Embarrassment, Guilt, and Shame

They're social as well as psychological isues

Posted Sep 04, 2017

All of us are familiar with the emotions listed above.  Social creatures, we are sensitive to anything that unsettles our standing in the group.   When we gather that other people’s estimation of us is rising, usually we are pleased.  We are displeased when we feel our status fall.   These are commonplace but fundamental matters.  Humans trade in currencies of respect.  We want – and need – to be valued by others.

Embarrassment, guilt, and shame are recognitions that the self-image we so carefully construct and monitor – before ourselves as before others – has been damaged.  Recognizing this fall from grace, our brain doses us with feelings of rupture and unease.  Discomfited, we try to repair the damage.  No one wishes to live under such feelings of debilitation, especially when they are persistent and powerful.

This essay will not renounce its own beginning.  These three emotions are unpleasant matters.  But the author wishes to make two additional points.  The first is that embarrassment, guilt, and shame are social as well as psychological issues.  The second is that they have positive as well as negative effects.

Let us begin with embarrassment.  Surely, this is the least consequential of the three conditions.  The setting for embarrassment is usually as follows.  A person is behaving in the company of others.  Typically, that means he or she is aware of their co-presence.  Because of that, it is deemed important that the behavior in question be consistent with the identity that person wishes to hold, even if that means merely being an upstanding person who deserves basic levels of respect and rights of action. Unfortunately, something happens to despoil that idealized identity.

Oftentimes, it is we ourselves who are responsible for our own embarrassment.  We have been inattentive, forgetful, or obtuse.  Perhaps, we have called someone by the wrong name, spilled soup on our shirt, or made an unfortunate bodily noise.  Ideally, these slips and errors would have been avoided.  They were not.  Now, we have “lost face” before people whose esteem we court.  We have been shown to be not quite the idealized person we claim to be.  Repairs, if possible, must be made.

Alternately, we may be embarrassed by matters beyond our control.  A friend divulges information about us at a party.  True or not, it damages our standing.  We slip and fall on an icy patch of sidewalk in front of our schoolmates.  Our pride, if nothing else, is in shambles.  The boss makes us the target of one of his tirades.  Others might just as easily have been chosen. Still we burn from the unwanted publicity.

The discomfort may have more indirect causes.  What teenager has not been embarrassed in front of their friends by the usually well-meaning behaviors of their parents?  A child – or a pet – may do something that lets others know that we adults are not controlling things as we should.  A member of “our group” – ethnicity, church, fraternity, political party, and so forth – may behave so unfortunately that it upsets our standing, if not in others’ eyes then in our own.

Issues of this sort held special interest for the sociologist Erving Goffman.  In Goffman’s view, most of life’s encounters are “interaction rituals,” in which the participants endeavor to show their respect – and sometimes disrespect – for others.  In that context, much of what we do – smiling, agreeing, shaking hands, exchanging eye contact, uttering pleasantries, and so forth – is an attempt to show other people that we respect them as the identity-holders they claim to be.

When people lose face in the ways described above, certain skills are called into action.  “Poise” refers to the ability of people to quickly regain their standing after they themselves have erred.  “Tact” denotes the ability to help others recover from their misfortunes.  “Deference” is the act of expressing respect for another’s idealized identity.  “Demeanor” describes our ability to “stay in character,” to enact consistently the identity people are granting us.  All these themes are pertinent to the theater-of-real-life, where we help each other play out the identities we wish to hold.

Goffman recognized that our flustering, stammering, blushing and so forth are signs of personal discomfort.  But he had little interest in that theme.  Instead, embarrassment was for him a social rather than psychological dilemma.  Because one or more persons in a social encounter has just faltered in the above ways, it means that the “line-of-action” that everyone is trying jointly to develop and sustain has collapsed.  For that reasons, actors and singers must not forget their lines, doctors their procedures, or teachers the basic information they are trying to convey. Public figures – especially politicians - must appear to understand the content of their speeches and deliver this in a convincing way. Indeed, such people often have assistants, notes, and monitors to ensure they do not fail.

But all of us have roles we play.  None of us wants to be “caught out” publicly in a moment of foolishness or misdirection.  For collective action to return to its expected trajectory, this slip must be studiously ignored, discounted, joked about, discussed ironically, or otherwise placed into context.  Otherwise, it is ruins the conceit that we are who we are, characters in a life-play who are to be taken seriously, respected, and counted on in the moments to come.

