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How Self-Conscious Emotions Reveal Our True Self-Image

Self-appraisals are revealed by body language.

Key points

  • Self-conscious emotions play vital role in how people view and think about themselves.
  • Negative self-conscious emotions can motivate people to engage in behaviors that repair relationships and their sense of self.
  • The displays of pride, shame, and guilt have universally recognizable patterns of nonverbal behavior.

By Ronald Riggio PhD and Alan Crawley

When we think about how we exhibit emotions, what comes to mind? If we are happy and upbeat, we don a smiling face and enthusiastic tone of voice. Slumped shoulders and somber expressions expose sadness. When angered, we stare the target of our anger down, and if enraged, we may even bare our teeth. These are the basic emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust) that people feel and express with similar body language. But there is another set of emotions that reveal how we feel about ourselves at any given moment. These are the self-conscious emotions.

Examples of self-conscious emotions include pride, shame, embarrassment, guilt, and humiliation. They play an essential role in how we view and think about ourselves.

How does this work?

According to Tracy and Robins, something happens that draws our attention toward ourselves and our psychological identity. These events are relevant to how we view ourselves. For instance, we receive a compliment about something we have done (“My, you really are exceptionally talented!”). It triggers the self-conscious emotion of pride, particularly if we already have faith in our talent. However, what happens if the event leads to a negative outcome–the audience boos? We may then feel embarrassment or humiliation. Similarly, what if we believe that we are honest and upright people, but we get caught in a lie? We may feel the self-conscious emotion of guilt or shame.

These self-conscious emotions play an important part in our self-views. For example, pride leads to an increase in self-esteem, while negative emotions decrease self-esteem. Self-conscious emotions can also motivate us to take action. For example, if you feel guilty about something you did that hurt your significant other, it may motivate you to repair the relationship. A politician who makes a mistake might demonstrate embarrassment and promise to do better. Even criminals who express shame at their crimes in court might receive a lesser sentence.

How do we express self-conscious emotions in our nonverbal behavior?

The universal body language cues of pride are well-known–head tilted back, expanded chest, erect posture, a slight smile. Even young children will express these same cues of pride, as will triumphant para-Olympian winners who were born blind!

The negative self-conscious emotions are also displayed with consistent nonverbal cues. For example, embarrassed or shamed individuals tend to lower their eyes and heads, turn away, and often display some form of face-touching.

When positive or negative things happen to you, pay attention to your own emotions and how you express them (and how it makes you feel). If you are a people-watcher, look for body language cues of pride, shame, and embarrassment. They all should follow similar behavioral patterns.


Tracy, J.L., & Robins, R.W. (2004). Putting the self into self-conscious emotions: A theoretical model. Psychological Inquiry, 15, 103-125.

Keltner, D., & Buswell, B.N. (1997) Embarrassment: Its distinct form and appeasement functions. Psychological Bulletin, 122 (2), 250.

Tracy, J.L., & Matsumoto, D. (2008). The spontaneous expression of pride and shame: Evidence for biologically innate nonverbal displays. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105, 11655-11660.

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