The Big Questions

Life, death and free will.

Shame, Shame, Shame

How being yourself reduces feelings of shame.

Shame is, well, not all that fun to feel. Research indicates that when we feel shame, we globally de-value our entire sense of self. It is basically as if our physiology is telling us that (in our heads and hearts) we are a rather worthless person.

Guilt on the other hand, also obviously sucks, but it isn't quite as bad. Research indicates that when we feel guilt, we are devaluing our specific behavior or behaviors. We don't see ourselves as awful people as we do when feeling shame. Instead we see ourselves as good people who did bad specific behaviors.

(See research on shame and guilt differences by June Tangney of George Mason University).

Anyway, it is clearly a good thing not to feel shame. No one wakes up thinking, "gee, my day would really rock if I could just get a good old dose of shame in today." No one, ever, has thought that.

Research headed by Montana State University professor Matthew Vess suggests that you can greatly reduce the shame you feel by one simple thing: being yourself. Ok, so maybe that isn't as easy as it sounds. But when you live an authentic life, and are true to your values, you are less likely to feel shame. This is opposed to living a life where you do and think what you believe others want you to do, or live your life pressured into doing things.

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In one study, adults completed measures assessing their feelings of shame and guilt after writing about either a time they helped someone else, or hurt someone else. Thinking of hurting someone else increased shame (well technically, their guilt contained less shame). But, this did not occur for participants who scored high on "authentic living." (e.g., "I am true to myself in most situations")

In another study, college students had heightened shame in response to failing a task, unless they previously had written about "who they really are." 

In both cases, living authentically, and feeling like you are a genuine person who is true to yourself, reduced feelings of shame. 

A downside to humans being such social beings is that we can't ever truly, 100% be ourselves. There will always be outside forces compelling us to act counter to who we feel we really are deep down. Money pressures us to spend time doing things we often hate; common courtesy to others compels us to listen when don't want to, or to stretch the truth at times.

But, this research shows that by making more of an effort to be ourselves, to live up to our core values, we can feel less shame. And that can only be a good thing, lest we all would be roaming about deeply desiring shame.

Nathan Heflick completed his Ph.D. in social psychology at The University of South Florida.

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