make the same mistakes again. Having shame also helps us to repair when an action has caused harm to relationships. It helps us to identify and take accountability for our actions, and when others see we are experiencing some degree of shame, defenses usually go down and healing conversations can take place. When we feel shame about something self-inflicted (drinking, drugs, putting ourselves in dangerous positions, etc.), we can assess the steps we need to take in order to prevent doing future harm to ourselves.

We all do things that warrant feelings of shame, guilt, and remorse. It is part of the human experience. Making mistakes is an important part of learning, and shame is an excellent teacher.

As great as shame can be, sometimes we can have too little or too much. In doses that are too small, we do not get the full opportunity to learn from the experience. Our system is not able to fully register that we have engaged in a behavior that warrants some degree of remorse. As a result, we may be more likely to engage in the damaging behavior again, possibly with negative life consequences.

Too much shame can overwhelm us and distort the experience. We may blame ourselves for things we should not take accountability for (like someone else’s actions) and end up in an impossible position where we are trying to learn someone else’s lesson. The system becomes confused when shame is distorted because we are not able to control or prevent future actions of others.

Finding the right dose of shame is key. When assessing whether you have too much or too little shame, ask yourself: Did I engage in a behavior (or behaviors) that caused harm? If the answer is no, it is important to assign correct responsibility and to check in with yourself to make sure you are not taking on another person’s lesson. If the answer is yes, ask yourself: How much harm was caused by the behavior and would it be harmful if repeated? It is often helpful to use objective others as sounding boards when assessing your level of shame so you can learn from the situation and move forward.

We all do things that warrant feelings of shame, guilt, and remorse. It is part of the human experience. Making mistakes is an important part of learning, and shame is an excellent teacher.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Anastasia Pollock, LCMHC, therapist in Midvale, Utah

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Elliott

    Elliott

    July 26th, 2016 at 8:02 AM

    It is truly one of those feelings that most of us want to avoid having to feel over and over again.

  • Marissa

    Marissa

    July 26th, 2016 at 2:00 PM

    And those people who feel no shame over their actions, how can you continue to allow them to be a part of your life when the lessons are never learned?

  • jason

    jason

    July 27th, 2016 at 8:33 AM

    Well I guess it can be a gift but only if you actually choose to grow and learn from the experience.
    If you refuse to do that and just bury your head, then I guess I am a little lost as to how it can offer anything positive to you.

  • Lucy

    Lucy

    February 13th, 2019 at 10:02 AM

    Like all the ‘negative’ emotions. Far from negative, these unpleasant emotions are the ones that will change our lives usually for the better if we allow ourselves to take guidance from them.

  • Matthew

    Matthew

    July 28th, 2016 at 7:11 AM

    Well whose responsibility is it to teach others to use shame appropriately? Or is this something that most mature adults will grow into?

  • Terri

    Terri

    July 30th, 2016 at 11:15 AM

    I am not too sure that I can buy into the whole shame as a gift idea.

  • Emily

    Emily

    August 3rd, 2016 at 11:59 AM

    It may be just a matter of semantics, but after reading Brene Brown’s work and gaining a TON of insight into shame’s function in my own life, I have trouble seeing it as a good thing. Guilt, remorse, regret, humility…all beneficial. But to me shame is that triggering voice that says not “you’ve done wrong” but “you ARE wrong (bad, worthless, etc.) and that just leaves a person stuck.

  • Amy

    Amy

    July 28th, 2019 at 12:39 AM

    Please put me on your mailing list.

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