Dealing With Shame

Shame and guilt are two emotions people experience, and should therefore also be functional emotions. That we generally experience them as something negative may be clear. In simple terms, shame has a limiting effect: It prevents us from ‘going over the top’, and in that sense it has a protective intention. As with all emotions, shame only becomes problematic when it is overly limiting or not present at all. This could be due to all kinds of factors: Poor or misplaced emotion regulation or inappropriate appraisals or expectations, to name but two. To put it differently, shame as a normal reaction isn’t problematic and is functional, just as the normal experience of fear prevents us from doing potentially dangerous things. In a similar way, guilt is adaptive too, as it stimulates us to restore matters when we have done something inappropriate.

In this article we look at how shame and guilt influence our experience and behaviour. We start by making a distinction between them, as the two emotions are easily lumped onto the same pile. After that we will review specifically how people deal with shame.

The difference between shame and guilt

The discussion about the difference between shame and guilt has been going on for some time. In everyday language the difference between these two is not all that clear, and people often use them interchangeably (Nathanson, 1996). The most usable definitions are given in an overview by Tangney, Stuewig and Mashek (2007):

  • Moral emotions: Emotions that motivate one to do good and not do evil (Kroll & Egan, 2004). What good and evil are depends on culture, however.
  • Self-conscious emotions: These are experienced via (implicit or explicit) self-reflection and self-appraisal. The self is the object.
  • Guilt: Is a negative, self-conscious, moral emotion which occurs when the individual admits that he has done something that transgresses a moral law. The focus is on inappropriate behaviour.
  • Shame: Is a negative, self-conscious, moral emotion, which, according to Tangey, occurs when someone sees his person as being deficient because something he did transgressed a moral law. The focus is on the person.
  • Embarrassment: Is a negative, self-conscious emotion specific to the social situation. The person experiencing this emotion feels himself deficient and observed, yet no moral law has been transgressed.

Guilt, shame and embarrassment are negative, self-conscious emotions and can refer to the past (something that has happened) or to the future (when you anticipate how a particular situation will play out). Embarrassment and shyness are, however, limited to (perceived) social situations, and generally are only problematic when they are an exaggerated reaction. If you slip whilst walking, it isn’t really strange for you to momentarily feel embarrassed. But if you don’t dare to make any social contact as a result, this can form quite a barrier to your functioning. Often, problematic embarrassment and shyness are linked to self-image issues, which are beyond the scope of this article. We will limit ourselves in the first instance to the two negative, self-conscious, so-called moral emotions: Shame and guilt.

There are two options when an individual is confronted with an imperfection in their person or their behaviour: They can accept that fact or they can defend themselves against it. When it is accepted, the focus shifts from the person to the inadequate behaviour, and leads to the experience of guilt. From previous literature research (Van Alphen, 2004) we seem to accept our faults more readily in two circumstances: When it doesn’t do that much to you (because it isn’t that important, for example), or when it is so in your face that you cannot manoeuvre around it. Note, though, that feeling guilty is something different to being found guilty. Feeling guilty is an internally experienced emotion, not something laid on the individual from the outside. Your reaction to being found guilty may be to experience guilt, but could also be any other emotion.

With guilt the focus is on inappropriate behaviour

When someone feels themselves guilty, they tend to feel sorry for what they have done and have the wish to undo what their actions have brought about. This can be by offering apologies, or by restitution or paying damages. In this sense, guilt is a negative emotion with a positive outcome. Where guilt becomes problematic is when the possibility of repair is absent, or when the feelings of guilt are irrational or misplaced. In trauma, for example, people often develop guilty feelings in the sense of ‘If only I had done … this wouldn’t even have happened’. Yet the victim of a traumatic experience is seldom objectively at fault. Also, when someone dies (irrespective of the objective guilt question), the possibility of undoing what happened simply isn’t there. In brief, normal feelings of guilt motivate us to restore our relationship with others we have somehow wronged, while misplaced feelings of guilt usually aren’t resolvable.

When the focus is on the person, the first reaction is to defend yourself

Shame, on the other hand, is experienced when the person perceives themselves deficient. Because the focus is on the person, the first tendency is self-protection, as no-one likes to feel themselves deficient. A number of strategies are therefore used to draw attention away from this (now experienced as deficient) person. Take a look at Evelyn and Richard during a counselling session, when discussing a huge blow-up in the previous week:

  • Counsellor: What happened?
  • Evelyn: Well, the things he said about me were horrible. That I am a terrible mother and a bad wife, to put it mildly.
  • Counsellor: Quite some name-calling, then. What triggered it? (looking at Richard).
  • Richard: Well. Ehm. I was on my way home after work and, eh, I didn’t stick to my plan. I drove to the coffee shop instead. (Note: A coffee shop in the Netherlands is a place where soft drugs can be purchased and used).
  • Evelyn: And I smelled it straight away when he came home. I knew immediately that he had smoked a joint again. And instead of admitting it, he starts denying it. And when I pointed that out to him, the bomb exploded.

