Take a moment and think about something in your life that you are terrified of anyone knowing about you. It could be a belief, a personality trait, a sick desire, or some horrible failure in your past that you’d rather pretend never happened. Whatever it is, the thought of this thing being exposed mortifies you. It causes you to want to curl up in a ball, pull a blanket over your head and hide from the world.
This feeling is what psychologists call “shame,” and we all have it to some degree.1 Deep inside each of us, there is some unsavory part of ourselves that we camouflage from the world and pretend is not there.
It’s for this reason that shame has become a sort of boogeyman in the self-help world. Expose your shame. Eliminate your shame. Liberate your shame. Invite your shame to junior prom and dance with it to some sweet, soft Barry Manilow tunes.
John Bradshaw popularized the evils of shame in his 1988 self-help classic, Healing the Shame that Binds You.5 Since then, many other researchers and self-help authors have picked up the shame-obliteration mantle, most notably Brené Brown, who points to shame for “our inability to change,”6 and Deepak Chopra, who has weird pseudo-scientific theories about shame, inflammation, and a “falsely colored reality” or something.7
And so the key to the promised land of super-awesome love and totally rad happiness, we’re told, is to eradicate shame and guilt from our lives, to blast it out of our psyche with a proverbial bazooka—usually involving some sort of hug circle or a really, really expensive seminar.
Some thinkers even go so far as to say that shame isn’t “real”—that it’s invented by society or religion or your super-evil parents to, as the filmmaker Blake Edwards puts it, “exploit the human race.” Or even if it’s not exploiting you somehow, it is, as Anaïs Nin said, “a lie someone told you about yourself.”
The overriding point here is that shame is like, really, really bad. And we should get rid of it. All of it. Every last ounce of it!
Okay… stop the train.
While it’s pretty clear that most of us struggle with shame and guilt, I think we took the shame train a little too far into Woo-Wooville and I’d like to back us up a few stops, re-evaluate why we feel shame in the first place, and maybe come to some more nuanced conclusions about why so many of us often feel like a bag of dog turds and what we can do about it.
Table of Contents
Feeling Shame and Guilt
First, let’s start with the obvious: shame and guilt are human universals. They are present in every culture, from modern, large-scale societies to small-group hunter-gatherers who’ve never seen a Calvin Klein underwear ad in their lives.8
So while there are a lot of people in this world who will take advantage of your shame and guilt, it wasn’t invented by some modern shady actor. Shame and guilt are an innate part of the human experience.9
Shame is the feeling of disappointment—or even worthlessness—you experience when you fail to live up to expectations that define your “core self.”10
When we feel shame, it’s as though a spotlight is shining on all the shadowy, ugly parts of ourselves. Shame is like a magnifying glass for the hideous nether-regions of our identity. Our instinct with regard to shame is to therefore hide that which we are ashamed of.
And it’s the hiding of ourselves, not the shame itself, that fucks us all up psychologically.11 (But more on that in a minute.)
If we’re ashamed of our feelings, our urge is to hide our feelings. If we’re ashamed of our body, our urge is to hide our body. If we’re ashamed of our passion for Teletubbies collectibles, we uh… try to hide our collection of Teletubbies collectibles?
Guilt, of course, is a close cousin of shame, but with an important difference: if shame is feeling terrible about who you are, guilt is feeling terrible about what you did.12
There’s a subtle distinction between guilt and shame that is important. Either can arise when you do something wrong. But guilt results if your attitude is, “I can fix this; this isn’t who I am,” whereas shame is the attitude that, “this is who I am; there’s no going back.”13
As a result, guilt, if left unremedied, will eventually morph into shame.
Not helping your friend move or not calling your mom on her birthday can be seen as a one-time mistake. We feel guilty. But what we do in response to that guilt has wide-ranging implications for our identity and self-esteem. If we apologize and promise to do better next time, we alleviate our guilt and move on with our lives. But if we bury our mistake and pretend it didn’t happen, or blame our friend for moving too often, or our mother for being born on a particularly inconvenient day of the year, then our guilt festers and turns into shame. It becomes something horrifying and gross and must be concealed and defended from anyone who would otherwise expose it.
