Shame is a pervasive self-evaluative emotional state. People display shame in a slumped body posture with their heads down and avoiding eye-contact. They may express the wish to die or disappear.
Psychologists contrast shame with guilt. In contrast to the shamed self, guilt usually refers to a negative evaluation of a behavioral act. If people agree that they are guilty then, they may apologize for a specific act. In some cases, the person receives forgiveness.
Shame involves an intense sense of self-awareness in a cultural setting of honor. An example of shame is often seen in victims of rape. Rape is an act that violates the self in an intensely intimate way. The rape-shame experience can be particularly intense in cultures where young women are expected to be virgins until they marry. In cultures of honor, shame regarding sex outside of marriage can extend to the family.
Parents can feel shame as a worsened degree of embarrassment when their children behave contrary to the rules of a culture. Likewise, children may feel shame when their parents behave in publicly unacceptable ways.
People experience shame when they believe they are in violation of a highly valued cultural expectation. Some cultures place a high value on attractive clothes and bodies. Some cultures place a high value on certain behaviors, activities, or pursuits that are honored as ideals for men or women. For example, military service and participation in sports are highly valued in many cultures.
Intense emotions can accompany shame including anxiety, depression, and anger. People who struggle with shame and related concerns may need psychotherapy or medical interventions to restore their ability to function adequately. Referrals can usually be obtained from physicians, clergy, and other healthcare providers.
Learn more about shame in the works of psychologist June Price Tangney (see references).
References to research on shame
Tangney, J.P. (2011) An interview related to a book about shame.
Tangney, J. P. (1990). Assessing individual differences in proneness to shame and guilt: Development of the Self-Conscious Affect and Attribution Inventory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 59, 102-111.
Tangney, J. P., Miller, R. S., Flicker, L., & Barlow, D. H. (1996). Are shame, guilt, and embarrassment distinct emotions? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 1256-1269.