As we’ve seen, many misfortunes are externally caused, or at least can be attributed to factors beyond our control.  Yes, we behaved foolishly at the party last night, but it was because we had been drinking too much (unaccustomedly, we claim) and lost our usual powers of circumspection.  Yes, we burped noisily at the business meeting, but it was because of that darned chili dog at lunch. Admittedly, we lost our temper a few minutes ago, but that fellow was pushing us beyond our (or surely, anyone’s) limits.

However, there are also times when we cannot slough off our indiscretion.  We must face the fact that we are to be blamed for what happened.  Indeed, we blame ourselves.  Such is the circumstance of “guilt.”

Feelings of guilt depend on the existence of a conscience or moral censor, some internal standard to which we hold ourselves.  When we fail to live up to that standard – either letting ourselves down or worse perhaps, letting others down – we recognize that inconsistency.

Pointedly, guilt is a moral – and thus a social - affair.  After all, there are other kinds of failures and inconsistencies.  There are practical failures, such as a skilled golfer making an 8 on an easy hole.  There are cognitive failures, as when an educated person uses bad grammar or spells a word incorrectly.  There are aesthetic failures, like a singer’s missing a note or an artist’s committing a faulty brush stroke. 

These misfortunes may cause chagrin – but not guilt.  Guilt arises when a person understands their misdirected behavior to be more than a simple slip or lapse.  It is a failing of character. That latter idea presumes that people move themselves through the world in consciously directed, morally guided, and self-consistent ways. Character centers on the concept of will, the proposition that all of us can – indeed, have the obligation to – make choices, to do one thing and not another.  We feel guilty when we recognize that the error in question didn’t “just happen.” It was caused by willful laziness, ignorance, and indiscretion.  And it had consequence, for other people as well as for ourselves.

Guilt is distinguished by its focus on particular actions – forgetting someone’s birthday, being late for an appointment, and so forth.  Usually we apologize to the people involved or otherwise attempt to atone for what occurred.  Frequently, our apology is accepted, and the burden of guilt – at least partially – is removed.   But guilt can also swing loose of its foundation in particular actions.

This was the theme developed by Freud and some of his followers.  Guilty feelings often persist.  And they can be based on the internal thoughts and feelings we have rather than external actions.  Some people are haunted by a repressive conscience.  They believe somehow they have not done the right thing, are not doing the right thing now, and will not be doing the right thing in the future.  Free-floating guilt of this sort is a significant psychological problem, which merits support by family, friends, and counselors.

However, and much like embarrassment, guilt is also a social phenomenon.  Just as people may try to embarrass us, so they can lay a “guilt trip” on us.  Both actions represent efforts to disorient the blamed person and lower their status.  In that spirit, a mother chides her child about “never calling.”   A spouse insists that the offender is distracted or inattentive.

Although there may be occasions where the blamer simply wants the victim to feel bad, usually the goal is to put the relationship “in line,” that is, to establish a different pattern (where people do call and act attentively).  Pointedly, the guilt trip also represents a claim by the blamer.  They have been injured or disrespected.  They need additional support.

To be sure, guilt-based relationships can survive.  After all, few children actually renounce the mother they have disappointed.  Couples stay together after extra-marital affairs.  But persistent suspicion and blame are hardly a fertile soil for group-bonding.  Sometimes, the damaging act (perhaps that adulterous affair) is acknowledged openly by both partners.  That leads to the difficulties of managing a spoiled identity, regaining trust, and repairing that identity.  Sometimes, only the perpetrator knows what he or she has done.  That leads to the anxieties about discovery, the extremely careful management of information, and knowledge that the relationship is a “lie.”  On occasion, the damage and guilt (perhaps the death of a child caused by a parent’s inattentive driving) can never be undone.  In any case, lingering guilt is a social as well as psychological debilitation.  It prevents us from engaging with others fully and confidently.  It endangers mutual trust.

Can matters get worse?  Arguably, shame is more disturbing and more significant in its impact.  Guilt, it may be recalled centers on improper actions – things done and undone.  Even in its free-floating form, it focuses on failed actions to come.  By contrast, shame centers on the self in its fullness.  Guilty people regrets their moments of “deviance.”  Shamed people, that they have become, profoundly, “deviants.”

That sense of being incapable, even dirty and disgusting, was prominent in Erik Erikson’s depiction of the emotional challenges of toddlerhood.  Erikson’s contrasts shame to “autonomy,” the developing ability to go and do confidently.  Notably, shame is anterior to, and thus foundational for, the next stage of life that centers on the tension between “initiative” and “guilt.”  Older children (3-6 years old) have a nascent conscience and a sense that they can plot their own course through the world.  They know that certain feelings and beliefs are “wrong.”  Toddlers sense only that they can be disapproved of – and punished. They willfully move their bodies and other objects about, take pleasure in private accomplishments, and confront authority figures in what ways they can.  But too many failings in this regard can make them feel confused, disabled and doubting.