And it’s this hiding that ultimately hurts us. Because what this hiding looks like in real life is deflection of responsibility. It looks like passive aggression. It looks like manipulation and unwillingness to trust. It corrodes and poisons our relationships and destroys our ambitions. And as any addict will tell you, overwhelming amounts of shame can slowly murder us from the inside-out.
This is why there’s such a crusade against the emotion going on in the self-help literature. And rightly so—like I said, shame can fuck us up. Once we’ve internalized some aspect of ourselves as evil and malignant, we produce all sorts of maladaptive behaviors and dickish tendencies to cover for ourselves, to mute that horrible truth about ourselves that we don’t want anybody to hear.
But that’s not the whole story about shame. Like all emotions, shame can cut both ways. Just as there can be a dark side to happiness and great meaning can be found in loss and sorrow, there’s a certain usefulness to guilt and shame that doesn’t get talked about much.
So, before we saddle up our psychological horses and join the crusade against shame, let’s take a deeper look at why this emotion evolved in the first place.
Shame and Guilt: The Glue of Civilization?
It’s a sad fact of human existence that there is and will always be an inherent tension between the individual and society. I want to take the afternoon off and drive somebody else’s car. I want to be able to buy and sell crack however the hell I want, when I want. I want to ski naked and post the videos on YouTube. But if everyone acted on such impulses, then the world would be a chaotic mess.
As a result, human societies require compromise. You and I learn at a young age to forgo some of our desires because by doing so, it makes for a more functional society that we then all benefit from. This is essentially what cultural and social norms drive us to do. Don’t say this. Don’t wear that. Say “Thank you” after your friend bails you out of jail. These are simple practices that grease the wheels of society. And while they may require bits of sacrifice for individuals, in sum they make the rest of our lives much better.
But how do you convince people to give up their own impulses and desires for the greater good? How do you inspire people to avoid certain behaviors that are bad for the group, even if they may be good for the individual? Where do these norms come from and how do you make it clear to people what’s expected of them?
That’s right. You shame them.
The Evolution of Self-Conscious Emotions
Psychologists distinguish between “basic emotions” and all other emotions. Basic emotions are the most fundamental emotions that directly aid our survival. Fear is an obvious example: being afraid of certain things like snakes and cliff edges imparts a huge survival advantage over having no fear of these things because, well, do I really have to explain that one?
Basic emotions are innate. Everyone has them from day one.14
But as we grow older, something begins to change and our emotional palette starts to expand. We begin to realize that there are other individuals in this world and their perceptions and ideas and judgments affect us. In fact, they affect us a lot and we will spend much of the rest of our lives wishing they didn’t.15
This cognitive realization gives rise to what psychologists call the “self-conscious emotions”—shame, guilt, embarrassment, and pride.16 These self-conscious emotions are emotions based on how we believe we are perceived by others and how we are perceived by ourselves. The self-conscious emotions evolved for a subtle but important reason: they help individual humans cooperate and live together in groups.
Let’s say we’re children and I hit you over the head with a toy truck and steal it from you. If I have not yet developed self-conscious emotions—like, say, if I’m two years old—I won’t feel bad about this. Why? Not because two-year-olds are assholes (well, they kinda are), but because I simply haven’t developed the ability to intuit the thoughts and feelings of others’ yet.
But let’s say I’m older and I do have self-conscious emotions. I will feel guilt and perhaps a little bit of embarrassment or shame. I will give your toy truck back. I say I’m sorry. In fact, I give you my toy truck and tell you you can have it. We become friends and play with our trucks together. Now I feel pride. I’m a good boy. Yay.
These self-conscious emotions gently steer people towards more prosocial behaviors. We need them because they help us cohere into functional groups and societies. There’s a reason the phrase “have you no shame?” is considered an accusatory thing. If you go around trying to sleep with everyone’s spouse, or you take a juicy dump in the middle of the aisle at the supermarket, you clearly lack a healthy sense of shame and that lack of shame destabilizes, well, everything.
