Shame as an Ethics Issue: Part II

Man hugging knees in cornerThis article is Part II of a three-part series. Part I defined shame and how it affects caregivers. Shame is defined as a deeply disturbing or painful feeling of guilt, incompetence, indecency, or blame-worthiness.

Shame and the Human Nervous System
It is clear that shame interferes with interpersonal relatedness. Summarized here by Inge Mula Myllerup, Stephen Porges explains that humans and other mammals have three levels of nervous system activation.

  • The social engagement nervous system: This system is activated when a mammal, human or other, is interacting with another through eye contact, verbal and/or nonverbal affective interaction without overwhelming experiences of fear.
  • Sympathetic hyperarousal: This second level of nervous system activation kicks in if and when a mammal perceives a situation as dangerous. A flight/fight reaction is triggered, with physiological activation of muscles in the arms and legs, leading the mammal to be inclined to either run or, when this is not possible, fight their way out of a situation.
  • Sympathetic hypoarousal: The third level of nervous system activation. This reaction kicks in when a mammal experiences a situation as life threatening without possibility for escape. The mammal freezes, arms and legs go limp and there is a dimming of life force. The mammal essentially “plays” dead.

Depending on the psychological resourcefulness of the person, the experience of feeling shame may take them directly to the most primal nervous system response—the freeze response. This level and intensity of shame may be perceived as a threat to Self and thus to survival. When in freeze response, it is impossible to connect and resource. When helping someone return to social engagement, it is useful to bridge through the three levels of nervous system activation. This means first helping the person activate by moving their arms and legs and turning their head to reorient, and then helping them get back into social engagement through touch, sound, and eye contact.

Recognizing Shame
Common experiential descriptions in response to shame include:

  • gazing down or averting eyes
  • collapse of body
  • turning inward for long periods
  • compressing body
  • extreme intensity
  • quick flash/slow burn

Try this experiment: Turn your awareness inside. Now invite your unconscious to offer you a not-so-charged memory of a time when you felt shame. Tune in to your felt sense—your body, spirit, mind, sensations, posture…Stay only long enough (less than a minute) to notice your experience. Literally shake this memory off before you return to reading this article. How does the above list compare to your experience? Is there anything you would add?

Common Effects of Shame
Common behavioral effects of shame include:

  • rage or depression
  • hopelessness
  • isolation
  • inability to reality check
  • loss of sense of Self
  • secrecy, denial, forgetfulness
  • obsessiveness about what happened
  • feeling spiritually bereft
  • wish to die or disappear
  • inability to accurately and objectively self-evaluate
  • loss of access to support
  • feeling of banishment or abandonment
  • loss of internal resources
  • loss of confidence

Once again, check this list with your personal experience and that of others. Is there anything you would add?

The Four Most Potent Effects

  • Isolation
  • Loss of resources
  • Hopelessness
  • Inability to reality check

These four are particularly potent because they tend to be a surprise. In addition, feeling isolated, without resources, and unable to reality check whether you have been harmed or caused harm are experiences that themselves tend to feel shameful, thus adding shame to shame. Understanding these particular effects that automatically accompany shame has been particularly useful for me and for my clients and friends to help reduce the severity of the shame experience. For example: a client might say, “I’m feeling isolated and hopeless. Those are shame effects. They are not ME.”

Kinds of Shame
The feeling of irredeemable disgrace has many dimensions to be aware of. Some, as named by Robert Karen, and augmented by Cedar Barstow, are as follows:

  • body shame
  • situational shame
  • competence shame
  • relationship shame
  • cultural shame
  • racial shame
  • religious shame

In all forms of shame, people flash back to the core shame experience of irreparable disgrace, badness, or unlovability. The immediate loss of connection, resources, and self-esteem make shame a very dramatic and disempowering emotion.

Responses to Shame
Our individual shame responses are scripts that have evolved over time to meet uncomfortable feelings, says Donald L. Nathanson in his book, Shame and Pride. He identifies four types of response on two axes: time and space.

The time axis has its extremes: withdrawal (a quick, sudden disconnection) and avoidance (slow, distracting behavior that takes one away from the situation). The spatial axis redefines relationships and moves between attack self (control the discomfort by taking control of the resultant bad feelings) and attack other (make someone else responsible). This range of responses explains the variety of strategies used by caregivers when they are operating from shame.

