When we are ashamed, our thinking tends to associate it with perceived weaknesses and flaws. However, there is much more shame than its reputation as a negative emotional state characterized by painful feelings of exposure, deflation, or insufficiency. In fact, there is a very important and positive component of shame that is not usually emphasized.
An important function of shame is to alert us when positive emotions we are feeling at this time are hampered. As a simple example, Jenna was excited about a concept presented by her teacher and raised her hand to ask a question. As she spoke, she saw her teacher looking at the clock. Ouch. Immediately, Jenna winced, imagining that it had lasted too long or that her question reflected her inadequacy. Although the emotional message of shame is delivered with a strong jolt to oneself, at the same time, shame also involves the feeling that good feelings can eventually be restored and broken bonds can be repaired.
Perhaps more than any other emotion, shame motivates learning and the desire to change the self. Consider daily examples where shame or shame-based anxiety draws attention to characteristics or behaviors that people may want to change, for example, to motivate them to lose weight or overcome addiction. In addition, shame is used to maintain social order, and it is the emotion behind deference. What would civilization look like if human beings hadn’t developed the capacity to feel shame? Imagine all the behaviors that people generally avoid doing because they know their actions would trigger a certain level of shame – from slight embarrassment to deep humiliation – in themselves or in others.
Much of what is experienced as symptoms of various disorders has a basis of shame. Symptoms of anxiety are often based on shame. Defensive responses resulting from anxious shame can manifest as phobias, avoidance behaviors, restlessness, fear of failure, and acts of self-destruction. Shame-based anxiety may be mistakenly viewed as an anxiety disorder, while the real problem may have more to do with shame and the expectation of experiencing the emotion.
Likewise, much of what we consider depression is related to shame. When shame is at the heart of depression, it is often seen as resistant to treatment and medication. This shame is evident when you consider that many symptoms of depression directly reflect defensive responses to shame; namely withdrawal, avoidance, attacking oneself, and attacking others. Depressed patients who learn to recognize the impact of experiences of shame can use the benefits of their emotional state – the motivation to seek relief and relief from others for what they feel.
Narcissism has everything to do with shame. Narcissism represents the many behaviors, such as grandiosity, the law, or self-centeredness, by which people are able to disown anything that could lead to an increase in their already unbearable shame. Narcissistic personalities are able to function well in the world because their behavior involves such effective responses to a deep-seated shame that they can completely reject it.
Reducing shame can be the most common motivator for addictive behaviors. Whether the dependence is linked to alcohol, substances, food, hyper-sexuality, or the obvious consumption of goods, the avoidance of shame is at the base. Voluntary exposure of shameful vulnerabilities is one of the most effective methods of reducing its negative impact. The success of 12-step programs implies a significant advantage to shame: individuals are able to expose their experiences of shame and, therefore, receive acceptance and support from the community. In addition, the shame of being a drug addict and the anti-social behaviors that accompany many addictions ultimately increase the number of negative emotions that cause addiction. All addictive behaviors create a cycle of shame that is difficult to break and that creates even more shame unless explored in a way that allows learning.
Evolution produced an emotion that felt bad enough to point out to us that there was interference with what felt good. Therefore, the emotion of shame has arisen in order to inform us, making us feel bad, that our happiness is in danger. Despite and because of the shame felt, it is nevertheless the emotion that signals the need, then motivates the behaviors of reconnection and reconciliation. It is potentially a powerful driver of change for the better. So we can use a moment of shame as an incentive for change because shame presents an unexpected opportunity to differentiate ourselves.