Most everyone experiences shame at times. The only people who never experience shame are psychopaths. But that’s because they can’t accept personal responsibility for their actions. The rest of us know the feeling of shame.
First, we need to look at the difference between shame and guilt. Both are considered moral emotions, in that they arise as a result of us doing something we perceive as wrong. Both emotions are painful, and can change our future behaviors.
Guilt is a negative appraisal of a specific behavior. “I did something that I shouldn’t have done (or that hurt someone) and I feel remorse that I did it.” Guilt is a healthy emotion. It motivates us to alter our behaviors and avoid the hurtful actions in the future.
Shame is a negative appraisal of one’s self. The emphasis is not on a specific behavior, but rather, on the core sense of identity. With guilt we think, “I did something bad,” but with shame we think, “I am bad.” We may feel unworthy or defective. When we experience shame, we tend to shut down. Shame doesn’t motivate us to improve our behaviors. Instead, it makes us feel powerless and inadequate. We assume that we are inherently bad, and feel the need to withdraw from others.
While both cause emotional pain, shame creates a deeper hurt, as it attacks our core sense of self. Shame is usually associated with a feeling of shrinking or being small. We feel less than and exposed. Even when no one saw our actions, we imagine how they would react if they did. We imagine an intense social disapproval. We have an urge to hide.
A sensitivity to shame may develop in the early years. While a single event can lead to shame, it usually results from more pervasive negative experiences. Children tend to experience shame when they receive global criticism as a person, rather than feedback that is focused on a specific behavior. Global criticism speaks to the child’s identity or character. Examples include, “You are so clumsy. You do that all the time. and You’re stupid.” The child learns to believe he is defective and inferior as a person. This belief can follow him throughout life.
Parenting that conveys the message that the child is good and worthwhile, but made a mistake, helps insulate that child from shame. The child realizes the wrong behavior, and feels guilty, without the more general conclusion that he is a bad person. The child can correct his behaviors, while maintaining a healthy self-esteem.
So, we need to pay attention to the way we treat others and ourselves. Recognize that mistakes and wrong behaviors do happen with everyone. When addressing them, be specific to the behavior. We need to avoid global critical statements about the person, whether talking to our children, or to ourselves.