The four responses are:

  • Shame and trauma: The potency of shame makes it a traumatic experience. As with extreme fear or anxiety, shame disengages people from the social engagement nervous system that provides them with the interpersonal and internal connections and resources needed to deal with a situation without reverting to fight, flight, or freeze responses.
  • Guilt and remorse: When feeling reasonable guilt, people may be able to stop what they are doing. They can respond to feedback and organize around altering their behavior. Guilt can be moved toward the healing experience of regret. When feeling regret, people are resourced. They can acknowledge and take responsibility for causing harm, feel sorrow, and seek ways to self-correct. Regret or remorse heals and reconnects. A student says, “I think guilt is a feeling that assists us in finding our edge, or what is not quite right. It is a barometer for learning. If the lesson is missed, guilt can either turn inward: shame, or turn outward: blame. The point is to get the lesson before it has to introject or project.”
  • Sorrow and anger: For those who have been shamed and/or hurt, part of the healing process includes feeling sorrow and redirecting responsibility for the wound from Self to the abuser through appropriately expressed anger.
  • Self-righteousness: Self-righteousness is the cousin of shame. Self-righteousness overrides compassion and makes it difficult to own our potential for causing harm. Genuine expressions of guilt, sorrow, and regret may deepen into shame if met with self-righteousness.

Brief History of Shame
In medieval Europe, shame was the primary force used to tame and control behavior. According to the research of Johan Huizinga, “The average European town dweller was wildly erratic and inconsistent, murderously violent when enraged, easily plunged into guilt, tears and pleas for forgiveness, and bursting with physical and psychological eccentricities.” Robert Karen adds, “Situational shame spread rapidly, taming and civilizing the medieval passions, as a freer, more mobile society demanded that people be able to demonstrate to the world of strangers that they had their sexual and aggressive impulses on a leash.”

In modern times, shame is no longer the sole force around which inner controls are taught and organized. Caregivers are especially motivated by empathy, altruism, spirituality, or social responsibility. These motivators are more effective because they avoid the disconnect and loss of self-esteem that accompanies shame. Tragically, many lawsuits, prison systems, interrogation processes, parenting techniques, and educational methods still use shaming for behavior control and motivation for being good, despite demonstrations of shame’s ineffectiveness for control and motivation.

There is ongoing dialogue about whether experiencing shame in response to deeply inappropriate or harmful behavior has intrinsic benefit, or whether shame has no benefit at all. Augsburger says, “Shame is bipolar; it both separates and presses for reunion; it is an impulse to conceal and a yearning to be accepted; it is responsibility to others and personal recognition of a need to respond in more acceptable ways.”

Those who feel that shame has no value focus instead on the extreme effects of shame—disconnection, sense of irreparable disgrace, and inability to reality check. Those who feel that shame has intrinsic value focus on the other side of the polarity—the desire for reconnection and self-correction. They feel that the extreme emotional intensity of shame is required for necessary behavioral changes. Dr. Joyce Brothers refers to “good shame” as shame that “gives you new insight about yourself, encourages you to make improvements, expands your value system, makes you more sensitive to others, and makes you want to elevate the culture around you.”

Regardless of your point of view, the positive effects described cannot take place until the shame is deactivated.

Part III of this series explores deactivating shame and working with shame personally and with clients.

This series is adapted from Right Use of Power: The Heart of Ethics.


  1. Inge Mula Myllerup, Hakomi Teacher, lecture to the Louisville, KY Hakomi Training, February 2006.
  2. Stephen Porges, lecture to Hakomi Conference at the Naropa Institute, August 2005.
  3. Karen, Robert. (1992, February). Shame. The Atlantic Monthly.
  4. Nathanson, Donald L. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York, NY: Norton.
  5. Stephen Porges, op. cit
  6. Charna Rosenholtz, Right Use of Power teacher, personal communication.
  7. Huizinga, Johan. (1999). The Waning of the Middle Ages. Mineola, NY: Courier Dover Publications.
  8. Karen, Robert. Op. cit. p. 61, citing Norbert Elias.
  9. Augsburger, David W. (1986) Pastoral Counseling Across Cultures. London: Westminster Press.
  10.  Brothers, Joyce. (2005, February 27). Shame May Not Be So Bad After All. Parade, 5.
  11. Buckles, Susan, Right Use of Power teacher. (2005). Research.

© Copyright 2010 by Cedar Barstow. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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

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