Feeling ashamed is an emotional state that, ironically, produces more shame. If someone says “shame on you,” it can be one of the most insulting ways to cut to your core. Perhaps you received a package not intended for you, but you kept it anyway. Bragging about your good luck to a friend, you’re immediately deflated when that friend wags a mental finger at you for your dishonesty. You might also feel shame about some aspect of your appearance. As much as you try to avoid drawing attention to this perceived ugly body part, it’s clear to you that other people notice it even if they don’t comment.
The emotion of shame is indeed an unpleasant one, and therefore it’s likely you try to push it aside from your consciousness. If you’re particularly vulnerable to feelings of shame, you may envy your more sanguine friends and family who seem to go through life without doubting the integrity of themselves or their motives. According to Heidelberg University’s Corinna Scheel and colleagues (2020), people vary in their shame proneness and those with high levels are thought to put their mental health at risk.
However, as Scheel et al. point out, there may actually be some adaptive aspects of shame that previous researchers have tended to overlook. Instead of always having maladaptive consequences, the emotion of shame can produce outcomes that are beneficial to the individual’s mental health. In their words, rather than always being connected to psychopathology, shame can serve to maintain “moral principles and social rules… empathy toward others, … engagement in repairing behaviors, … and prosocial motivation” (p. 1699). Returning to the earlier example, shame about your online deception could lead you to vow never to commit this type of act again or even to “repair” the situation by calling the merchant about the waylaid package.
With the assumption that shame can have beneficial effects, the German authors proceeded to tease out what they believed to be shame’s three facets by developing an instrument that would tap into each one. Noting that earlier studies on measures of shame tended to look at the negative aspects of shame proneness. Scheel et al. believed that they could build a new scale that would capture shame’s adaptive features. Toward that end, they developed the aptly-named “SHAME” questionnaire (“Shame Assessment for Multifarious Expressions of Shame”) based on the results of testing on both German and U.S. samples.
The SHAME was built around these three main factors: Bodily Shame occurs when you feel you’ve violated your physical ideals or that you exposed part of your body when you didn’t mean to do so (think “wardrobe malfunction”). Cognitive Shame is the feeling that you have violated your moral or social standards by not living up to your ideals or the standards of your society. In Existential Shame, the one maladaptive dimension, you feel worthless, irrelevant, and deficient.
You might be wondering why bodily shame would be adaptive, especially if you believe that people should be open and accepting of their bodies. However, as you’ll see more clearly with the individual items, this facet of shame refers to the violation of some social standard in the way a bodily part or intimate action becomes revealed to others. You might also wonder why it would be adaptive to score high on cognitive shame. Again, as you’ll see with the items, there is value to adhering to social or ethical standards.
To evaluate the SHAME’s measurement properties, the authors began with a set of over 200 items that they statistically whittled down to 20. They also compared scores on the SHAME with other measures of psychopathology, aggression, and self-consciousness. The online samples of approximately 500 Americans and 500 Germans averaged about 40 years old, and were almost evenly divided by sex. There was also one clinical sample of 92 women diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), averaging 28 years old.
Now to give you a more concrete sense of the three components of shame, rate yourself on these items from the SHAME on a scale of 0 (not at all) to 5 (an extreme amount) representing how much you would feel shame in these situations:
- Without thinking about it, I eye up the upper body of a male or female colleague I find very attractive. By their amused grin I suddenly realize that he or she has noticed it.
- I try on an article of clothing that I can barely get into. During this my boyfriend or girlfriend looks in the changing room.
- At a job interview, it becomes clear that my counterpart is more interested in my body than what I have to say.
- I buy myself underwear. When I have just decided what to get, I discover that two acquaintances had been observing me while I made a selection.
- I am praised for something that I did not accomplish myself
- I address someone, who I really should know, with the wrong name.
- I thoughtlessly retell something that was entrusted to me.
- My boss says something in a meeting that I take to be a joke and so I laugh out loud. Then I realize it was not a joke because everyone is looking at me strangely.
- I receive a card from a friend who is on vacation, on which it says he or she is really missing me.
- I ask myself, what would someone else who would have been born instead of me, in the same situation, have done with their life.
- On my birthday, a friend congratulates me in front of another friend and says how great it is for them that I exist.
- After a strenuous work day, my partner tells me I should relax on the sofa. In the meantime, he or she prepares me a delicious meal.
For the non-clinical samples, the scores on each of the bodily shame items averaged about 1.5, but for those with BPD, the average was closer to 2.5. On cognitive shame, the non-clinical sample averaged approximately 3 per item, and those with BPD averaged about 4 per item. The existential shame items averaged at about .5 for the online samples, and between 1 and 2 for those with BPD.
Correlating these scores with the other measures of psychopathology showed that, as the authors predicted, both bodily and cognitive shame showed only few relationships to scores on these maladaptive instruments. However, existential shame was positively related to all of these instruments.
As you can see, then, the experience of shame can have beneficial effects on how you feel about yourself and how you function in society. Rather than try to avoid shame at all costs, the Heidelberg University findings suggest that you be more accepting of the kind of shame that helps you feel you’ve measured up to your own set of standards.
To sum up, this new way of thinking about shame may help you understand this unpleasant emotional state as one you can, in part, embrace as you work to fulfill your own personal ideals.
Scheel, C. N., Eisenbarth, H., & Rentzsch, K. (2020). Assessment of different dimensions of shame proneness: Validation of the SHAME. Assessment, 27(8), 1699–1717. doi: 10.1177/1073191118820130