The Upside of Shame

Shame presents an unexpected opportunity to make ourselves different.

Posted May 02, 2020

When we experience shame, our thinking tends to associate it with perceived frailties and defects. However, there is much more to shame than its reputation as a negative emotional state characterized by painful feelings of exposure, deflation, or inadequacy. In fact, there is a very significant and positive component to shame that is generally not emphasized. 

An important function of shame is to alert us when positive emotions we are feeling at the time—things we are enjoying and want more of—are interfered with by something or someone. Essentially, what is experienced as shame later in life develops as a result of childhood experiences where there is a loss of connection or feedback from caregivers. [1] Imagine, for example, a young child who expects that a particular behavior on his or her part will elicit a joyful response from a caregiver as it has in the past. Instead, this time, the child’s parent happens to be distracted—by a phone call perhaps—and possibly is unresponsive or annoyed as well. Thus, shame is activated in the child, resulting in disappointment, frustration, anger, or withdrawal, among other possibilities, in not having been acknowledged by, or attuned with, the parent as the child had been in previous situations that were very gratifying.

In our adult life, such painful emotional memories influence our current state when we worry that we have failed to achieve a goal or when a desired bond with another has been broken. This function of shame provides critical relational information beyond the felt experience when our thoughts subsequently link it with a diminished sense of self. Although the emotional message of shame (that someone or something just messed with our good feelings) is delivered with a harsh jolt to the self, at the same time shame also involves the sense that good feelings can possibly be restored and broken bonds can be repaired. 

As a simple example, Jenna was excited about a concept her professor was presenting and raised her hand to ask a question. As she spoke, she saw her professor glance at the clock. Immediately, Jenna winced, imagining that she had gone on too long or that her question reflected her inadequacy. Realizing she was attacking herself based on her perception of events, and also motivated to feel better, following class she apologized to the professor for her long-winded question. Jenna’s good feelings were restored as the professor expressed appreciation for her contributions. 

Perhaps more than any other emotion, shame also motivates learning and a desire to change the self. Consider everyday examples where shame or shame-based anxiety draws attention to characteristics or behaviors people may want to change, motivating them, for example, to lose weight or overcome an addiction. Furthermore, shame serves to maintain the social order, and it is the emotion behind deference. What would civilization be like if human beings had not developed the capacity to feel shame? Imagine all the behaviors people typically avoid doing because they know their actions would trigger some level of shame—from mild embarrassment to deep humiliation—in themselves or others. 

Much of what is experienced as symptoms of various disorders have a basis in shame. Symptoms of anxiety are frequently shame-based. Defensive responses resulting from shame anxiety may appear as phobias, avoidance behaviors, agitation, a fear of failure, and self-destructive acts. Shame-based anxiety may be mislabeled as an anxiety disorder, when the actual issue may have more to do with shame and the expectation of experiencing the emotion. 

Similarly, much of what we regard as depression is linked to shame. When shame forms the core of depression it is often seen as treatment and medication resistant. That shame is involved is obvious when one considers that many of the symptoms of depression directly reflect the defensive responses to shame; namely, withdrawal, avoidance, attacking oneself, and attacking others. Depressed patients who are taught to recognize the impact of shame experiences can make use of the upside of their emotional state—the motivation to seek soothing and relief from others for what they feel.

Narcissism has everything to do with shame. Narcissism represents the many behaviors, such as grandiosity, entitlement, or self-centeredness, through which people are able to disavow anything that might result in an increase in their already unbearable amount of shame. [2] Narcissistic personalities are able to function well in the world as their behavior involves such effective responses to deeply imbedded shame that they can dismiss it entirely. 

Shame reduction may be the most common motivator of addictive behaviors. Whether the addiction has to do with alcohol, substances, food, hyper-sexuality, or the conspicuous consumption of goods, shame avoidance is at its core. The voluntary exposure of shame-based vulnerabilities is one of the most effective methods of reducing its negative impact. The success of 12-step programs involves an important upside to shame: individuals are able to expose their experiences of shame and, as a result, receive acceptance and support from the community. In addition, the shame of being an addict and the anti-social behaviors that accompany many addictions ultimately increases the amount of negative emotion driving the addiction. All addictive behaviors create a difficult-to-break cycle of shame that creates further shame unless explored in a way that allows learning to take place. 

Evolution produced an emotion that felt bad enough to make us notice that there was interference with what had been feeling good. Hence, the emotion of shame emerged with the purpose of informing us, by making us feel bad, that our happiness is at risk. Both in spite of and because of how bad shame feels, it is nonetheless the emotion that signals the need for, and then motivates the behaviors of, reconnection and reconciliation. It is potentially a powerful motivator of change for the better. Thus, we can use a moment of shame as an incentive to change because shame presents an unexpected opportunity to make ourselves different. [3]

This post has been excerpted in part from The Upside of Shame: Therapeutic Interventions Using the Positive Aspects of a “Negative” Emotion.


[1] Schore, A. (2012). The Science of the Art of Psychotherapy. New York, NY: Norton. 

[2] Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affects, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: NY: Norton.

[2] Nathanson, D. (1992). Cited above.