When Is It Appropriate to Feel Shame?

In many of my earlier posts, I’ve written about the role shame plays in psychological and emotional difficulties.  I’ve discussed the fantasy flight into an idealized self in order to escape an unbearable sense of toxic shame; I’ve also tried to describe typical defenses against shame and frequently connect shame and narcissism, as I did in my post about Charlie Sheen .  In each instance, I’ve been discussing shame when it becomes toxic and thereby linked to different forms of mental illness; but is there a different type of shame, one that is non-toxic and in some sense “normal”?  Isn’t it appropriate, sometimes, to feel shame?

It seems that every culture (including less developed and non-Western cultures) includes ideas and codes of behavior related to shame.  According to Rochelle Gurstein in her book The Repeal of Reticence (1996), shame is always connected to physical exposure and vulnerability; it also “threatens to engulf us at moments when our biological reality — our ‘animal’ nature, as it is commonly called — overwhelms our ‘civilized’ self; that is, when we are too directly confronted with the body in its most physical aspects.”  She quotes Norbert Elias (1939), who held that “people, in the course of the civilizing process, seek to suppress in themselves every characteristic that they feel to be ‘animal.'”  The origins of the word shame — not only in English but French and German as well — are linked to the idea of covering up.  You may recall that, in the Bible, shame was born when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, realized that they were naked and covered themselves to hide their nakedness.

So (putting it baldly) if a stranger were to walk in while you were on the toilet or having intercourse, you’d want to cover up; the feeling that motivates you is shame.  (This does not imply that we feel those activities are “dirty” or “bad” — a religious overlay — but that they should not be witnessed by other people; they are private.)  Apparently this sort of feeling in connection with the activities of our “animal nature” is to be found in virtually all civilized cultures, even primitive ones.  As they become “civilized”, human beings everywhere want to distinguish themselves from other animals on the planet, to believe we are on a different plane; when we have an experience that confronts us with the fact that we are not so different — that we, too, are animals despite all the trappings of civilization — we experience shame.

On the other hand — and I may be anthropomorphizing here — it seems to me that our dog Maddy on occasion feels shame, too.  Usually, she sleeps through the night without waking us and waits to relieve herself until morning.  But on several occasions when she was suffering some kind of digestive problem and couldn’t wake us up to let us know, she peed on the floor.  In the morning when we awoke and saw what had happened, she hung her head and slunk off to the closet — to me, the very picture of someone filled with shame.  This occurred without our saying a word to her, or attempting to humiliate her for losing control.  I’ve seen this with other dogs and heard similar stories from other dog-owners.  My theory is that Maddy feels shamed not of her animal nature but when she is unable to control her bodily functions.  Most human beings would also feel shame under those conditions.  Can you imagine how you’d feel if you lost control of your bowels in a public place?  This doesn’t mean that you should feel ashamed but that you inevitably would.

As Gurstein notes in her book, ours has become a society where this type of shame scarcely exists any longer.  If you suggest that some behaviors actually are shameful (that is, should be kept private), you will be called “uptight” or labeled a “prude”.  During graduate school, Gurstein studied with the historian Christopher Lasch, who famously wrote about The Culture of Narcissism (1979) and how individuals in modern American society, with a fragile sense of self, become obsessed with fame and celebrity.  Her own book shows how the “repeal” of social standards that used to preserve a realm of privacy around the transactions of our animal nature, particularly sex, has led to a debased public realm in which virtually nothing is held to be sacred and private.  She does not link the two themes — shame and narcissism — but I will do so now, expanding one of my central themes into the social realm.

I believe that our society in an important sense has become “shameless”, at least on the surface.  Tune into Jerry Springer or even Dr. Phil and you will see that there is no longer anything that you can’t discuss in public.  People reveal the most painful and embarrassing (to me, as a spectator) aspects of their personal and sexual lives on national television and apparently feel no shame about doing so.  In fact, they want to expose themselves in this way; everybody wants to be on television, to be a “celebrity” even if it’s only for those 15 minutes.  Along with the cult of romantic love, achieving celebrity is one of the few remaining sources of meaning in the modern world.  Gurstein holds that shrouding the more intimate aspects of our physical nature in privacy and ritual, enforced by ordinary shame, once preserved a sense of their meaning for us; I would argue that the decline of shame and privacy has therefore made our lives seem less meaningful.  Narcissism fills that void and reflects a desperate wish to feel that one’s life has significance.  Perhaps it’s a defensive move:  even if our society appears to be shameless, maybe shame is nonetheless pervasive on an unconscious level, call it a “collective unconscious” level; the culture of narcissism that you see might be a massive defense against it.

I don’t want to go back to Victorian mores and values.  As a therapist and a blogger, I obviously believe there is great value in bringing hidden ideas and emotions to light.  On the other hand, I feel that, as a society, we have lost something important in exposing so many intimate details of our personal, private lives to the light.  Surely there’s a middle ground.

