Shame is the ‘I’ve done something wrong emotion’. Or at least it should be. As with all emotions, shame can be incredibly useful. However, it’s an incredibly difficult emotion to feel, so people might just turn away from it and refuse to learn from it. We might call this ‘being shameless’.
Other people might find shame too difficult to process because of an upbringing that didn’t make it possible. People are often made to feel shame when they have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
So it’s a tricky topic but hopefully this article will help us to understand how we might make use of shame. The kinds of things that might help us. To understand why it can be important to feel and how it relates to other emotions. But also when shaming others is misplaced and how it’s used as a weapon.
What is shame?
I think it’s useful to first of all think about what emotions might do. I’ve said in other articles that sadness might be the ‘I’ve lost something important’ emotion. Worry is the ‘I/we need to do something about ______ ‘ emotion. Anger might be the ‘an injustice is being served / I need to stick up for myself or someone else’ emotion. Shame, which we could also call ‘guilt’, is the emotion which might tell us that we have done something wrong.
We all do something wrong from time to time. We just do. No matter how hard we try to be kind, considerate, careful, consensual, we all mess up and cause harm to others. We harm humans we know, humans we don’t, and also non-human things or beings too. There might be different levels of intention to this (in the law it’s called mens rea) but the feeling might remain the same.
So shame is the ‘be good’ emotion. Ideally we would all notice it in our bodies, name it, check in with others and take good advice, and act to try and put things right. Most of us do this all the time and it’s no biggie. But ….
How shame feels
Ooooft, it feels hard though! We might feel quite stressed and want to push it away because it can be a lot. Maybe we might cover our face, or look the other way. Our heartbeat might increase. Perhaps a redness in the face or breathing quite quickly. Like with a stress response we might find it difficult to hear.
Because it’s so similar to stress we might not be able to process it immediately. I’ve got advice about how to deal with a stress response here, and we do need to give ourselves at least 20 – 60 minutes to deal with it. So it’s understandable. The feelings, or sensations, we get from shame actually stop us from being able to see what we might need to do. It wouldn’t be great to just ignore it, because we might be causing a lot of harm to others if we do. So trying to process it when the initial sensations have subsided is important.
How to deal with shame
In this article about self esteem I introduced the idea of there being four things we can focus on when we think of ‘the self’. How our body is affected by something. What our emotional response might be. How we can think, reason or make sense of this emotion. What we can do in response to that. Affect, emotion, think, do.
The body might find it really hard to deal with, but what can we do to notice it? Is it possible for you to think back to the last time you felt a little bit of shame. Do you recognise how your body responds? Can you write down the kinds of things your body does and what you do to relieve it?
At what point were you able to understand what the emotional response was? Did you think about the kind of thing you might have done wrong and what plan you could make? And what did you do to make it better? How did your body respond to that?
A small example of how to feel shame
It could just be something as simple as bumping into someone when you were on your phone. The first pangs of shame (or guilt), maybe an intake of breath, tingling in your face. Shame! Cringe! I’ve messed up, my bad. ‘Sorry mate, I wasn’t looking where I was going.’ Maybe this person looks back, gives you a little wave. ‘No worries’. Perhaps a little smile emerges between you because they’ve probably done the same thing too in their lives. We recognise an emotion with each other. No harm was done. You put your phone away and treat yourself to your favourite Ed Sheeran song (lol).
If you can think of something like that that happened recently, and it feels okay for you to do so, just replay it in your head. What were you pleased to notice in how you responded? How did your body change? What did the emotion do for you and the other person?
Try doing that a few times. The more we practise getting used to an emotion and how we make use of it the better.
We can also do this with the people around us and support them through it. If someone has done something wrong to us how can we gently and kindly point this out, make it easy for them to go through the ‘affect, emotion, think, do’ process. This is known as regulating an emotion. We might also want to get a loved one to help us to go through this process too.
For Bojack Horseman fans, this scene was great wasn’t it?
The way I’ve talked about shame so far is that it’s a process of how our body is affected, understanding the emotion, thinking or reasoning about it, and doing something to make it better. Shame is a feeling with a start, middle, and end. If we’ve been brought up to feel emotions in this way and are surrounded by people who help us feel emotions then it’s a lot easier. Being able to do this is part of our ‘I am-ness’, just as with the other emotions I’ve written about.
But for some people it’s much harder to feel this way about shame. They might get stuck in the cycle of affect, emotion, think, do, in ways that don’t get resolved. Perhaps they find it hard to move through it. Or it’s just something that they can’t do. Therapists and researchers are starting to call this ‘chronic shame’. Some other writers or educators might say that everything I’ve talked about so far is guilt, which is okay, but shame isn’t.
Whether we say it’s shame and chronic shame, or guilt and shame, if this is you, here are some resources for you to read. Meg-John Barker has written a blog about it, and here’s some advice from Young Minds.
The reason that I use the term shame is that when someone has no shame, or is shameless, it’s bad. People who don’t own up to what they’ve done. Or when people use gaslighting to blame others. Maybe they might bully other people to cover over them not taking responsibility. It’s all extremely common. The latest #MeToo events has seen political parties, TV companies, film companies, newspapers, and financial firms have individuals doing bad things and not being held to account. This is what happens when shame is not listened to.
It’s also done collectively. There is a collective inability to listen to shame, to understand where an organisation has done wrong, and it causes so much further harm to the people they already harm. To make matters worse they also use shame as a weapon to cover over all the things they’ve done wrong.
Shame and power
There’s a good chance that if you are in a marginalised group in society then you have experienced shame just for being you. For example, if you are LGBTQ you might be involved in Pride events in the next few weeks. As they say in this excellent podcast, Pride is the antidote to Shame. We are experiencing this at the moment with the backlash against all things woke. As you can see in this article about stress and inequality, the causes of mental health problems are often due to a lack of resources and those resources are not distributed fairly.
In addition to this unequal distribution of resources there is also an attempt to shame these people for who they are. Right wing culture warriors do this to make money and a career (it’s a grift and many of them barely believe what they are saying). However the effects that can emerge from this can be horrible for people it affects. For example, for a trans kid in the UK, not only can they not receive the gender affirming treatment that they need at the moment, they also get shamed for feeling who they are.
This shaming, in addition to material and structural inequality, has been around for hundreds and thousands of years. It’s how people are ‘kept in their place’. Instead of doing something material to make people’s lives better, governments and their newspapers instead shame people to ‘cover over’ their own massive failings. It keeps the majority of people ‘down there’ and oppressed, without power, and keeps a small number of people in power.
Read this on feeling better about your body (and what causes the shame we might feel about them).
Shame on them
So this is all useful to remember. We are often made to feel ashamed of ourselves by powerful people, organisations, and structures because they want to disempower us. Shame on them. (Here’s a great tune which might be fun to sing along to).
It’s an example of how we could have a better world if at a big societal level we could do some of the things we do at a tiny interpersonal level. I think it would be much better if shame were used to understand the moral responsibilities we have to each other and to work to a world where not only was harm minimised, but our opportunities to emerge and thrive were maximised.
You might also like this article on solidarity and what to do with power.
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health.