And here we see that the same way an overwhelming amount of guilt and shame can be crippling and destructive, a complete lack of guilt and shame can, in many ways, be just as bad, if not worse.
You (hopefully) don’t go around sleeping with your friends’ partners and shitting in supermarket aisles because you fear social punishment. And that is a healthy fear—that threat of feeling ashamed keeps you, your genitals, and your bowels in check.
While shame functions to keep you from doing stupid or awful things, guilt similarly motivates us to right our wrongs. When we feel guilty about something, we often set out to make it right. We apologize and in some cases, we offer ways to fix it.18
This feels bad. But this is also healthy. Expressing guilt for our transgressions and setting a course of corrective action shows others that:
- We know the rules and we know we broke them, and
- We care about others in the group enough to try to fix things.
In short, shame and guilt solve a big problem inherent to living in larger social groups: they help regulate the behavior of the entire group at the level of the individual.19
They are part of what has made cities and countries and economies and birthday parties possible. And that’s an incredible thing.
The Paradox of Shame and Guilt
So you might be sitting there thinking, “OK, Manson, if shame and guilt are so good at keeping us from being terrible people, then why do they also emotionally screw us up in so many other ways?”
Well, again, emotions—all emotions—cut both ways. It’s worth saying this again:
There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” emotion; only good and bad reasons for having an emotion.
For example, happiness is usually considered to be a good emotion. Many say we should maximize happiness as much as possible.
But if I’m at my happiest while torturing the neighbor’s cat with a BB gun… uh, then my happiness is not a good emotion.
Similarly, if my shame is around my appearance—if I have an irrational belief that my body is ugly and I try to hide it as much as possible—that’s an unhealthy form of shame. But if I feel ashamed of the fact that I cheated rampantly on my college girlfriend and that shame helps to prevent me from breaking trust in my current relationships, well, then that shame can actually be a good emotion because it keeps me in check.
Yes, shame hurts us and causes us to dislike aspects of ourselves. But it’s also a kind of emotional deterrent for bad behavior. I fucked up an important relationship in my life years ago. Now the shame associated with that fuck-up helps me not fuck up my current relationships. That’s a healthy form of shame at work.
The reason shame gets such a bad rap is because so many of us internalize shame for poor reasons. Most of these reasons are due to the culture or family we grow up in.20 We are judged harshly as a child for our funny nose, so we grow up with a weird complex about our face and end up getting eleven types of plastic surgery to try and cover it up.21 Or we’re ridiculed for being sensitive, so we grow up hardened and emotionally calloused. Or we grow up in a strict religious sect that shames us for any and every sexual thought, giving us intense shame around our sexual fantasies and desires.
Individually, we must look at the roots of our shame and judge whether they are useful or not. If so, we must come to accept them and live by them. If not, then we must tear them out and start anew.
We go through this process on a cultural level, as well. For centuries, homosexuality was seen as shameful. Then, within the last couple generations, brave individuals have stood up to assert that no, they shouldn’t be ashamed of their sexualities, nor should society shame them for it. And it’s worked. The cultural norms have shifted. We’re becoming more accepting, and for most people in western, developed societies, homosexuality is no longer seen as something taboo or shameful.22
So, how do we do this process in ourselves? How do we uproot our sources of shame and throw off the shackles of self-loathing?
Glad you asked… But before we get to that, I want to take a quick detour to talk about an associated issue that’s both important and relevant. Yup, it’s everybody’s favorite dinner table topic: narcissism.
When Shame Becomes Narcissism
There’s an interesting twist to shame that doesn’t seem to exist for any other emotion. Pretty much every other emotion dissipates over time. Maybe you’re embarrassed of that gaffe at work today, but by next week you’re laughing with your coworkers about it. Maybe you’re happy you won at Bingo last night, but by lunch time, you’re already over it.
