There is No Place for Shame
Updated: May 14, 2019
During the 1970s, psychologist Paul Eckman and his colleagues identified six basic emotions that he suggested were universally experienced in all human cultures: happy, sad, anger, fear, disgust and envy. For decades these have generally been considered the primary emotions and all other emotions the varying flavors of these six. Of course the Pixar movie Inside Out taught us much about five of them and why we need them to work together for our mental well-being. A more recent study by Cohen and Keltner (2017) used very complex statistical analyses and came up with 27 distinct categories.
In these two landmark studies, NEITHER LISTED SHAME, as one of the basic biological emotions. In their basic form, emotions are biological reactions to something in the environment and they occur automatically. They are meant to quickly give us information to act in a protective way. When we encounter a bear in the woods we do not contemplate the situation, we have an immediate fear response which guides our reaction. Thus, all emotions have the common purpose to motivate action.
We are, however, also capable of contemplating our emotions and to place meaning on them. When the event to which we are reacting is less intense, we can consider our immediate emotional response and choose among various courses of action. However, it is in the contemplation and learning related to our emotions where things sometimes go wrong.
We are born into this world already equipped neurologically with the ability to feel emotions. We are not born with the ability to feel shame, it must be learned. I think that shame is a combination of disgust and anger turned inward. Disgust is an emotion which serves to help us recoil from things which could cause disease or weaken our social community. Disgust and anger are meant to protect us from things that aren’t good for us but when it is distorted into feelings about self it does nothing for us. As a reminder, I’ve written before that guilt and shame should not be confused with each other; guilt can be useful but shame is always destructive.
There have also been studies which have shown that some people are more prone to experience shame than others. For instance one study showed that people who had a genetic variant in the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) gene were more likely to experience shame as a result of trauma than those who didn't. Another study shows the connection of shame to a variant on the serotonin transporter gene.
Thus the life-robbing experience of shame is a distortion of natural emotions oftentimes exacerbated by brain chemistry. It is never relating a message of truth. Shame is characterized by a pervasive, chronic feeling rather than a reaction to a particular situation. You know that you are experiencing shame when your thoughts are characterized by negative statements about your identity such as:
I am unworthy
I am stupid
I am too much
I am not enough
I don't deserve
I am bad
We are most susceptible to developing shame when we are small and our brains aren't fully developed. All young children are naturally egocentric since their brains haven't yet developed the ability to put themselves into other people's shoes and think abstractly. So if something bad happens, children tend to think it's their own fault. Such as believing that mom and dad divorced because I wasn't loveable. Then even if our situations improve and our brains develop we may already be wired to think through a lens of shame. It is wired in so to speak and feels natural even when we know better.
So when you’re feeling like you are bad, unworthy, unlovable, etc. recognize that this is a distortion of other emotions. The difficulty, however, is that when shame has been experienced it tends to override other emotions and gets wired deeply into the brain. It will take conscious effort to diminish its affects. Start by telling yourself that there's no
place for shame, close your eyes (click your red shoes together) and move your mind to something that can be helpful or constructive and produces the opposite emotion such as an act of kindness or engaging in a fun hobby. Eventually, the habit of shame will weaken.