There are a lot of articles detailing the differences between embarrassment, shame and guilt.
They typically define guilt as the feeling that arises from the perception or belief that you’ve done something wrong. Shame emerges as a belief that the whole self is wrong, or that you are rotten or broken somehow and this experience exists unrelated to a specific event.
Others define shame as a feeling that comes up when you or someone else does something dishonourable, improper or ridiculous.
Brene Brown is emphatic about separating shame from guilt. She insists that guilt is a pro social experience that is corrective and helps people align with and understand the implicit limits of a group. Shame, Brown contends, is linked to our sense of self and value to exist on a fundamental level.
The issue I have with all of these turkeys? All of these definitions are subjective. In the case of guilt as a feeling arising after doing something wrong, I’m left questioning: wrong for who and in what context is the behaviour wrong. And with shame, the whole self is wrong - how and in what context? As I’ve said earlier, shame and guilt both depend on context.
A more useful approach is outlined by psychotherapist Ken Benau in his article “Shame, Attachment and Psychotherapy: Phenomenology, Neurophysiology, Relational Trauma, and Harbingers of Healing”. Here Benau outlines the physical and neurological processes at work with shame.
According to Benau, shame has four distinct phases: shock, drop, what Benau calls ‘shame proper’ and dissociation. Shock happens when you realise, holy crap, that didn’t go the way I’d hoped or that I believe it should have.
The ‘drop’, is that sinking sensation in your stomach. You realise that you’re alone or you don’t have the support or connection you need. It is here where we realise on a pre verbal level that we are somehow unsave and our fight and flight instincts kick in. The drop phase is where you rapidly either try to justify your crappy behaviour, repair any damage you’ve done or run like hell to get away from the world.
During the ‘drop’ phase of shame, guilt and embarrassment, there’s typically an uptick, a mobilisation of energy. Shame causes people to enter what Steven Porges calls a ‘state of hyperarousal’. That’s the fight and flight bit. That’s the bit that causes our face to get red, and our palms to sweat. It’s during hyperarousal, shame feels a lot like fear and anxiety. The hyperarousal of the nervous system is followed by a state of hypoarousal. That’s the experience of feeling really heavy, struggling to move and in some cases immobilised. This is shame putting on the brakes of your vitality.
Next, ‘shame proper’ can feel a lot like depression. People in the shame proper state feel lifeless, low energy and unmotivated. A state of shame is not unlike the sensations that come with being depressed. When in a shame state, our lifeless bodies reflect the stories we tell ourselves about our value in the world. We start telling stories to ourselves that we’re worthless.
Finally, when we experience continued shame, or repeated shame. When that happens, we disassociate from others, the world we live in and even ourselves. This is where shame is internalised and our behaviour gets repetitive.
But with shame, guilt and embarrassment these processes are the same. The only difference is the story we put around it and the circumstances we find ourselves in. They all follow the same pattern. They walk like a duck, swim like a duck and quack like a duck.
When people in psychology talk about the difference between embarrassment, guilt and shame, they might as well be talking about the differences between a mallard, a white faced whistler and a West Indian Whistler when it comes to ducks. They’re all ducks and they are more similar than different and can easily be referred to as simply ‘ducks’.
Given that shame is relational and contextual, next I’ll write about the circumstances where we begin to experience shame and what to do about it. After that, perhaps it’s time to explore shame, culture and stability before finishing with shame, humour, creativity and innovation.