The only shame is to have none.
— Blaise Pascal
We’ve all done things in our past that we are not proud of. It’s part of growing up and learning about the human experience. Think of a time when you behaved in a way that you regret. You might have expressed unjustified anger, said something you didn’t mean, or perhaps cheated someone because it benefitted you. Unless you’re a true saint, I bet it doesn’t take you long to drag an old memory to the front of your mind, and let the feeling of shame roll over you in a large uncomfortable wave.
Shame is fantastic. It signals to us that we really messed up and pushes us to reach out and make amends for our mistakes. Of course, all too often, we never get the chance to apologize, and the feeling of shame and regret stays with us for the rest of time, haunting us whenever we struggle to sleep at 4am.
Most of us have never done anything so bad that we deserve eternal shame. Ideally, it’s a feeling that we should take seriously, fix whenever possible, and then get over when we feel as though we’ve done all that we can. Life is a difficult mess and we keep our learner permits forever.
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What does shame look like in our brains? When we feel guilty or ashamed, brain scans reveal activity in several structures. One of these is the anterior insula, an area known to be involved in emotional feelings and interoceptive awareness — the ability to perceive and understand our own internal states. These functions are clearly relevant to what goes on when we feel shame. We focus our attention inward, on the insufferable pain associated with remembering our mistake, and we work through our feelings of regret.
Another area of our brain, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, also joins in during moments of shame and guilt. It is notably involved in experiences of social pain and distress, feelings that undoubtedly dominate our anxieties about shameful events in our life.
The images of our brain activity hint at the biological basis of shame, but don’t say much about its universality or foundation in our lives. For this, we need to look to a new study published in September 2018. Its findings have begun to unravel the experience of shame in its entirely explicit glory.
Shame may restrain what law does not prohibit.
— Lucius Annaeus Seneca
A large team of researchers from around the world got together to study shame in 15 small communities across a diverse set of countries including Nepal, Russia, Ecuador, and Japan. Do people in these remote communities see shame in the same way that we do?
899 participants in the experiment imagined 12 scenarios in which a person behaves or appears in a way that could be perceived negatively by people around them. Half of the group had to imagine themselves as the person depicted in the scenario, and indicate how much shame they would feel in that situation. The other half of the group instead had to report how negatively they viewed the person depicted in the scenario. So the first group positioned themselves as the shamed person, and the second group acted as the audience.
The scenarios varied in how much they were likely to elicit shame. For example, a scenario about a man who “steals from members of his community” would likely be perceived as high in shame, while a scenario about a man who “is ugly” would likely be perceived as low in shame. By understanding people’s perceptions across this spectrum, the researchers could begin to grasp the details of our sense of shame and compare it between cultures.
Overall, participants across the different communities responded similarly when it came to rating the levels of shame and judging the shamed person for each scenario. They agreed on the most and least shameful behaviors.
More interestingly, the researchers found that ratings of shame, from people who imagined themselves as the shamed person for each scenario, tightly correlated with negative perceptions from people who imagined themselves as the audience for each scenario. In the scenarios where people felt more shame as a perpetrator, they also judged more harshly as a critic. There is a strong link between how much shame we feel and how severely others judge us.
The pattern of results supports the idea that our levels of personal shame are determined by how much we are likely to be devalued by the rest of society. Shame is an emotion with social consequences. It evolved to protect us from doing things that lead to hatred and rejection from others in our community. When the reputational costs of an action outweigh the benefits we are likely to gain from it, we avoid acting. And when we do mess up, shame motivates us to seek forgiveness.
The universal features of shame, consistent across distant cultures who have never met, are a sign of its primitive origins. We are born with an impulse to be liked and appreciated. When people respect us, they help us in our times of need. When they don’t, we are likely to suffer. Most of us do our best to build reputations of popularity and decency. We seek the complementary experience to shame: pride. With healthy and sensible pride, we don’t need to hang our heads or beg for forgiveness. It is a sign that we are doing well in the eyes of others.
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Whatever is begun in anger, ends in shame.
— Benjamin Franklin
In the modern world, we have amazingly efficient systems for spreading social judgments and destroying reputations. Twitter mobs have both their advantages and disadvantages. They allow us to quickly and dramatically hold people accountable for their actions, but they also turn us into voracious hot-headed bullies who pounce upon the weakest rumors and misrepresentations. Unfortunately, there may be no real solutions to this; we simply have to accept the bad with the good. We can only try to be careful.
The same modernity that makes us efficient judges and bullies can also make us efficient angels. In our hyperconnected digital world, apologizing for the mistakes buried deep in our past may not be so impractical. In fact, right after clicking to publish this essay, I’m going to prepare a couple of apologetic messages to friends from my late teens, who unfortunately knew me when my idiocy was in full bloom. If you don’t get the chance to do the same, then I hope you can at least put aside any long-held excess pains and move on.
Shame is a feeling we can all respect rather than fear. It provides us with a powerful signal to judge right from wrong. Whether or not we believe in karma, we can psychologically compensate for yesterday’s shameful moments by being a friendlier person today. Let’s find some comfort in the fact that nobody is perfect, and everybody is human.