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Shame and Motivation to Change

Could the emotion we run from the fastest help us to be better people?

We know the feeling only too well: Our pulse quickens. Our faces flush. The feeling is so bad that we want to escape at all costs.

Shame has been called our “most dreaded emotional experience.”1 Whether we suffer shame ourselves or witness shame in others, who among us actively seeks the experience that Brené Brown defines as “believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection”?

Grraffiti on a abandoned Victorian townhouse

Shame may well deserve its bad rap, with repercussions ranging from the inconvenience of ineffective workplace team performance to using shame as a way to manipulate others to the lifelong debilitating shame resulting from childhood trauma. Shame researchers such as Brown make compelling arguments for why we should be careful not to let shame rule our lives, and why guilt may be a preferable negative emotion, as it focuses our attention on specific events or behavior rather than the self.

But is shame always bad for us? Maybe not, at least not if we are interested in self-change.

Shame as a Predictor of Wanting to Change

The authors of “Shame and the Motivation to Change the Self” (Emotion, December 2014) found that feeling shame was a stronger predictor than guilt or regret for motivation for positive self-change. They offer the following definitions of guilt and shame (emphases added):

  • Guilt arises when a person focuses on what specifically he or she did wrong (‘I did a bad thing’), often results when one has harmed an important relationship, and generally motivates reparative motivations including efforts to apologize for, fix, or undo the blameworthy act.”
  • Shame has a more dispositional focus in which people attend to negative aspects of the self (‘I was a bad person’) and has been linked to distancing motivations aimed at escaping the blameworthy event or hiding from public view.”

The researchers looked at to what extent emotions predicted

  • wanting to change oneself (the “urge to be a better person,” wanting to change completely or change aspects of one’s personality);
  • the desire for reparation (feeling the need to apologize or otherwise take action to “make things better”); and
  • the urge to distance oneself (wanting to hide or remove oneself from a shameful situation).

They found that shame "was uniquely associated with the motivation to change the self above and beyond moral self-blame and harm to others."

Why would shame more so than guilt predict a desire for self-change? One possibility raised in the study is that because we feel the need to apologize and make reparations when we feel guilty, we may be less motivated to make lasting changes in ourselves.

Shame As a First Step Toward Personal Growth

In 1967 Kazimierz Dabrowski wrote in Personality-shaping Through Positive Disintegration of shame’s role in the long-term process of personal change and growth. Dabrowski proposed that shame indicates a "readiness" to address disharmony between who we want to be and who are are, and he provides examples of how sensitive children who are prone to shame can be helped to distinguish between when their highly tuned responses are useful and when they are not.

In Dabrowski's theory, shame is an important but ultimately only first step toward personality growth. Dr. Cheryl Ackerman explains that only when shame and guilt occur in relation to who we know we want to or should be—our evolving understanding of our ideal self—rather than in response to the judgment of others, do they "take on a development role." The conflict for such a person is one of an internal hierarchy, based on "a vision of who she should be based on internal reflection and consciousness."2 Any shame we feel is shame for ourselves based on who we know we should be rather than external expectations. We can work past this shame by striving to live our lives more closely to our own ideals so as to reduce the inner conflict.

Bridging the Gap

The authors of the Emotion article suggest that when shame persists through the process of change or if we "try to suppress or deny" shame rather than allow ourselves to experience it, our "motivation to change might not always translate into actual change." They also ask if believing that we can change plays an important role in bridging the gap between desire for change and change itself.

Dabrowski's theory offers another possibility, that shame arising from a desire to change to please our own higher nature may be more adaptive than shame felt as the finger-pointing of others. And, here, the issue becomes in part one of semantics, for as Brené Brown reminds us, referring to guilt, the "ability to hold something we've done or failed to do up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It's uncomfortable, but it's adaptive" ("Listening to Shame").

1 Lickel, B., Kushlev, K., Savalei, V., Matta, S., & Schmader, T. (2014). Shame and the motivation to change the self. Emotion,14(6), 1049-1061

2 Ackerman, Cheryl M. (2009). The essential elements of Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration and how they are connected. Roeper Review,31(2),81-95

"Shame" image by Anthony Easton/flickr: PinkMoose [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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