Neanderthink: No Shame on You

You're built to judge your behavior critically, says Nando Pelusi, Ph.D., but don't let the evaluation spill onto your whole sense of self.

By Nando Pelusi Ph.D., published January 1, 2008 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

In the 1920s, a strange practice sprouted across college campuses in the Northeast, where young men and women attended house parties in which a confessional "washing out" of sins by public exposure was encouraged. Their deepest, darkest, and yes, sexual thoughts lay bare for all to see and hear. Feelings of ill will were openly disclosed. Nothing was too taboo to reveal.

This movement, called Buchmanism by some, after the controversial Lutheran minister Frank Buchman, shocked parents and professors—but what could anyone do about these crazy young kids? The participants reported a feeling of liberation; they were accepted by the group in spite of embarrassing behavior and experienced an unusual release from shame by confronting it head-on.

One could say they felt pride in bearing their shameful thoughts. The Buchmanites stumbled upon the fact that people can accept themselves in spite of behaviors and thoughts that were considered transgressions. In fact, their confessions became the inspiration for today's Alcoholics Anonymous.

Shame and pride turn out to be opposite sides of the same emotional coin—a coin whose currency is self-worth. We constantly evaluate our own attributes and then compare them mercilessly to those of others. We rate our attractiveness, our aplomb, even our IQ.

If we don't measure up on any of the attributes we most value, we feel shame and we feel incompetent. Most shame comes from overgeneralizing—applying to one's whole self a rating on one specific trait. We jump from "I screwed up" to "I am a screwup," though the realities are worlds apart. Once the leap is made, shame ensues.

Shame serves a critical function. As social creatures, we need a set of rapidly acting guidelines for comportment, an emotion-based system that encourages us to heed the norms of our particular cohort. The norms for a biker in the Hell's Angels are not the same as those of a samurai. Despite enormous variation in the particulars of their application, pride and shame are universal emotions reported among all cultures.

When status goes down, one's sense of shame goes up: Men in a bar scuffle would rather lose a tooth than look foolish while their tooth flies across room. Women avoid taking on roles that might get them labeled "bitches"—or they may feel shame about not being bossy or "bitchy" enough. Shame about accomplishments, or lack thereof, creates a slew of miseries both practical and emotional. In each case, people overgeneralize and say, "If I look foolish, I'm a fool."

Overgeneralizing from a trait to the entire self is a Neanderthink legacy we carry. Once upon a time, if we did something foolish or measured up poorly, literally everyone in our circle would know it and it would probably be the topic du jour. Today, we're lucky if someone remembers our behavior for more than 20 minutes. Shame once served a corrective purpose. It still can, but it is just as often unnecessary in contemporary life. Your coworkers may not like you, but that doesn't mean your social standing is forever determined. In the ancestral environment, rejection by your tribe and kin, by contrast, could bring permanent exile or death.

For our ancestors, living in a small group of about a hundred people, it was very likely that each excelled at some skill or activity. Statistically, one's chances of being best at something among a small group are exponentially higher than in the global population in which we reside today.

Nowadays, we compare our traits to those of the best—not to a hundred or so kin but to millions of "competitors" around the world. We compare our looks to those of celebrities whose faces and figures fill the media. And we measure our accomplishments against those of the people who dominate our professions, most of whom we watch only from afar. Being world-class today requires inherent talent and a Promethean dedication to meet standards that for most of human history (the hundred thousand years wherein our ancestors were human) were unheard of.

Shame and pride allow us to calibrate our own status. Shame is a message to oneself: "I lose face when I act poorly." But it's also a signal of submission to others: "I understand the error of my ways." Shame is believable because you can't hide the blushing that is often its consequence, nor can you fake contrition very well.

To the degree that shame motivates us to take corrective action, it is a constructive emotion. But when it catapults us beyond a keenly developed sense of our social standing (say, suddenly realizing that mullet hairstyle is laughable) into overgeneralization (my mullet hairstyle makes me an idiot), it tends to paralyze us; then it becomes a disturbance.

Yes, your mullet hairstyle may have disadvantages, but no, it doesn't make you a total idiot. Nothing can make you a total idiot because you do not always and exclusively act idiotically.

So why do we continue to strongly believe that we are idiots for acting idiotically? We evolved to be keenly attuned to social pressure, which means monitoring our every act and characteristic for potential gaffes, embarrassment, and offenses to others. Constantly monitoring ourselves tilts us to seize on any potential offense we commit and blow it out of proportion.

The opposite of shame is not shamelessness—a completely different problem. Nor is it lack of conscientiousness. The opposite of shame is awareness of the effect of your behavior on others, without putting yourself down about your errors. Pride, on the other hand, is the obverse of shame.

The misguided self-esteem movement has confused rating traits and rating the self. One result is that instead of creating students who feel good about themselves and perform well, we've produced more fragile egos.

We cloak our true selves for fear of exposure, working hard to create a grand facade. But that often leaves us unfulfilled, because even if we create a convincing front, the message it sends us is clear—our true self is unacceptable. The message "I had better posit a facade lest I be found out" only perpetuates excessive shame. Be yourself without abashment—but with sensitivity and awareness of the effects of your behaviors on others. No shame in trying.

Nando Pelusi, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist based in New York City.

Embarrass This!

When self-rating leads to paralyzing shame or excessive pride, you can take some simple steps to extricate yourself from the emotional quagmire.

  • Ask yourself whether you really become a foolish person if you act foolishly. Experimenting with new activities with new people is liberating and usually well worth the risk.
  • Assert your right to look foolish. You'll find that your confidence grows.
  • Accept your failings. Even if you have acted stupidly in the past, determine to do better next time.
  • Rate your traits and behaviors critically if they warrant it, but refuse to rate your entire self.
  • Do something socially "shameful" to show yourself that nothing terrible happens.