Why are we ashamed?

Why are we ashamed?

"The world calls books that explain its own shame immoral" (Oscar Wilde 1854-1900).
"An honorable death is preferable to a shameful life." Cornelius Tacitus

  • Philip, He is a very intelligent young university student. You can solve almost any physics, chemistry or math problem in your class, but you are unable to make a presentation of any subject in front of your classmates. Remember the day his Geography teacher ridiculed him in front of his friends in elementary school.
  • Alberto, Recurringly remembers when he saw his parents making love and stayed with that image. As such, until today, every time he tries to be with a partner, he feels that he is doing something wrong, since his childhood experience has caused him problems with all his sexual partners. By the way, his parents never knew that he saw them performing that intimate act.

All human beings, at some point in our lives, have gone through shameful situations as happened to Felipe and Alberto. The emotions are there, to be felt. The problem is not to feel the emotions, the danger arises when emotions dominate our life and even bring us very bad memories and incapacitate many people to live their daily lives.

The shame may live as an intense and temporary emotional state, but also as a chronic and lasting emotional state which is activated when we go through situations similar to the original event that caused it. I call it emotional imprint. Thus, the brain leaves a cellular, physiological, psychological and behavioral memory recorded as a repetitive neural circuit. Shame is known as a social emotion or an emotion of self-awareness, the reason for this is that they are the product of social interaction.


  • 1 Shame, a social emotion
  • 2 Definitions of shame
  • 3 What makes us feel ashamed?
  • 4 Why are we ashamed?
  • 5 Consequences of not overcoming shame
  • 6 Suggestions for change

Shame, a social emotion

Emotions are neither good nor bad. They simply fulfill an adaptive function. However, for pedagogical purposes they are classified as positive or negative in order to analyze them.

Psychologist Paul Ekman was the pioneer in pointing out what he called basic emotions: Joy, Disgust, Anger, Fear, Surprise and Sadness. He agreed with Charles Darwin the father of the Theory of the Evolution of Species, that their origin was biological, that they were not due to the influence of culture as cultural anthropologists such as Margaret Mead assumed and therefore they were involuntary, unconscious and universal.

Shame is considered a social emotion, derived from basic emotions.

Social emotions are experienced with other people, they are not innate, they are learned in social interaction in society, through contact with: family, school, friends, co-workers, the media and institutions , that is, you are not born with shame, you learn to feel it in the process of socialization.

Many of our reactions will depend on our life story, the events of everyday life or psychotraumas. There are perfectionist people who will feel shame if in their self-perception they do not do an excellent job and they will feel ashamed.

Shame Definitions

Exploring conceptual definitions of shame leads us not only to discover their polysemic function as a social or self-conscious emotion, or a feeling, but also to identify it in its cultural context as we can see in the description by means of synonyms that are made of it in Spain Bisquerra and Laymuns, and in the USA Daniel Goleman. As well as the description associated with behaviors: dishonorable, ridiculous, presumptuous, indecorous, socially inappropriate, that produce a mismatch in social relationships and social interactions, which produce fear, are frowned upon and cause embarrassment and humiliation.

Shame SELF-CONSCIOUS EMOTION unpleasant that arises from the feeling that there is something dishonorable, ridiculous, presumptuous or improper in one's conduct or circumstances. It is usually characterized by a withdrawal from social exchange, for example, by hiding or distracting another person's attention to one's shameful action, which can have a profound effect on psychological adaptation and interpersonal relationships. Shame can motivate not only elusive behavior, but also relative defensive anger. In psychological research, it is reported time and again that there is a relationship between the propensity to shame and a whole set of psychological symptoms, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, subclinical sociopathy and low self-esteem (APA, 2010, page 564).

For June Tangney of George Mason University (2019), shame is a feeling that constitutes an emotional phenomenon concomitant with self-incrimination (Kämmerer, 2019, p. 16).

Shame. Is a social emotion... a painful feeling of loss of dignity, for some fault committed by oneself. Fear of being frowned upon, or frowned upon. Embarrassment humiliation. It is important to distinguish between two types of shame: 1) that which is experienced because of having performed morally unworthy acts (in English shame). 2) that which is experienced in embarrassing situations that involve the danger of being criticized by others or of making a fool of themselves (in English embarrassment). It is interesting to note that in the first case, if you are not ashamed, talk about a scoundrel. On the other hand, in the second case, a person who is in an embarrassing situation is not a scoundrel. To distinguish between the two forms of shame, pregnancy and its derivatives can be used for the second case (Bisquerra & Laymuns, 2018).

In the so-called emotion galaxy proposed by Punset & Bisquerra, we can distinguish that it is associated with: shyness, pregnancy (living or experiencing an embarrassing situation), embarrassment, blushing, ridicule, modesty, demure, guilt, regret and cut ( Punset & Bisquerra, 2017, p. 108). And, for experiencing it indirectly through the mirror neurons: the embarrassment of others, in Mexico we also know how to experience or feel: "sorrow of others." It is also known as shared shame, especially when we feel united to a person, and we are not directly the accused, but we live with the accused.

