The experience of shame—a feeling of being unworthy, bad, or wrong—can be extremely uncomfortable. Shame has the potential to change the way we see ourselves and may lead to long-lasting social, professional, and sexual difficulties.
The word “shame” means different things to different people, though shame is different from guilt and embarrassment. Guilt is usually understood to involve negative feelings about an act one has committed, while embarrassment deals with a societal reaction. Shame, on the other hand, involves negative feelings about oneself, and although a person can be shamed by peers or society in general, shame can also be experienced secretly.
Living with shame, regardless of the shame’s source, can be a lonely and demoralizing experience. Therapy can help by addressing the underlying cause. When shame is due to a past misdeed, the right therapist can support a person to make amends or move on.
Most research suggests that people from all cultures, environments, and geographic regions experience shame. Research on facial expressions even suggests that expressions associated with shame and guilt are widely recognizable, even among people viewing images of those from vastly different cultures.
Cultural factors play a major role in how a person experiences shame and which experiences are likely to induce shame. For instance, in collectivist cultures, a person may experience shame due to someone else’s actions. A 1998 study found that, compared to American college students, Chinese college students experienced higher levels of shame when a sibling was caught cheating.
In many cultures, public shaming is used as a way to control or punish behavior. Fear of bringing shame to oneself or one’s family may play a role in people’s decision to obey the law, treat others fairly, or work hard. More recently, public shaming has moved online. Businesses may face an onslaught of negative comments in response to political or religious commentary. In 2015, a dentist received thousands of negative reviews, threats, and hostile comments on his social media after he killed a beloved lion.
Research consistently shows that shame can have catastrophic effects on mental health and behavior. Feelings of shame have been linked to suicidal actions and gestures. Shame may also deter people from seeking treatment for mental health issues or make it difficult to apologize for wrongdoing.
The experience of shame can be deeply unpleasant. People experiencing shame are struck by the overwhelming belief that they—as opposed to their actions or feelings—are bad. In some people, this may inspire a change in behavior. In others, shame can be paralyzing.
Shame has many sources. Sometimes a person is plagued by feelings of shame without a clear cause. This is more common among people with mental health diagnoses. Some studies have linked conditions such as depression or social anxiety to shame. Because mental health conditions remain stigmatized, a person experiencing shame due to a mental health condition may continually become more ashamed of themselves and their condition, exacerbating symptoms and making it difficult to seek help.
Some other common causes of shame include:
- Cultural norms. Many cultures stigmatize certain sexual interactions, such as homosexual sex or sex between unmarried people. People who transgress these cultural norms may feel shame. In collectivist cultures, some people experience shame when loved ones violate cultural or moral norms.
- Self-esteem issues. People with low self-esteem may struggle with feelings of shame even when they can point to no specific source of the shame.
- Religious conditioning. Many religions urge people to feel shame for violating religious prescriptions. Some use shame to “inspire” people to do better.
- Trauma and abuse. People who experience trauma and abuse often experience shame. Childhood sexual abuse is a common cause of shame in adulthood, especially among adults who feel embarrassed about their abuse experiences. Some abusive families shame members who set clear boundaries or who call the abuse what it is. Gaslighting—attempting to convince someone that their perceptions are wrong—can lead to shame.
Research on frontotemporal dementia, which causes people to engage in socially inappropriate behavior, offers some insight into the brain origins of shame. The right pregenual anterior cingulate is damaged in this form of dementia. Other studies also suggest this brain region plays a role in embarrassment. So it’s possible that this brain region somehow plays a role in feelings of shame.
Though the terms “shame” and “guilt” are sometimes used interchangeably, most research on these emotions has found that they are distinct experiences. One study, for example, found that experiences of guilt and shamed differed across numerous dimensions, including self-consciousness, self-control, inferiority, expectation of punishment, and a person’s sense of alienation from others.
Although popular wisdom suggests that shame is more likely to happen with public transgressions, a 1996 study undermines this claim. Researchers asked 182 college students to describe experiences of guilt, shame, and embarrassment. They found that shame was no more common in public contexts than guilt. Moreover, students often reported feeling shame and guilt when they were alone.
Shame may last a brief time, or it may be a core experience of the self. For some people, feelings of shame may begin in childhood and continue well into adulthood. These people may be conscious of such feelings. Others may be unaware of their shame, and hide it under behaviors such as addiction, anger, or narcissism. Some people respond to shame by engaging in self-harm.
Living with shame can be painful and difficult, as it can prevent people from meeting core needs, such as the maintenance of self-esteem, hope for the future, friendship and intimacy, productivity, and love.
Studies of shame consistently find that this emotion can play a role in suicide. People who feel guilt may have the ability to take action to overcome their guilt. Embarrassment, likewise, is often a transient state. But shame fundamentally affects a person’s sense of self, potentially triggering or worsening suicidal thoughts.
Research published in 2017 found that college students see shame as a risk factor for suicide. More than 1,000 college students read a vignette in which a person felt either shame or guilt to a traumatic experience. Students who read the shame vignette were more likely to link the depicted trauma to thoughts of suicide.
Shaming is an attempt to make another person feel ashamed. Shaming targets who a person is, not what they do. Telling a child they are bad is an act of shaming. Shaming also sometimes appeals to religious or social norms. Publicly airing a person’s misdeeds is usually an attempt to shame them.
Guilting, by contrast, focuses on a single act. A parent attempting to guilt their child might lecture the child about how hurt they are by a child’s life.
- Crowder, M. K., & Kemmelmeier, M. (2017). Cultural differences in shame and guilt as understandable reasons for suicide. Psychological Reports, 121(3), 396-429. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0033294117728288
- Stipek, D. (1998). Differences between Americans and Chinese in the circumstances evoking pride, shame, and guilt. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 29(5), 616-629. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022022198295002
- Tangney, J. P., Miller, R. S., Flicker, L., & Barlow, D. H. (1996). Are shame, guilt, and embarrassment distinct emotions? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(6), 1256-1269. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/record/1996-01769-013
- Weir, K. (2012, November). A complex emotion. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/11/emotion.aspx
- Wicker, F. W., Payne, G. C., & Morgan, R. D. (1983). Participant descriptions of guilt and shame. Motivation and Emotion, 7(1), 25-39. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00992963