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The Psychology of Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt

Distinguishing embarrassment, shame, and guilt.

‘Embarrassment’ is often used interchangeably with ‘shame’. Although the dividing lines are not fully standardized, and there may be some overlap, embarrassment and shame are different constructs. 

For me, embarrassment is the feeling of discomfort experienced when

1. Some aspect of ourselves is, or threatens to be, witnessed by or otherwise revealed to others.

2. We think that this revelation is likely to undermine the image of ourselves that, for whatever reason or reasons, we seek to project to those others.

Embarrassment might form over a particular thought or opinion that is unwittingly revealed. Or it might be related to an action such as nose picking or farting, a condition or state such as a bodily blemish or an open fly, a possession such as our car or house, or a relation such as our unappealing partner, criminal uncle, lecherous aunt, or badly behaved child.

The potential causes of our embarrassment vary according to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and, in particular, to the company that we are in.

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These causes need not be beneath our projected image, but merely out of keeping with it. Thus, it is entirely possible to be embarrassed by our high social status or rarified education.

Shame

Whereas embarrassment is a response to something that threatens our projected image but is otherwise morally neutral, shame is a response to something that is morally wrong or dishonorable.

Shame is usually aggravated if its cause is exposed, but, unlike embarrassment, shame can attach to a thought or action that remains undisclosed and undiscoverable to other persons.

Although embarrassment can be intense, shame is a more weighty feeling because it pertains to our moral character and not merely to our social character or image. 

Shame arises from measuring our actions against moral standards, and finding that they fall short. If a person falls short of moral standards, and fails to notice, he or she can ‘be shamed’ or made to notice. If the person is made to notice but does not mind, then he or she is said to ‘have no shame’.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle points out that shame also arises from lacking in honourable things shared by others like us, especially if the lack is our own fault and therefore owes to our moral badness. So it seems that if embarrassment has a convincing moral dimension, then it is, in fact, shame.

In some cases, it is possible to feel shame vicariously, that is, to share in the shame of another person, or to feel shame on his behalf, particularly if he is close to us or associated with us. Thus, even virtuous people with no personal cause for it can experience shame, and so much is also true of embarrassment and other emotions. Jean-Paul Sartre was right in so many ways when he said that "Hell is other people".

‘Shame’ derives from ‘to cover’, and the feeling is often accompanied by a covering gesture over the brow and eyes. Other manifestations of shame include a downcast gaze and slack posture, a sense of warmth or heat, and mental confusion or paralysis.

These manifestations of shame can communicate remorse and contrition, and inspire the pity and pardon of others. Yet, shame can in itself be shameful, and many people prefer to make a secret of their shame.

People with low self-esteem are more prone to shame, because they already have a poor self-image and are harsher upon themselves. In some cases, they may defend against shame with blame or contempt, often for the person who caused or incited their shame. Ultimately, this is likely to lead to even deeper shame and, so, even lower self-esteem.

While shame can be destructive, it can also be a force for good, spurring us on to more ethical lives. 

Guilt

Whereas shame pertains to a person, guilt pertains to an action or actions, and to blame and remorse. Shame says, “I am bad." Guilt says, “I did something bad.”

More subtly, shame involves falling short of cultural or societal moral standards, whereas guilt involves falling short of one’s own moral standards. Thus, it is quite possible to feel guilty about actions of which many or most others approve, such as living in luxury or eating meat.

Shame and guilt often go hand in hand, which is no doubt why they are often confused. When we injure another, we often feel bad about having done so (guilt), and, at the same time, feel bad about ourselves (shame). 

Yet, guilt and shame are distinct emotions with distinct effects. Shame is egodystonic (that is, in conflict with our self-image and the needs and goals of our ego) and correlated with poor psychological functioning. In particular, eating disorders and many sexual disorders are largely disorders of shame. And narcissism can be understood as a defence against shame. On the other hand, guilt is egosyntonic (that is, consistent with our self-image etc.) and either unrelated or inversely correlated with poor psychological functioning.

Faced with the same set of circumstances, people with high self-esteem are more prone to guilt rather than shame, and more prone to act redemptively.

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of MadnessThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help GuideHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deceptionand other books.

Find Neel Burton on Twitter and Facebook 

Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.

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