Is shame a very strong emotion

I bet you’re used to thinking of guilt as bad, uncomfortable, and something to be avoided, right?

True guilt is actually a helpful emotion since its main job is to help us identify when we’ve done something that needs cleaning up, or that we need to make amends. Feeling bad about ourselves comes from another trickier emotion (cue melodramatic music!)

Your feelings all have purpose and meaning and are there for a reason. Each emotion gives you information about how you’re interacting with and perceiving the world and often gives you guidance about how to act or choose behaviors. But, the tricky part is to correctly identify what you’re feeling since it’s easy to get some of them mixed up or to have a feeling habit (one you just feel by default) that covers other emotions up.

Do you know the difference between shame, guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation? Often folks get these four emotions mixed up.  And, frequently I hear a client talk about feeling guilty when really what she’s feeling is shame.

Do you get those four mixed up?  I used to, so here’s the how to tell the difference.

Let’s say you’ve agreed to meet your friend for coffee at 4:00 and at 4:30 she calls you wondering where you are.   Do you say to yourself:

“OMG I’m such a terrible friend!  I can’t believe I’m so stupid.  I’m such a space cadet. I’m really going to owe her.”

Or, do you say:

“OMG I was so wrapped up in my project that I completely forgot.  I’m so sorry I created an inconvenience for my friend.  I don’t like it when I make these mistakes.  I’m truly sorry about forgetting and next time I’ll be sure to set an alarm.”

The first self-talk example is shame – I am bad.  The second self-talk example is guilt – I did something bad.  Crucial difference.  

Shame is tricky.  Most of us don’t recognize it and get it confused easily with guilt.  Shame causes us to do things like isolate, try to people please, or lash out in anger.  More on that in the next post.

Guilt doesn’t feel so great, but once we’ve made amends and figured out how not to do it again, we usually can let go of the guilty feeling.  In guilt we recognize that everyone makes mistakes, and that it’s OK for us to do so too.

So what about embarrassment and humiliation?  Do you know the distinction between those two very similar emotions?

Brené Brown tells the following true story that she heard in her research which clearly shows the difference between embarrassment and humiliation.

Susie is sitting in her classroom as her teacher is passing out papers. The teacher says, ‘I have one paper left who didn’t get a paper?’  Silence from the class.  And, with more emphasis the teacher says, ‘I SAID, I have one paper left who didn’t get a paper?’  Susie slowly raises her hand.  The teacher comes over and says, ‘I’m not surprised.  Class are you surprised?  Here Susie, I’ll help you out.”  And, then the teacher proceeds to write on her paper where the student’s name would go: STUPID.

Makes you cringe right?  Did Susie feel embarrassed or humiliated?

If Susie felt embarrassed she likely was saying to herself, “What a rotten teacher!  She is the meanest lady I’ve ever met and I even though I forgot to write my name I didn’t deserve to be treated like that.”

If Susie felt humiliation, here’s how her self-talk would go: “She’s right.  I am stupid.  Just stupid.”

The distinction between the two is the feeling of deserving or not deserving.  When someone treats us badly and we think we deserve it because they are right, then we feel humiliation.  When we feel we don’t deserve it and that other person is a jerk, we feel embarrassment.

In humiliation we make it about us and believe the jerk.  In embarrassment we make it about the other person just being a jerk.

We can also have these two feelings without anyone else being involved.  For example, in a time long ago I was walking through an airport terminal in my cute short gauzy skirt and tights.  I thought I looked pretty stylish.  I realized that it felt a little breezy ‘back there’ and found that the back of my skirt had been tucked into the waistband of my tights as I jauntily strolled through the airport.

Embarrassed or humiliated?

For me, embarrassed.  While I was giving everyone behind me a show, I knew I was not the only one who’d ever done such a thing. Yes, my face got red and I wanted to shrink, but I knew that there was nothing wrong with me since most women have tucked their skirt into tights, or panties, and most men have left their fly open!

OK, to make it super clear, here’s how to recognize these four emotions:

Shame – I am bad

Guilt – I’ve done something bad

Humiliation – I deserved that bad treatment since there is something bad/wrong about me

Embarrassment – What a jerk! or, Ooops, but lots of folks have done that.

Guilt and embarrassment tell you about other people or how to make something better.

Shame and humiliation tell you that there’s something wrong with you.  And, that’s dangerous territory.  Because really, you make mistakes and do silly things sometimes, but there’s nothing wrong with you.

I want you to feel like you’ve MADE a mistake, not that you ARE a mistake!

Do you have a story of one of these four tricky emotions?  Please share it with us.






Filed Under: Changing Your Thinking, The Daring WayTagged With: Brené Brown, embarrassment, guilt, humiliation, shame, shame resilience, The Daring Way