For better or worse, emotions never seem to last. Yet, somehow, our shame lingers. For years. Decades. An entire lifetime.
And not only does it linger, it festers. Like a deadly fungus, it somehow grows more corrosive and toxic as time goes on.
This is because shame is not merely an emotion. Shame is also partially defined by our self-definition—it’s dictated by how we see ourselves. If we see ourselves as horrible and unworthy, that perpetuates the feeling of shame indefinitely into the future.
Another aspect of this lingering self-definition is that, as time goes on, we begin to convince ourselves that our shame is somehow unique and special. After all, for years we have felt that we are somehow hideous in ways that others are not. Therefore, it follows that we have somehow been cosmically chosen to bear this curse, the one chosen out of the many.
This self-perception that we are uniquely faulty or deficient in some way is a hard psychological burden. It tires us and saddles us with constant feelings of anxiety and guilt. As a result, our mind desperately looks for methods to cope. And it typically does this in one of two ways. It starts to believe that either:
- “I am a piece of shit and the world is better off without me.”
- “The world is a piece of shit for doing this to me and I’m going to get them back for it.”23
Narcissism occurs when we believe that we are somehow uniquely entitled to special treatment in the world because we are fundamentally different from everyone around us. Narcissism can be based on an irrational belief of superiority, but it can also be based on an irrational sense of inferiority.24
They may be opposite beliefs on the surface, but the result is the same: an abiding self-centeredness that collapses all perception and empathy into an insatiable egoic self. Like a black hole, narcissism consumes all light around it, never itself illuminating or unburdening its intense gravity of despair.
Once shame has morphed into narcissism, it becomes increasingly difficult to dislodge it, primarily because the narcissist is able to convince him/herself that their shame is not really shame at all—that it’s actually what makes them so special and unique and deserving of attention and sympathy in the first place.
The result: church ministers that urge the oppression of homosexuals who are secretly homosexual themselves; sexual abuse survivors turned sex addicts; bullying victims who believe in the justification of violence. All the seemingly two-faced, paradoxical human beliefs and behaviors that you and I see so often, if you rewind the tape far enough, they revert back into some experience of shame.
Dealing With Shame and Guilt
So, we’ve learned that shame itself is not necessarily unhealthy, it’s the context around shame that makes it unhealthy. It’s the reasons for our shame, as well as how we choose to cope with our shame that makes it toxic.
The unhealthy way to process shame is to bury it, to hide it, to pretend it’s not there and that it never happened. Burying emotions, in general, is bad for you.25 But burying your shame is what gives it power over you.
Instead, what we want to do is the opposite: to expose our shame, to share it, to open ourselves up about our flaws so that they no longer hold us hostage. This can then lead to a healthy processing that increases self-esteem and improves well-being.26
If your shame is irrational—that is, if you’re ashamed of things that you shouldn’t be ashamed of—by sharing those feelings you will experience how unnecessary they were. You will see that people don’t ridicule you, that the world doesn’t hate you, that time doesn’t stop and the sky doesn’t cave in around you.
But if you did do something shameful, then sharing it does something else: it opens the pathway to forgiveness—an ability to live with one’s mistakes and shortcomings in a way that improves your future actions, rather than hinders them.
So, what does that path to self-disclosure look like? How do you forgive yourself for your perceived failures? Here are some tips to help:
1. Separate Who You Are From What You’ve Done
Look, we all do stupid shit. We all let other people—and ourselves—down sometimes. We’ve all had regrets.
But just because you fucked up doesn’t mean you are a fuck up.
You can learn from mistakes, no matter how terrible they are. You can use your failures as motivation to be better in the future. You can even leverage your failures as a kind of cautionary tale and help others who are going through similar struggles.
Failures and mistakes have value. They are also inevitable. None of us are necessarily terrible people for committing them. So work to replace “I am bad” with “I did something bad.” For example, “I ran over the neighbor’s cat” instead of “I am a cat-murderer, destroyer of felines.”
2. Empathize With the Real Motivation Behind Your Actions
Once you’ve separated your actions from your identity, you can start to uncover the real reasons why you screwed up.
