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Shame: A Concealed, Contagious, and Dangerous Emotion

Shame informs you of an internal state of inadequacy, dishonor, or regret.

As a self-conscious emotion, shame informs us of an internal state of inadequacy, unworthiness, dishonor, regret, or disconnection. Shame is a clear signal that our positive feelings have been interrupted. Another person or a circumstance can trigger shame in us, but so can a failure to meet our own ideals or standards. Given that shame can lead us to feel as though our whole self is flawed, bad, or subject to exclusion, it motivates us to hide or to do something to save face. So it is no wonder that shame avoidance can lead to withdrawal or to addictions that attempt to mask its impact.

Shame is often confused with guilt--an emotion we might experience as a result of a wrongdoing about which we might feel remorseful and wish to make amends. Where we will likely have an urge to admit guilt, or talk with others about a situation that left us with guilty feelings, it is much less likely that we will broadcast our shame. In fact, we'll most likely conceal what we feel because shame does not make a distinction between an action and the self. Therefore, with shame, "bad" behavior is not separate from a "bad" self as it is with guilt.

A situation, real or imagined, might trigger a shame response. One may, for example, attack oneself as being inferior in competitive endeavors or believe others will become aware of some concealed flaw. Shame will be felt when we anticipate being viewed as lacking or inadequate in our intellect, appearance, or abilities. For example, a woman who had gained weight had difficulty leaving her house because she wanted to avoid the shame that was triggered by being in public. She devalued herself, and her expectation was that others would judge her harshly.

Attacking others often serves to disown what the shameful person feels. In order to escape shame's self-diminishing effects, expressing contempt toward another person, or shaming them, re-locates one's own shame in the other. A man who anticipated being judged as inadequate, for example, would manipulate the self-esteem of his partner by denigrating her. When she became weak, self-conscious, and needed his approval, he was then more confident, as well as able to blame her for any failure on his part. Relocating one's own shame in another person is a typical self-protective maneuver among narcissists, since at the core of narcissism is unbearable internalized shame that is denied consciousness. Needing to hide a devalued sense of self, narcissists can appear self-inflating or entitled, and provoke envy in people around them.

Shame is contagious if you take on the lethal projections of shame from a partner--especially one who is abusive. In this same way, shame is especially difficult, if not toxic, for children because it is an emotion that is concealed, especially by victims of aggression or abuse. The anticipation of being shamed by peers creates anxiety in a child if he or she is a victim of bullying. As I discussed in a previous post ("Do Bullies Really Have Low-Self-esteem?") shame can be experienced as such a negative, intense emotion of self-loathing that it can lead one to disown it, and, in the case of one who acts like a bully, give it away by evoking that emotion in others. Kids who bully and tease can easily figure out what makes other kids ashamed, and they are highly skilled at triggering the emotion of shame in peers. And this makes shame a contagious emotion.

Children also are subject to the transmission of shame when they are related to someone who is behaving shamefully. When children are emotionally or physically abandoned, abused, or neglected they often take on the shame that belongs to the adult who left or hurt them by assuming that it's because they themselves are the "bad" one. Some children behave in ways that make them culpable for the shame that belongs to their parents.

On the other hand, parents can experience intense shame because of the behavior of their children. Since an ideal, as a parent, is that children will represent one's best efforts and merits, a child who fails to achieve desired goals, or whose behavior is an embarrassment, reflects negatively and evokes a shame response. Some parents deny any culpability in the misbehavior of their children in an attempt to disown their shame. Other parents accept too much responsibility and shame for any wrongdoing of a child.

Any situation that devalues the self and triggers shame can also trigger anger or even rage. This includes situations that incite envy, stir up comparisons, evoke a fear of abandonment, or rouse fantasies about a rival's relative happiness, among other things. The anger experienced by a person who is shamed is like an all-consuming poison and it occupies a great deal of conscious thought. But if one person who is consumed by shame manages to transfer shame to another, then that person will experience its overwhelming toxic repercussions. Shame, when it is taken on by a partner, loved one, friend, or stranger can physically and emotionally make a person ill.

Regardless of the trigger, when shame is experienced the deterioration of an esteemed sense of self can be devastating. In addition to the typical emotions that can accompany shame, such as envy, anger, rage, and anxiety, we can also include sadness, depression, depletion, loneliness, and emptiness as a result. And this is where shame can become a dangerous emotion. When shame results in self-attack, it is overwhelming, and it can negatively color how you view yourself and how you assess the prospect of recovering your self-esteem. Even so, people do recover from experiencing shame and they learn a great deal about themselves if they can step back and take a look at what is going on within them.

As with all emotions, shame requires perspective since it is placed in the context of our environment and current concerns. However, our response to shame is shaped by all of our emotional memories of when it was previously experienced. The accumulation of emotional experiences that reside in our memory script our responses when a particular emotion is activated in the present. For the most part, these neat little packages of emotional memories influence our decisions and how we govern our lives. Yet, in any case, shame motivates us to save face, and, thus, one must always be aware of the inclination to hide when the emotion is triggered. Hiding often accompanies behaviors that are themselves a trigger for further shame, such as addictions, compulsive behaviors, harsh self-criticism, or self-denigration. Self-observation that is often prompted by shame, and felt as regret, provides an opportunity to learn, change, improve, or do something differently the next time around.

More from Mary C. Lamia Ph.D.
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More from Mary C. Lamia Ph.D.
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