Shame has gotten a bad name in recent years.
We’ve come to view it as the corrosive legacy of sexual assault or abusive parenting. We see it as a weapon wielded by the intolerant against those who are different. It’s the favored tool of bullies everywhere, savaging their victims’ sense of self-worth. Overall, we agree that shame is bad.
But in the research I conducted for my recent book, I was surprised to hear over and over again from psychologists, sociologists, and historians that shame has, for much of our history, been a force for good.
According to recent studies in evolutionary science, human beings developed the ability to feel shame because it helped promote social cohesion. Our inherited repertoire of emotions, including shame, evolved over the long millennia when we lived in small tribes, when our survival depended heavily on close cooperation and adherence to tribal expectations for behavior. Members who violated the rules would be shunned and shamed; fear of that painful experience encouraged members to obey the rules and work together for the good of the tribe.
As the lead researcher in one study explained, “the function of pain is to prevent us from damaging our own tissue. The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them.”
Throughout history, societies everywhere have made use of shame to express their values and enforce expectations for how their members ought to behave toward one another. While often defined too narrowly, as they were in the United States in the 1950s, these shared expectations also made it possible for human beings to live together, cooperate, and thrive. By mapping the behavioral territory subject to shame and then shunning those who transgress, we define shared values that may bring us together as a people. For example, civility and honesty are two traits heavily enforced by shame. Those who betray our values are encouraged to reform and subsequently reintegrate into society.
Those specific values may change over time; behavior considered acceptable in one era becomes shameful in another, as evidenced by the #MeToo movement. The very public shaming of prominent men who abused their power to sexually exploit women reflects a major redefinition of our expectations for men in positions of authority. Shame in this way has had a positive effect, serving to discourage predatory behavior and encourage greater respect for women.
Of course, there’s another side to it, too. During periods of massive change, shame — a tool that requires shared values across a society — can quickly become a divisive cudgel. It has become cliché to describe American politics as increasingly “tribal,” but viewing it through this lens helps us make sense of how shame operates in politics today.
Shame no longer unifies us by defining acceptable values; it instead divides us into separate groups who use shame to define the “other” and set ourselves apart from them, as if to say “we’re full of virtue and they are beneath contempt.” That’s one reason why political conflicts can feel impossible to resolve. Rather than responding to legitimate criticism, it’s become normal to heap shame upon those across the aisle: I have nothing to feel ashamed about, but you certainly do. This is an evasive technique called “counter-shaming.”
But the kind of shame that shapes and reflects society’s values has roots in a much more personal place. While often characterized as a destructive psychological feeling, shame can help people define their own values and live up to them. In learning to recognize legitimate shame from toxic shame, we can wield shame as a tool for growth.
When shame is a force for good
Shame plays a vital and constructive role in governing interpersonal relationships. Parents regularly make use of shame to teach their children about acceptable behavior — that is, to socialize them into the tribe. While this might conjure images of the stocks or other harsh forms of shaming, more subtle examples are much more common and productive: mild expressions of disapproval that tell children how they’re expected to conduct themselves. Shame is used to teach toddlers the concept of sharing, saying thanks, or greeting people.
In Shame: The Exposed Self, Distinguished Professor Michael Lewis of Rutgers University observed that when parents teach children basic manners, they often use subtle shaming. Phrases like, “It’s not nice to grab Stephen’s toy — give it back,” or “Wait your turn — there are others ahead of you,” are often accompanied by a fleeting parental expression of mild disgust of which the parent is usually unaware.
According to Lewis, such communications induce a shame response in the child which is painful to some degree. Just as our ancestors conformed to tribal expectation to avoid being shamed, growing children learn to obey the rules of social behavior not out of a sense of deference but in order to avoid disapproval and that unpleasant look on their parent’s face.
In later life, our personal sense of shame may also help us meet our own expectations and live up to our values. Our feelings of shame tell us we’ve disappointed reasonable expectations we hold for ourselves or violated our own self-chosen values. Shame might help us to grow and become better people — if someone feels bad the morning after a party where they misbehaved, they might think that they should drink less and be more circumspect next time.
How to tell if shame is productive or toxic
In my work as a psychotherapist, I often encounter people who are grappling with shame in some form. My clients deflect feelings of shame by embracing blame, contempt, and indignation. Oftentimes, they actually need to instead face the shame head on if they are to grow. If you ever responded to criticism with one of those emotions only to realize later that your critic had a good point, you’ll understand what I mean.
One client railed against her supervisor’s “bias” in giving her a poor performance review; indignation helped her avoid feeling shame about some accurate criticism she heard concerning habitual lateness and inattention to detail.
Another client mocked his wife as having no sense of humor; by dismissing her with contempt, he invalidated an acute observation she’d made — that he often made sarcastic jokes at her expense whenever he felt bad about himself (like the night after losing a big account).
Many clients have begun their sessions with a heated, highly accusatory account of a recent marital spat; by blaming their spouse, they avoid taking any responsibility for what happened — their own insensitivity or hurtful behavior, for example.
It’s important to remember that productive shame is not the same as toxic shame. Described by psychologist John Bradshaw, author of the classic Healing the Shame that Binds You, toxic shame is the pervasive sense that one is essentially unworthy and unlovable, usually the result of childhood trauma or sexual abuse. There’s another type of shame, identified by noted shame researcher and TED Talk celebrity Brené Brown, that is induced by society’s perfectionistic role expectations. Such types of shame globally indict a person’s character and destroy one’s self-esteem by telling them they have no worth or are a complete failure.
By contrast, productive shame focuses on discrete traits or behaviors rather than the entire person. Instead of making global statements about someone as completely worthless and irredeemable, productive shame leaves room for her to feel good about herself as a whole while also suggesting changes that might help her feel even better. Our evolutionary ancestors used shaming and shunning to encourage change, to help tribal members reform their transgressive behavior and then reintegrate. Helpful shame always leaves room for improvement rather than making someone feel fundamentally worthless, with no hope for growth.
For my clients, and for human beings everywhere, shame often has an important lesson to teach and can be a guide to personal growth. Shame sometimes tells us we need to pay attention and work harder. It may let us know we’ve been insensitive or irresponsible. Rather than the divisive weapon it has become in partisan politics, shame continues to be an instructive tool on the personal level, helping us to grow and feel better about ourselves — provided we can listen to it.
Joseph Burgo has been practicing psychotherapy for more than 35 years. He is the author of SHAME: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem.