Those who are prone to feeling shame on a day-to-day basis tend to have low self esteem and often suffer higher rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
Those who watch "Game of Thrones" likely won't forget the stomach churning walk of shame from Season 5's finale, in which the disgraced Queen Cersei Lannister is paraded naked through town as onlookers jeer, spit and pelt her with filth. A nun follows behind, all the while relentlessly repeating "Shame! Shame! Shame!"
While this scene is an extreme example, society does often try to impose shame on those who step out of line with certain norms, whether they be cultural, religious, sexual or otherwise. True shame, however, comes from within. In its worst forms, it is the derisive voice telling us, "You're not good enough. You're a bad person. You failed at this thing because you are deeply flawed."
Shame often bubbles up in reaction to some perceived failure; for example, missing a goal and causing the team to lose the game, cheating on a spouse or failing to meet a deadline at work. As opposed to guilt—the sense of feeling bad about one's actions and the harm done to others—a person who reacts with shame will fail to differentiate between actions and personhood, instead attributing blame to the whole self.
While a person who feels guilt will often confess, apologize and take responsibility for what they have done, a person experiencing shame is more likely to withdraw. Shame's me-me-me focus also tends to eclipse concern about impact to others. Those who are prone to feeling shame on a day-to-day basis tend to have low self esteem and often suffer higher rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse. In the direst of cases, shame can even lead to suicide. "Narrating in terms of 'I am'—that my whole essence is stupid, worthless or unattractive—is the experience of extreme shame that's at the heart of a lot of psychopathology," says Gregg Henriques, a professor of psychology at James Madison University. "I would argue that it's one of the central emotions at the root of depression."
Given shame's seemingly irrational, anti-social and often harmful role, why did such an emotion evolve at all?
Shame's likely evolutionary precursor can be seen in the cowering stance a pet dog takes after chewing up the couch, or the submissive, hunched posture chimpanzees assume when caught fronting on the turf of a dominant member of their troop. For the transgressor, sending out such signals of submission often means that punishment for the weaker animal's wrongdoing will be lessened. "I think shame was first a way to acknowledge dominance, a way of saying 'I recognize that I transgressed, and I'm with the program,'" says June Tangney, a professor of psychology at George Mason University. "Before we had really developed language, shaming was a way to exert social control, and still is, to some extent."
True shame, however, requires an understanding of the self as separate from others, leading most experts to conclude that it is a uniquely human emotion. It's that muddling of self and submission that leads to the psychological baggage associated with the emotion. "If you're a non-verbal animal, those feelings of inferiority may orient you toward submission, but humans have a narrator," Henriques says. "That sets the stage of 'Oh my god, I'm worthless, I'm not good, I'm bad.'"
Children as young as 15 to 18 months can exhibit feelings of embarrassment that developmental psychologists believe evolve into a capacity for full-blown shame around 2.5 years old. Guilt, however, emerges even later in life—and likely evolved later in our species' history, as well. "Guilt is more complicated, because it requires making a distinction between self and behavior, that I'm not just what I do," Tangney says. "For me, guilt is kind of the modern shame."
Shame seems to be a universal human emotion, but not everyone feels shame to the same frequency or intensity. Likewise, some cultures are more shame-prone than others. In a study of Japanese, Korean and American children, Tangney and her colleagues found that Japanese students scored highest on shame while Americans scored lowest. However, the consequences of shame for the students—feeling more anger, for example—were the same across culture, regardless of the baseline level associated with their country.
Can shame ever be harnessed to achieve something positive? Research has shown that it can sometimes motivate people to want to change their behavior, but so far evidence lacks that people actually follow through with acting on those feelings. "You have a self that is impaired, that's under attack and that is almost paralyzed by the experience," Tangney explains. Under those circumstances, the person "is much less able to take a proactive, self-efficacious stance toward future behavior."
Given this, for her first 20 years of research, Tangney doubted that shame could be coopted for good. But recently she has begun exploring shame's influence on felons, and the findings have made her reevaluate her original conclusion. She and her colleagues followed nearly 500 inmates after their release from prison and found that those who exhibited a high degree of shame pursued one of two very different pathways: some reoffended, but others did not. It seemed that under some conditions, shame could prevent recidivism. But identifying the complex factors that influenced which pathway shame led the former inmates down requires further study. "We need to know what the special conditions under which shame can be helpful," Tangney says. "For now, we don't know that at all." Even for those of us who don't have the weight of a felony on our shoulders, however, shame is not necessarily all bad. Henriques points out that, in small enough doses, shame serves a practical purpose: it keeps us in check with our own limitations. Shame in the form of minor, situational self-criticism can prevent us from coming across as tactless narcissists and fosters an authentic appraisal of ourselves. "If someone's shameless, that's actually a problem," Henriques says. "Donald Trump, for example, is a slice of what shamelessness looks like."