We adults are acquainted well enough with shame.  Sometimes, there is public disgrace (think of Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter).  Sometimes, the shame is hidden and awaits revelation (think of her impregnator, Reverend Dimmesdale). Much like guilt, shame may be self-inflicted, the product of foolish deeds.  It may also arise from association with already degraded others, often family members and friends.  Innocent people may be shamed, either individually or collectively.  That is because groups in power want scapegoats to distract attention from their own failings.  In every case, shame is self-stigmatization.  The blamed person has been separated from their previous, perhaps positive identity. They cannot go forward as they did before.

Be clear that shame is a terrible psychological injury, which is either absorbed (extremely, in self-hatred) or which becomes the basis for an elaborate set of defenses.  Of special pertinence is what psychological Helen Lewis describes as unacknowledged or bypassed shame, which sometimes leads to an aggressive, defensive style of personhood.  Blame others, or so it seems, instead of blaming yourself.  Hurt them before they can hurt you.

For such reasons, and as sociologist Thomas Scheff has emphasized, shame is a social problem. In cases where the shame is accepted as legitimate, it leads to damaged people who doubt their own ability to function in the world.  People so stigmatized can go on a downward spiral.  One kind of degradation leads to another.

But shame denied is equally dangerous.  A defensive, personally preoccupied person has great difficulty in being generous to others.  In worst cases, shame produces a thin-skinned narcissist, who cares only about his or her own welfare, bullies other people, and constantly seeks affirmation.  “Good” people are those who align themselves with the narcissist. “Bad” people are the rest of humanity who refuse to perform this function.

Class-based societies with individualistic mythologies perpetuate these problems.  In such societies, everyone knows - or at least suspects - that they are not quite good enough, that they have failed to meet the high standards that their society holds out for them.  For that reason, much of life is a game of social circumspection, where people try to improve what status they have claimed.  Commonly, there is envy of the highly placed, a wondering about the inner qualities they possess and the viewer lacks.  Downward glances frequently involve indemnification, especially of those far below.  Presumably, those distant others have personal qualities to be avoided.  In that context, feelings of guilt and shame are silent admonitions, warnings of just how far most of us can fall. 

Traditional societies emphasize shame in its collective sense, the despised kin group or caste, the gender or race that must remain in place. By degrees, the modern world shifts this despoilment to individuals.  The accused is labeled an addict, adulterer, embezzler, or child molester because of choices they have made.  Whatever the precise designation, it floods their entire being.    

By such lights, embarrassment can be seen as despoiled situations, guilt as despoiled actions, and shame as despoiled persons.  How can any of this damage be declared beneficial?

Imagine a society where such conditions do not exist?  That would mean a world where people do as they wish without regard for the opinions of their fellows.  Unfettered, individuals might rape, loot, and assault.  Their only concern would be the defensive responses of those they offend.  They would live in fear of the predator class.

Instead, these emotions serve as brakes on anti-social behavior.  They reinforce the idea that we are creatures who depend on one another.  We do not behave as we do because we fear immediate punishment but because we recognize that our understanding of who we are is linked to collective involvement.  The “self” is as much a social as a psychological construction.  Without the acknowledgements of others, we count as little.

The poet and playwright Bertold Brecht warned that the great danger for modern people – and certainly for Germany in an age of Fascist advance - is the “unfurrowed brow.”  Contemporary people are encouraged to live by small acts of pleasure-seeking.  Morality loses its broader meanings.  Little is of consequence beyond the economy of fun.  A successful life, or so we are told, is one filled with acquisitions – power, property, and “experience.” 

A self that is shrunken in this way may bypass the scourges of shame and guilt, perhaps even embarrassment.  For other people, at least in this view of things, do not matter.  But most of us would not recognize this monstrosity as a properly human life.

It is one thing, and entirely right, for a little child to be “without shame.”  It is another for an adult to be “shameless,” to know well that there are reasonable public standards for behavior and then to disregard or flaunt them.  Our collective “lines of action,” our possibilities for cooperating, depend on respecting other people and courting their regard.  Embarrassment, guilt, and shame are the self-recognitions that keep us attentive to those commitments.


Erik Erikson. Childhood and Society.  New York: Norton, 1963.

Erving Goffman. Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior.  Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1967.

Lewis, Helen.  Shame and Guilt in Neurosis.  New York: International Universities Press, 1971.

Scheff, Thomas.  Goffman Unbound! A New Paradigm for Social Science.  Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2006.