Richard did something which in this situation could be regarded as transgressing a moral law. He drove to the coffee shop, which wasn’t the agreement. So the law being transgressed was: ‘Keep your word’. Instead of admitting that his behaviour was inappropriate (‘I know it wasn’t what we agreed, but I couldn’t stop myself’), Richard tries to draw the attention away from himself as person. This is characteristic of shame – Richard doesn’t consider his behaviour inappropriate, but nevertheless sees himself as a defective person because he didn’t keep his word. And that doesn’t feel particularly good, so the sooner he isn’t under scrutiny anymore, the sooner he doesn’t have to face this rotten feeling. Hence he drops the bomb by verbally attacking Evelyn.

Is shame a moral emotion?

A valid question is whether shame is limited to a self-conscious moral emotion, meaning a departure from Tangney, Steuwig and Mashek’s (2007) definition. I tend to see shame occurring whenever a person perceives himself as being a defective person, irrespective of whether a moral law has been broken or not. In other words, when a person feels himself incompetent and attributes this to being a defective person, this will also give rise to shame. We could stretch the moral law by saying you are morally obliged to be an autonomous, competent person … Yet what a moral emotion is, is a matter of discussion (Cova, Deonna, & Sander, 2015), meaning we can at best imply that when an individual, from his own personal frame of reference, feels he has broken a moral code, it may evoke the experience of a particular emotion such as shame or guilt. Even so, it does not preclude us from experiencing these two emotions without putting morality into the equation. Hence I make the suggestion to concentrate the definitions of shame and guilt, as the emotion connected with feeling oneself to be a defective person (shame) and feeling that one’s behaviour is inappropriate (guilt), given that both emotions arise from a self-conscious evaluation (that is, the self is the object under evaluation) according to one’s own frame of reference.

How people deal with shame

Nathanson (1992) worked out the way people defend themselves from shame in a model he calls the Compass of Shame. His model enjoys sufficient support (Elison, Pulos, & Lennon, 2006) and is the basis for some questionnaires to measure internalised shame. According to Nathanson, when confronted with shame people use one of four broad defence mechanisms (a psychoanalytic term describing the many ways people deal with negative emotions): Withdraw, attack the other, attack themselves, or avoid:
Image © 2016 P. Houtekamer: The Compass of Shame (adapted from Nathanson (1992))

What another does isn’t relevant when someone calls you on your behaviour

Has your partner ever called you on something you did, and you answered: ‘Yes, but you …’? From a logical point of view, it isn’t even relevant what another did or didn’t do; this doesn’t suddenly make your behaviour right. The yes-but-you answer is called the turn-around trick, and is a good example of one of the four defence mechanisms: Attack the other. This strategy works because now the attention is no longer on you and your defects, but on the other person.

The opposite strategy might look like acceptance but isn’t: Attack oneself: ‘Oh, how could I be so stupid!’ After having said it, there no longer is any need to talk about it, let alone do anything about it. You can also use the attack yourself strategy by taking on the ‘victim’ role in an attempt to get the other’s sympathy, which also draws attention away from the shameful act. Ever walked off in a huff during an argument, or watched the other do that? Walking off doesn’t solve the problem, but does mean that (for the moment) you don’t have to deal with the bad feeling, or at least do so to a lesser degree. Children do this by hiding – sometimes literally, and sometimes by hiding their face behind their hands. This way, the situation simply isn’t there anymore. These are all examples of another strategy – withdrawing. The fourth strategy is avoidance. This can be short-term, by denying, or by changing the subject, or longer term, by using alcohol or drugs to avoid the bad feeling, or by replacing the bad feeling by seeking other forms of excitement.

Defence boils down to fight or flight

An individual therefore chooses between one of two ‘axes’ when confronted with shame: Attack or run away (fight or flight).

  • When attacking, you need an object: You either attack the other or you attack yourself. All the so-called disclaimers also fall into these two categories: That is, all the different ways in which you claim not to be at fault for your behaviour.
  • The other axis has more to do with time. Withdrawing is immediate: Beginning from the instant you (actually or psychologically) walk away, the situation no longer exists – just like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand. Avoiding takes a little more time: The bad feeling doesn’t dissolve straight away; it takes time before the avoidance strategy kicks in.

To sum up, the ways in which people defend themselves against the bad feeling shame gives them are symbolised by the four points of the compass depicted in the figure above.

