I hope no one has ever told you that you should be ashamed of yourself. Chances are someone did. People often admonish behavior by telling someone to be ashamed or correct a child saying, “Shame on you.” Many people consider shaming a more acceptable way of modifying behaviors than using physical or other forms of punishment. Sometimes people use shaming to express their disagreement with another’s choices or actions. Feeling shame depends upon perceiving that others disapprove of you or your behavior. It is different from guilt, which is based on your own view of an action as being harmful to another.
Does shame change or deter behavior? The answer to that question depends upon one’s goal. For people who care about how others view them, shame can deter behavior that incurred such sanction. A form of punishment, shame is an aversive emotion that most people will try to avoid. However, deterrence is based on more than avoiding an unpleasant emotion. External shame, also referred to as stigma awareness, involves the fear of criticism and social rejection. The practice of shunning in Amish communities could be viewed as an overt expression of such social disapproval. The fear of rejection severe enough to lead to isolation is a powerful agent of behavioral control. Social connectedness is essential to psychological and physical wellbeing.
Achieving change or elimination of certain overt behaviors can have its own inherent value. For example, eliminating child abuse by shaming abusers would enhance the lives of children spared abuse. However, if a person is so highly motivated to engage in a behavior or believes they are not able to inhibit it, shame might result in efforts to hide the unacceptable behaviors—effectively driving the perpetrator to secrecy, deception, and even threatening victims to silent them—all in an effort to escape detection. If fueled by anxiety, victimless habits such as overeating, cutting, or bulimia, could increase as the shamed individual self-isolates to avoid public censure or attempts at intervention. Driving someone “underground” can be counterproductive.
Unfortunately, shame can be imposed on people for aspects of who they are rather than things they do. Discrimination on the basis of characteristics such as gender, race, or mental illness offers no options for escape or respite from unfair shaming. In such cases, there is no discernible goal. Shaming can reflect prejudice against a group or a confusion of attitudes toward behaviors, conditions and identity. Shaming someone for what they cannot change places them in an impossible situation that can yield nothing beneficial. The absurdity and futility of such interactions are clear when a parent admonishes a young child to grow up. For people who are able to conceal a stigmatized identity, shaming can increase the “divide” between public and private dimensions of their self-concept. Research has shown such separation to be associated with greater social stress and depression.
Even in cases where shame successfully diminishes a behavior, one should ask, “at what price?” Shame can become internalized, and the shamed person begins to view him or herself in ways consistent with the disapproval. In cases of internal shame, the individual becomes both the judged and the judge and experiences self-criticism and feelings of inadequacy. When shame is internalized and becomes pervasive and enduring, a person can be at risk for developing unhealthy conditions such as depression or social anxiety disorder, the fear of being scrutinized and the avoidance of social events that evoke such fear. Depression and social anxiety disorder are among the most prevalent psychological disorders and are associated with higher risk of developing additional psychological problems.
As with other emotional events, feeling shamed can result in vivid long lasting memories. And as in many emotional situations, shame can color key elements in the event and ruin what could have been remembered as happy, loving, or a source of pride. The joy of a sports victory can be hijacked by shame if a coach or parent criticizes an athlete’s performance. Shame can corrupt an expression of affection when a gift is belittled or dwarfed in value by comparison with others. Sensitivity to another’s dignity is essential to protect a relationship as well as the other’s healthy self-image. Over time, a little shame can go a long way to harbor resentment that ultimately diminishes relationships.
Recent research has suggested that the ability to experience shame develops as early as age 3. In one study, preschool children expressed statements of negative self-evaluation and global self-worth: “I am such a bad kid.” Particularly important are findings that high levels of shame were related to onset of depression among the preschoolers. It is easy to forget that an incident that is insignificant to adults might be viewed as emotionally powerful by a young child. Saying “shame on you” to a toddler is so commonplace as to be considered unimportant in the larger scheme of life. But in the child’s world, such statements inform the child’s sense of who he/she is. A preschooler forms an image of self by using evaluative feedback from others, especially authority figures and those they love.
Research has suggested that humiliation is especially damaging when inflicted by an attachment figure, such as a parent or primary caregiver. Making someone we admire and love proud of us is important to our evaluation of self-worth. Feeling supported and valued contributes to our sense of trust and security, whereas feeling rejected increases anxiety and social isolation. Memories of having been shamed by a parent have been found to correlate more closely with internal shame and depression than did memories involving others.
Shaming is not necessary to guide someone’s sense of what is acceptable behavior. Acting with clear knowledge that a behavior is unacceptable is often accompanied by feelings of guilt. Unlike shame, which can relate to one’s entire self, guilt is associated with a specific behavior and by itself is not likely to be associated with psychological distress such as depression or posttraumatic stress disorder. As with other forms of punishment, aversive methods are generally less effective than positive approaches. It is more important to reward and praise desirable behaviors than to react negatively to unwanted ones. Encouraging a person’s ability to enjoy self-affirmation and self-pride will help them internalize healthy attributes and to become a person deserving of admiration. Before reacting to someone who has annoyed or offended you, remember that the specific incident provoking your disapproval may fade in memory or significance, while the shame they feel may endure as part of who they become. Shame doesn’t motivate prosocial behaviors; it fuels social withdrawal and low self-esteem. Wouldn’t you rather nurture the kind of person you would enjoy sharing a relationship with?
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