Shyness Photograph courtesy of Health DayOpens in new window

Shame may be defined as “the negative emotion felt when one fails or does something morally wrong and then focuses on one’s own global, stable inadequacies in explaining the transgression” (Kalat & Shiota, 2007, p. 239).

Shame, one of the emotionsOpens in new window that involves an evaluation of the self (often called the self-conscious emotions), bears some similarity to guiltOpens in new window, another self-conscious emotion.

Shame and guiltOpens in new window overlap in at least two important ways. First, the circumstances that lead to a feeling of either shame or guilt are often the same. In general, people tend to feel either shame or guilt when they have

  • done something that violates their sense of morality or
  • fallen short of living up to their own expectations or the expectations of others.

Additionally, the facial and bodily expression of shame and guilt are similar. The individual looks down, either does not smiles or has a very slight frown, and has a hunched or slumped posture (although some disagree with this last quality, saying that shame involves a slumped posture, whereas guilt involves a posture that suggests that the individual anticipates moving forward in space).

The main aspect that seems to distinguish shame and guilt is the individual’s own interpretation of the negative event that evoked shame or guilt.

  • Specifically, when experiencing shame, the individual feels that what happens to him reflects on his whole self, thinking, “I am a bad person.”
  • Conversely, when feeling guilt, the individual feels badly about an action that he did, thinking, “My behavior was bad,” but does not feel badly about the whole. Lewis (1992) calls this a global self-attribution (shame) versus a specific self-attribution (guilt).

Because the attribution in shame is global, it is difficult to “get rid of” the emotion. The person feels that he wants to hide, disappear, or die. As Lewis states, the experience is so negative that the individual becomes confused and unable to speak, and the emotion interferes with behavior, especially with potentially proactive, corrective, or other positive behavior.

According to Lewis (2008), Sigmund Freud and neo-Freudian Erik Erikson were only moderately successful in distinguishing between shame and guilt. Freud focused more on guilt than on shame.

In his model, guilt becomes a part of the personality (part of the superego) in young childhood, when the child internalizes the morality of his or her parent following his or her Oedipal/Electra complex (experience that involves falling in love with the opposite-sexed parent).

As Lewis states, Freud, like modern guilt researchers, saw guilt as a reaction to one’s behavior, without an attribution to one’s whole self. Therefore, with guilt, an individual can make amends for the behavior through a penance, which may include either an actual attempt to help the injured party or through self-punishment or abstinence.

Erikson discussed shame and guilt in his psychological development theory. According to him, shame develops during toddlerhood (about one-and-a-half to four years old) as the child learns toilet training and other developmental achievements, especially those involving control of the muscles.

Shame arises largely when the child is unable to have muscular control, particularly anal muscle control (which will happen in varying degrees to all children, and thus nearly all people will develop some degree of shame).

Guilt develops during the stage immediately following, when the child locomotes more than in the prior stage, is able to take more initiative, and is able to be more destructive. A prototypical example is the child who, at this stage (approximately four to six years), wants to push every button or switch that he or she comes across—such behavior can lead to disaster. Guilt serves to control this initiative, with the child’s realization that he can be destructive and hurt others.

Thus, for Erikson, shame and guilt can be distinguished from one another, and shame occurs earlier in development. In other writings, however, Erikson spoke of shame in such a way that it is not clearly differentiated from guilt (e.g., Erikson, 1950).

As Lewis (2008) suggests, shame has the potential to cripple people psychologically. He and others have been particularly interested in studying the shame that may (or may not) result from sexual abuse or other extreme maltreatment. Why do some people (but not others) blame themselves, such that they believe that abuse means that they are bad people?

Lewis and others study this topic with the goal of learning how to help liberate people from the psychological suffering that can occur with shame.

See Also:
  1. Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: W.W. Norton.
  2. Kalat, J.W. & Shiota, M.N. (2007). Emotion. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
  3. Lewis, M. (1992). Shame: The exposed self. New York: Free Press.
  4. Lewis, M. (2008). Self-conscious emotions: Embarrassment, pride, shame, and guilt. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones, & L.F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (3rd ed., pp. 742 – 756). New York: Guilford.
  5. Tangney, J. P., Milner, R. S., Flicker, L., & Barlow, D. H. (1996). Are shame, guilt, and embarrassment distinct emotions? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 1256-1269.