You didn’t torpedo that work project and screw over your colleagues in the process because you’re a terrible human being. Maybe you did it because you’ve felt underappreciated at work and had enough disrespect. Maybe you were overcome with anger and became impulsive. Maybe you hadn’t slept in three days and just lost all will to live at the worst possible moment.
Either way, coming to terms with the why of your actions, allows you to learn the necessary lessons to improve yourself. And once you’ve improved yourself, it’s almost impossible to regret whatever led to it.
And also: just have a little empathy for yourself. Like if a good friend fucks up, more often than not, you’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and see it for what it is: a colossal screw up, and that’s it. You don’t condemn their character. Yet, we often do that with ourselves. We all deserve a friend to tell us it’s okay, and that friend can actually be us.
3. Do Better Next Time
The next step is to leverage your shameful and guilty feelings for the future. Shame and guilt can be strong motivators for self-improvement. They nudge us to do better. They tell us what we’ve done wrong in the past so that we might not repeat our mistakes.
In that way, shame and guilt can be wise teachers—even if they’re the totally unpleasant kind who slap your wrist with a ruler for talking during class.
4. Share Your Shame Even If—Wait, No—Especially If It Hurts
But there’s another facet of opening up about your shame and guilt that we haven’t talked about yet. And that is the fact that contrary to what our instincts tell us, expressing shame and embarrassment generally elicits empathy from others, as well as generates a sense of intimacy in our relationships.27
That’s the counterintuitive part of all of this—it’s by sharing what we believe we should hide the most, that we actually receive the love we desire—not by hiding it.
Crazy shit, right?
This is the core benefit of things like therapy or counseling or just getting plastered with a good friend on a Friday night and sobbing quietly into your quesadillas while they rub your shoulders. It’s in these moments of collapse that the strongest relationships are inevitably built.
5. Choose Your Shame, Choose Your Values
But perhaps the most important lesson shame and guilt teach us is that they are reflections of our values. By choosing better values, we liberate ourselves from unhealthy shame and invite the right kinds of insecurities into our lives.
If you feel ashamed of flaking on a friend when they really needed you and feel awful about it, that’s a good indication that you value being a friend someone can count on. Shame helps you to act on this value by motivating you to have an honest conversation with your friend, to apologize, and to be there for them in the future.
On the other hand, if you’re ashamed of not wearing the right shoes around your co-workers, then that signals that your values are misaligned—that you’re more concerned with appearances and the approval of those around you, rather than respecting yourself and your own tastes.
This is a bad value because not only can you not control what others think, it’s ultimately manipulative: you will alter your behaviors in order to make others see you differently. It’s in this way that shame infects our relationships, interfering with intimacy, thus causing us to feel even more alone than before.
Ultimately, our values determine our shames. Good values produce good, healthy shame. Bad values produce a self-loathing mess. And as always, our emotions are not the root of our problems, but rather merely the entry points to our solutions.