None of the four strategies are by themselves pathological. Which of these broad choices you use depends on all sorts of things, such as personality, how you were brought up, culture and life history, etcetera. Also, the situation itself has an influence. A healthily functioning individual will switch strategies depending on the situation. It becomes problematic when you always, irrespective of the situation, use one and the same way to defend yourself against the bad feeling. Or if you never take a step back and accept that something you did could have been done differently. Shame can have a pathological effect on one’s mental health depending on the frequency and intensity with which shame is experienced; this is in contradistinction to guilt, where the imperfection is accepted.

To return to Richard and Evelyn: He deals with his feeling of failure by venting the feeling on her (the ‘attack other’ strategy). Yet he doesn’t lash out at her because he wants to attack her personally, but because she happens to be the person who is around when he needs to deal with the bad feeling. It’s about him, not her. What happens is that Evelyn interprets this as him venting his anger on her, thereby causing her to react, resulting in the argument escalating. The vicious circle (the escalating argument) is therefore an interaction between how Richard deals with his shame and how Evelyn interprets his reaction to this feeling of shame. Here we have an example of how shame can cause a dysfunctional interaction.

When both Richard and Evelyn realise what’s actually happening, they can intervene by dealing differently with one another. For example: Evelyn can tell herself that Richard’s outburst isn’t directed at her personally; this may make it easier for her not to react to the situation.

Are shame and guilt adaptive?

So what, then, is the functional and adaptive side of shame? As may be evident, shame kicks in when a person experiences themselves as being defective. The natural first reaction is not to deal with it, yet in the long run shame should eventually bring us to the point where we actually do something about our behaviour. In other words, shame (with its focus on the deficient person) becomes functional when it converts itself into guilt (by shifting the focus to inappropriate behaviour). To put it differently, shame is always experienced internally, and in the long run motivates us (or should motivate us) to become a better person. And it isn’t the other who needs to determine whether we are a better person or not, it’s about feeling ourselves valuable and worthwhile. Using the biopsychosocial model of behaviour described in a previous article, this means shame converted to guilt causes us to change our behaviour in a restorative way. Our improved relations with others eventually translate into positive interactions, leading to changes in the emotional landscape that move towards a more positive feeling.

This is adaptive because, whichever way you choose to look at it, individual survival is dependent on common survival – we need each other; we are interdependent. Even in a culture where independence is appreciated, we all know that without the social background there would be no ‘me’. There may be cultural differences in how we experience and give expression to shame, but this does not lessen its adaptive purpose. Shame motivates us to act. Shame, when converted to guilt, therefore increases the chances of collective survival, as we are more likely to survive when we help one another than when we are in constant competition or a state of war with one another. Shame helps to draw the boundaries of socially acceptable behaviour, and gives an emotional element to those boundaries. Shame in this sense is the very essence of our social fibre.

To summarise: Everyone from time to time experiences a negative feeling about themselves or their behaviour. When this feeling is accepted, it motivates them towards behavioural change, leading to the restoration of relationships, repair of damage, and personal growth. The first tendency is, however, to use one of four defence mechanisms to draw attention away from the bad feeling: Attack the other, attack oneself, withdraw from the situation or avoid the bad feeling. Which mechanism an individual uses depends on the situation, his personality and culture, etcetera. Stubbornly using only one mechanism in every situation can lead to problems in functioning.


  • Cova, F., Deonna, J., & Sander, D. (2015). Introduction: Moral Emotions. Topoi, 34, 397-400.
  • Elison, J., Pulos, S., & Lennon, R. (2006). Shame-focussed coping: An empirical study of the Compass of Shame. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 34, 161-168.
  • Kroll, J., & Egan, E. (2004). Psychiatry, moral worry, and moral emotions. Journal of Psychiatric Practice, 10, 352-360.
  • Nathanson, D. L. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: Norton.
  • Nathanson, D. L. (1996). Knowing Feeling. Affect, Script and Psychotherapy.New York: W.W. Norton Company.
  • Tangney, J. P., Stuewig, J., & Mashek, D. J. (2007). Moral Emotions and Moral Behavior. Annual Review of Psychology, 58, 345-372.
  • Van Alphen, M. F. (2004). Shame and Decision-Making. Amsterdam: Universiteit van Amsterdam.

Previous article mentioned:

Excerpted and edited from: Van Alphen, M.F. (2016). Observational Listening – The (Missing) Link between Emotion and Communication. Bloomington: Authorhouse UK.

Dutch book on Observational Listening: Van Alphen, M.F. (2015). Psychosociale gespreksvoering – observatief luisteren in de hulpverlening. Amsterdam: Boom.

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