Understanding as Self-conscious Emotion

Psychologically, shame is an important emotion that has been extensively studied and explored and in general, it is recognised as a complex and multifaceted emotion with significant psychological and social implications. It is defined as a self-conscious emotion that arises when an individual believes they have violated social or personal standards and feels a sense of embarrassment, humiliation, or a diminished sense of self-worth. It emerges in life, often during childhood, as children begin to internalise societal and familial expectations. It took a shape and developed by socialization processes, cultural values, and experiences of praise, punishment, and social comparison. In many respects shame is distinguished from guilt. While guilt is focused on the evaluation of specific actions and their consequences, shame is a more global and self-oriented emotion that relates to the evaluation of the self as a whole. Secondly, guilt focuses on the behavior, whereas shame pertains to the individual’s identity or worth. In the context, some researchers also distinguish between adaptive and maladaptive forms of shame. Adaptive shame is seen as a normal and healthy response to violating social norms or ethical standards. It can serve as a motivating factor for self-correction and moral growth, while maladaptive shame, is characterised by chronic or excessive shame that is deeply ingrained, self-deprecating, and associated with feelings of unworthiness, self-hatred, and hopelessness. Further, it contributes to low self-esteem, negative self-perception, and self-criticism.

Genesis of shame

The experience of shame often begins with a perceived failure or a violation of personal or societal standards and it has various sources including external events, such as public humiliation or rejection, or internal factors, such as personal beliefs and expectations.  a. Standards and Expectations: Shame is closely tied to the standards and expectations we hold for ourselves or that society places upon us. When we believe we have fallen short of these standards or have failed to meet expectations, shame arises. Here, an important part is played by the perception of being evaluated or judged by others. When we perceive that others disapprove of us, find us lacking, or consider us inadequate, we normally, internalise these judgments and experience shame as a result. c. Self-Awareness: Shame often requires a level of self-awareness or self-reflection. It arises when we become aware of our perceived flaws, mistakes, or shortcomings. This self-awareness is triggered by introspection, feedback from others, or comparisons with societal ideals or expectations. d. Emotional Response: The experience of shame is accompanied by intense emotions, including embarrassment, humiliation, and a sense of worthlessness created  by a specific event or situation. or it can emerge from deeply ingrained beliefs about ourselves and our inherent flaws. When we repeatedly experience shame, it shapes our beliefs about ourselves, leading to a persistent sense of unworthiness or defectiveness. This internalised shame  have long-lasting effects on our self-esteem, relationships, and overall well-being.

Kinds of shame

Shame can manifest in various forms and contexts and kinds of shame include:  a. Social Shame: Social shame occurs when a person feels embarrassed or humiliated in social situations resulting in  public criticism, ridicule, or rejection by others. b. Body Shame: Body shame is the feeling of embarrassment or self-consciousness about one’s physical appearance. It often involves negative beliefs about one’s body shape, size, or specific features, which is largely influenced by societal beauty standards, media portrayals, and comparisons with others. c. Performance Shame: Performance shame is related to feelings of inadequacy or embarrassment about one’s abilities or performance in specific areas, such as academics, sports, or work. d. Moral Shame: Moral shame arises from the belief that one has violated their own moral principles or ethical standards. It involves a sense of guilt and self-condemnation for engaging in behaviour deemed immoral, unethical, or against personal values. e. Cultural or Religious Shame: Cultural or religious shame is associated with feelings of disgrace or unworthiness resulting from not meeting cultural or religious expectations, rules, or traditions. f. Family Shame: Family shame is the sense of embarrassment or humiliation linked to actions or behaviours that are believed to reflect negatively on one’s family. It can be connected to family secrets, scandals, or unconventional behaviours that deviate from societal or cultural expectations. g. Internalised Shame: Internalised shame is a pervasive and deeply ingrained sense of unworthiness or defectiveness that becomes part of an individual’s self-identity. It involves an ongoing belief that one is fundamentally flawed, unlovable, or undeserving. Internalized shame can stem from early experiences of neglect, abuse, or persistent criticism.

How to avoid shame?

Avoiding shame entirely is unrealistic, as it is a natural human emotion that arises in certain situations, however, there are strategies essential  to cope with and manage shame in a healthier way. They include: a. Practice Self-Compassion: Develop a compassionate and understanding attitude towards yourself recognising that making mistakes and experiencing failures are part of being human, and they do not define your worth. b. Challenge Negative Self-Beliefs: Become aware of negative self-talk and distorted beliefs that contribute to feelings of shame. focus on your strengths and achievements rather than dwelling on perceived short comings. c. Seek Support: Reach out to supportive individuals in your life, such as friends, family, or a therapist and share your experiences and feelings with someone you trust, as talking about shame which can help us in lessening intensity. d. Practice Mindfulness: Engage in mindfulness techniques to cultivate present-moment awareness. It can help us in case of observe and accept emotions without judgment, including feelings of shame. e. Reframe mistakes as  assuming failures as valuable learning experiences rather than sources of shame. We should recognise that making errors is a natural part of growth and personal development. f. Set Realistic Expectations: Avoid setting unrealistic or perfectionistic expectations for yourself. Recognize that no one is perfect, and it is okay to have limitations and make mistakes. g. Challenge Societal Norms: Examine and challenge societal norms, beauty standards, or expectations that contribute to feelings of shame. Surround yourself with diverse perspectives and redefine success and worthiness based on our own values and aspirations. h. Seek Professional Help: If shame significantly impacts our well-being or persists despite our efforts, we should seek therapy or counseling. A mental health professional can help you explore underlying issues, develop coping strategies, and work towards building a healthier relationship with shame.

Dr Rajkumar Singh
Dr Rajkumar Singh
The writer is head of the political science department of the B.N.Mandal University, Madhepura, Bihar, India and can be reached at [email protected]

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