And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
- Well, except psychopaths… but we’ll ignore them for the moment.↵
- Harder, D. W., Cutler, L., & Rockart, L. (1992). Assessment of shame and guilt and their relationships to psychopathology. Journal of Personality Assessment, 59, 584–604.↵
- Feiring, C., Taska, L., & Lewis, M. (2002). Adjustment following sexual abuse discovery: The role of shame and attributional style. Developmental Psychology, 38, 79–92.↵
- Harder, D. W. (1995). Shame and guilt assessment, and relationships of shame- and guilt-proneness to psychopathology. In J. P. Tangney & K. W. Fischer (Eds.), Self-conscious emotions: The psychology of shame, guilt, embarrassment, and pride (pp. 368–392). New York: Guilford.↵
- To be fair to Bradshaw, he differentiates between “toxic shame” and “healthy shame.” It’s just that everyone seems to forget about the “healthy shame” part.↵
- A lot of Brené Brown’s work comes to this conclusion. But I believe her definition of shame is much too limited to what Bradshaw refers to as “toxic shame.”↵
- I should note that I’m a big fan of Brené Brown, even if I’m not quite the shame zealot that she is. Deepak Chopra on the other hand… uh, not so much.↵
- Those poor souls…↵
- For a neurological review of self-conscious emotions and their brain correlates, see: Beer, J. S. (2007). Neural Systems for Self-Conscious Emotions and Their Underlying Appraisals. In Tracy, J. L., Robins, R. W., & Tangney, J. P. (Eds.). The self-conscious emotions: Theory and research (pp. 53–67). Guilford Press.↵
- Tangney, J. P., & Dearing, R. L. (2002). Shame and guilt. New York: Guilford Press.↵
- Gross, J. J., & John, O. P. (2003). Individual Differences in Two Emotion Regulation Processes: Implications for Affect, Relationships, and Well-Being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(2), 348–362.↵
- Keltner, D., & Anderson, C. (2000). Saving Face for Darwin: The Functions and Uses of Embarrassment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(6), 187–192.↵
- This is another argument for the benefits of a growth mindset, as it would theoretically help us transfer our feelings of shame into guilt, which is a much more manageable emotion. See: Dweck, Carol (2006) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.↵
- In addition to fear, the other basic emotions are anger, disgust, sadness, happiness and surprise.↵
- This advancement in cognitive development is known as, “Theory of Mind.” See: Wellman, H. M. (1992). The child’s theory of mind. The MIT Press series in learning, development, and conceptual change. The MIT Press.↵
- See: Tracy, J. L., & Robins, R. W. (2004). Putting the Self Into Self-Conscious Emotions: A Theoretical Model. Psychological Inquiry, 15(2), 103–125.↵
- Willcox, G. (1982). The Feeling Wheel: A Tool for Expanding Awareness of Emotions and Increasing Spontaneity and Intimacy. Transactional Analysis Journal, 12(4), 274–276.↵
- Guilt is like the ledger on our emotional balance sheet: you fucked up (negative balance), now you go fix it (back to positive balance).↵
- Beer, J. S., Heerey, E. A., Keltner, D., Scabini, D., & Knight, R. T. (2003). The regulatory function of self-conscious emotion: Insights from patients with orbitofrontal damage. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(4), 594–604.↵
- In fact, you could argue that cultures are largely defined by what they choose to shame and what they choose to tolerate. For example, Chinese and US students react with varying levels of shame and guilt among a number of experiences. See: Stipek, D. (1998). Difference between Americans and Chinese in the circumstances evoking pride, shame, and guilt. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 29(5), 616–630.↵
- See: Michael Jackson.↵
- Obviously, there’s still a lot of work to be done on the issue of gay rights. But I think it’s a good example of a cultural shame issue that has clearly shifted in the last 10-20 years.↵
- There’s actually a strong correlation between the propensity to feel shame and the propensity to feel anger. See: Tangney, J. P., et al. (2007). “What’s Moral about the Self-Conscious Emotions?” In Tracy, J. L., Robins, R. W., & Tangney, J. P. (Eds.). The self-conscious emotions: Theory and research (pp. 21–37).↵
- These are referred to as “grandiose narcissism” versus “vulnerable narcissism.” See: Freis, S. D., & Hansen-Brown, A. A. (2021). Justifications of entitlement in grandiose and vulnerable narcissism: The roles of injustice and superiority. Personality and Individual Differences, 168.↵
- Greene, K., Valerian, D. J. & Mathews, A. (2006) Self-Disclosure in Personal Relationships, The Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships, Chapter 22, pp. 409-428.↵
- Saxena, P., Mehrotra, S. (2010). Emotional Disclosure in Day-to-Day Living and Subjective Well Being. Psychological Studies, 55, 208–218↵
- Keltner, D.,& Harker, L. (1998). The forms and functions of the nonverbal signal of shame. In P. Gilbert & B. Andrews (Eds.), Shame: Interpersonal behavior, psychopathology, and culture (pp. 78–98). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.↵