Over coffee with friends recently, the conversation turned to embarrassing moments. The story I told involved an extra pair of underpants creeping out one leg of my jeans and onto a busy street in Lawrence, Kansas, where I was strolling with my husband, Steve.
I reviewed my options: Should I back up and retrieve them from the sidewalk? Or should I just keep walking, as if someone else's underwear had magically parachuted down on Massachusetts Street?
This very incident had happened to me twice before. I take my jeans and underpants off in one motion, and when I put my jeans back on the next day, I sometimes don't notice that yesterday's underwear is stuck in one of the pants legs, and will work its way south-and eventually out into the sunlight.
When this has happened, I have felt embarrassed, but not ashamed. What's the difference?
Both embarrassment and shame are social emotions, linked to how we think we appear to others. But embarrassment is much lighter than shame. We don't equate the source of our embarrassment to an essential flaw in our personhood.
In the case of the wandering underwear, my attitude was: OK, I would prefer not to see my underpants on the sidewalk, but it's no huge deal. It could have happened to anyone who gets undressed as quickly and impatiently as I do. Or maybe I'm a big klutz, the biggest klutz I know, but hey, we all have our quirks. I know that life has constant reminders, far more serious than runaway underpants, that we're all flawed, imperfect human beings.
But what if the same incident has a different meaning to me? What if I respond to the sight of my underwear on the sidewalk by feeling awful and set apart? I might say to myself, "No one else would do such a stupid, tacky thing. What's wrong with me?' I feel blemished in some essential and horrible way. That's shame.
Let's look at the essential difference between shame and guilt.
Healthy guilt is a good thing-- the tug of conscience that helps us to regulate our behavior and make reparations when we stray too far from being the decent, honest, responsible person we aim to be.
Unlike guilt, the experience of shame is not tied to a specific behavior. Instead, it is linked to whom we believe we are, deep down. We feel shame when we think we're too ugly, stupid, fat, mentally ill, needy, or incompetent to be worthy of receiving love or even walking around on the planet, using up valuable oxygen.
Shame feeds the conviction that another person couldn't possibly love or respect us if he or she really knew the whole, pitiful, God-awful truth about us.
Guilt is about doing. Shame is about being.
Shame isolates us, separating us from others and from our shared humanity.
Shame acts as a steady call to silence, inaction, and hiding. A part of us is flawed and should not be seen. It may be a physical part: hips, thighs, vulva, feet, stomach, a missing breast, skin color. It may be a non-physical part: the needy part, the weak part, the loud part, the part that wants to dazzle and shine and be the center of attention, the part that takes up "too much" space--or not enough.
You may carry shame around with you all the time, but be aware of it for only brief moments. You can learn to feel shame about anything that is real about you--your shape, your accent, your financial situation, your wrinkles, your size, your illness, your infertility, your son, how you spend your day. Underlying the fear of showing up and the anxiety associated with being seen and truly known, lurks shame.
For more on the secret life of shame, and what to do about it, take a look my book The Dance of Fear. The word shame only appears in the subtitle of my book, because, well, this is a subject we all want to hide from. The problem is that hiding and silence only make shame grow.