Embarrassment is a painful but important emotion. It makes us feel bad about our mistakes so that we don’t repeat them, and one of its side effects—blushing—signals to others that we recognize our error and are not cold-hearted or oblivious. Shame, a related emotion, can be felt even when no one knows about a slip-up. Guilt tends to focus on what one has done, rather than who one is.
Shame is closely related to, but distinct from guilt. While shame is a failure to meet your own standards of behavior, guilt is a failure to meet other’s standards of behavior. Shame tell us “you have not done your best” guilt tell us “you have harmed another, you have not been compassionate, you have ignored the golden rule.” Shame is personal, while guilt is public. Shame is “I am bad” while guilt is “I did something bad”. Shame reflects on the “human being”, and guilt reflects on the “human doing”. Shame results in internal sanctions—I feel badly—while guilt results in external sanctions—I will be punished.
Shame is the inevitable result of self-awareness, introspection, and self-appraisal. It makes us aware of our limitations. Shame is an intrinsic punishment for bad behavior. It provides an incentive (as a negative sanction) to work to increase stature. It has the potential to spur us on to our greatest human achievements. Bradshaw suggests that healthy shame is a normal human emotion that lets us know we are limited, which is part of our humanity. It signals us about our limits and motivates us to meet our basic needs. By knowing our limits and finding ways to use our energy more effectively, healthy shame can give us a form of personal power.
Healthy shame does not allow us to believe we “know it all” but spurs us to make significant life changes. In knowing that we have made mistakes and are not perfect or always right, we can continue to strive to grow and discover.
Shame lurks in the gap between what is and what ought to be. By alerting us to times when we failed to do our best, it can help us improve. However, if we ruminate on our shortcomings, it can distract us from taking constructive action. This can lead to a cycle of self-destructive behavior. Please get competent help if you are caught in such a destructive cycle.
Bradshaw describes toxic shame as more than an emotion that signals human limits; rather, it creates beliefs that one’s true self is defective and flawed, creating a false sense that one is defective as a human being. If this false premise of defectiveness is believed, then he or she tends to create a false self that is not defective or flawed. Once someone creates a false-self, then he or she ceases to be an authentic human being.Toxic shame has the potential to become chronic. If it does becomes chronic, Bradshaw believes that many of the psychological syndromes such as neuroses, character disorders, political violence and criminality can result.