In his book, emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman, describes shame through other concepts such as: guilt, annoyance, disgust, remorse, humiliation, regret, mortification and constriction (Goleman, 1995, p. 332).

What makes us feel ashamed?

When we do acts that socially break the social rules (steal, deceive, enter a place where we did not have permission) or go against our usual behavior, it makes us feel ashamed.

Some stimuli that trigger it are: teasing, an unexpected fall in the middle of an important event, being scolded in front of other people, telling a very bad joke where nobody laughs, the looks or reprobative behaviors of others, opening the personal computer at a company meeting and simultaneously activate a XXX video, find on the phone of our parents an erotic communication, congratulate the mourners in a funeral, give an incorrect answer to a very obvious question, which we descosa the pants in the middle of a dance or be accompanied by someone who does something wrong and makes us feel bad, they are triggers of feeling their own or others' shame. And, it is just at that moment when we want to disappear from the face of the planet and we would like to appear in a safe and far away place.

According to the philosopher Hilde Landweer, of the Free University of Berlin, at least two requirements must be met for the person to be ashamed: 1) he must recognize that there is a norm for the situation in which he is currently, and 2) he must accept it and consider it as a binding behavior. Only then, something can be really uncomfortable (Kämmerer, 2019, p. 14).

Why are we ashamed?

From the point of view of evolutionary biology and emotional psychology, the reason for shame lies, above all, in its adaptive function: we are aware of the rules and opinions of others and, in that way, it works like a kind of social cement (Kämmerer, 2019, p. 16).

The comorbidity of shame

When shame invades us, there are other associated conditions such as: psychological symptoms, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, guilt, subclinical sociopathy, low self-esteem, we perceive reality with a negative prism.

People with low self-esteem have a greater tendency to be more ashamed. There is also a clear relationship between depression and the tendency to be ashamed. We feel guilt when we have an anxiety disorder. Women experience more feelings of shame than men, as they are more exposed to social demands particularly related to the body. In this way, many reject their physical appearance and feel ashamed if it does not match the ideal of beauty. Young subjects are the most likely to feel shame. The feelings of shame diminish when they reach the 50s. And, it increases again when reaching the third age most likely to show signs of physical decline (Kämmerer, 2019, p. 16).

Consequences of not overcoming shame

The shame; It invalidates you, limits your abilities, your dreams, your life, makes you feel guilty and poisons your happiness.

To all this, it is easier free ourselves from the guilt of shame, because in guilt we can ask for forgiveness, pay a fine or spend a season suspended or in prison.

Shame if you don't work, can accompany us until the day of death.

Shame is related to feeling exposed and finding yourself devoid of dignity or worth. It implies feeling looked at with contempt or inferior in the eyes of others (Greenberg & Paivio, 2000, p. 303).

Suggestions for change

What matters is not what happens to you, but how you react to what happens to you. Epictetus

We try to avoid embarrassing moments by paying more attention and following social rules, and maintaining a proper social relationship with the body, nudity, sexuality, the use of addictive substances and trying to respect social values ​​such as: respect, justice, ethics , honesty, love, freedom, tolerance, etc. 

  • Shame understood as a sick social emotion, but also emotion understood as a healthy self-awareness emotion, balancing social interaction with others and reconciling in our internal dialogue with ourselves.
  • Accept that everyone at one time or another is wrong and we can try again to readjust our course.
  • If you fall for your problems, get up for your goals.
  • Laugh at yourself “Laugh at your mistakes. Laughter drives away shame ”(Stamateas, 2013, p. 137).
  • In order to reinvent yourself, you need to turn 180 degrees, doing things different from those that led you to feel ashamed.
  • You cannot change the past that led you to feel guilt, but you can live a better present.
  • “The coping with shame must go through overcoming feelings of unjustified guilt or inferiority, low self-esteem and shyness” (Bisquerra & Laymuns, 2018, p. 110).
  • To help a person who feels guilt, it is worthwhile to establish a relationship of empathy and social support, to understand him and that he can overcome it.
  • One of the most complex steps is the acceptance of oneself, as it is.
  • To achieve a better state of emotional health, it is important to go from being ashamed to stop having it and become a scoundrel.


APA (2010) APA Concise Dictionary of Psychology, Mexico, Editorial Manual Moderno.

Bisquerra E. & Laymuns G. (2018) Dictionary of emotions and affective phenomena, Valencia, Editorial PalauGea Comunicación S.L.

Greenberg L. & Paivio S. (2000) Working emotions in psychotherapy, Spain, Editorial Paidós.

Kämmerer A. (2019) Social Psychology, The feeling of shame, Journal of Psychology and Neurosciences Mind and Brain, May-June, Number 96, Spain, Editorial Prensa Científica S.A.

Stamateas B. (2013) Toxic Emotions (How to heal emotional damage and be free to have inner peace), Spain, Ediciones B, S.A.