Finding Your Own Way:

How much detail do you reveal about your “animal” self in conversations with other people?  Although it’s men who have the reputation for locker room indiscretions, I’ve often been surprised by the level of detail women go into with their friends when discussing sexual partners:  genital size, positions favored, sounds during orgasm — everything necessary to visualize the act in full.  This has always struck me as an incredible violation of privacy, to begin with — unfair to the sexual partner whose intimate  physical life is being exposed without his or her consent, often for the purpose of gossip and entertainment.  Is there some middle-ground between prudishness and being indiscreet?

How do you draw the line between unconsidered exposure on the one hand and the kind of secrecy enforced by toxic (rather than “normal”) shame?  Surely people shouldn’t be forced to suffer in shame-ridden silence if they have difficulties, even sexual difficulties; we all understand the benefit of giving voice to our pain and sharing it with others.  But what are the limits?  My therapist often told me that what he and I discussed in our sessions had to be kept private.  He wouldn’t take it home and discuss it with his wife, nor should I discuss it over dinner with friends as if having a session were no different from a social evening.  What are the conditions of privacy and secrecy necessary to ensure that your private life doesn’t feel debased by over-exposure?

Looking back, have you behaved in ways or made indiscreet revelations where it was appropriate to feel shame?

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. I feel ambivalent about those people that expose themselves on these trashy TV shows. On the one hand, I feel embarrassed and uneasy when I see them talk about very private topics without any inhibitions. On the other hand, it is exactly that which is fascinating to me. Those people don’t care AT ALL what anyone thinks about them or if anyone judges them or laughs at them. I know that their attitude might not come from confidence but rather from deep insecurities, but I believe it would be a good attitude to have when it comes from a place of confidence. Like, if someone enters the room while you’re having intercourse, why should you feel shame? This shame most definitely comes from body issues or moral issues about sex or fear about what that person will think of you. So basically issues with self-esteem.

    I think it really helps to view these “shameful situations” as normal. Everybody in the world sweats and makes weird noises while having sex, everybody has to use the bathroom regularly, and almost every old person has experienced not being able to hold back their bowel movement in public. So if you accept those situations as normal, and if you understand that it doesn’t have any influence on you and your self-worth what someone else thinks about you, I don’t see a reason to feel shame about these particular situations.

    1. Kay, I don’t think this kind of shame is about low self-esteem, and while all those bodily functions are “normal”, as you say, it’s also “normal” to feel shame when they are exposed. I don’t have a problem with that. In general, I think shame keeps us from transgressing civilized norms of behavior — that is, I think it’s a good thing. How would you feel if somebody out taking a walk, a little too far from home to make it back in time, decided to have a bowel movement on your front lawn? After all, if bodily functions are normal, what’s the big deal? It’s fertilizer, too — good for your lawn.

      Also, I don’t for a second believe those people who expose themselves on TV have high self-esteem or self-confidence and are indifferent to what others think about them. I think they are desperate for people to watch and see them because their own lives feel meaningless to them. Shamelessness can look like self-confidence but it’s not at all the same thing.

  2. Joseph, I’m afraid you’re mixing different things together. Of course, if someone defecated on my lawn I would be angry and embarrassed, but this has nothing to do with the shame that person might feel in that moment. And your example is different from the ones I talked about because 1. it is in no way normal to have a bowel movement on someone else’s lawn and 2. it is a crime. Having sex in your bedroom is neither. So my argument still stands that one shouldn’t feel shame when someone walks in on them while they’re having sex.

    And as for your statement that it is normal to feel shame in these situations, that’s true, but normal doesn’t mean beneficial. Just look at the effects of that normalcy. People beat themselves up for months and years for some situation for which they still feel ashamed and embarrassed. It could help those people to consider whether that action was in fact not a transgression of “civilized norms of behavior” but completely normal, and whether they thus shouldn’t feel so ashamed anymore.

    As for those people on TV, I didn’t say they were self-confident. I said the opposite (deep insecurities). But I still don’t think they care what other people think about them in detail; they just want someone’s attention. And that’s an important distinction.

    1. Good points all around, Kay. These terms get confusing. Defecating on someone’s lawn is certainly not “normal”, since it is outside the norms of socially acceptable behavior, but it would certainly be natural. If you need to go and are experiencing discomfort, what could be more natural than going when you have to go? But it is unacceptable by society’s norms; shame has evolved to keep those norms in place. Also, while sex is an entirely natural act, it is not normal to have it with spectators (unless you’re a porn star). For all sorts of reasons, developing societies have found it beneficial to shield the sex act and keep it private. Shame evolved to preserve that privacy. It’s not about whether one “should” feel ashamed, and it’s not about sex being “bad” or “dirty” — that’s a religious overlay. Shame has evolved a socially-useful feeling that protects the sanctity of the sex act from exposure, and people all over the world feel very much the same way.

      I think you’re right about the distinction between wanting attention and caring what other people think, but I have a hard time seeing any value in the way those people feel. It doesn’t strike me as helpful, in that way at least, to be indifferent to judgment.

  3. I don’t know that society has become shameless exactly; I think the precise things we are to be ashamed of have changed around. We still have societal shame, just over different things.

    For example, if I were to be the subject of a controversy where I had used the word “niggardly” in a public meeting (which you may recall actually happened in the news a few years ago), I would, in today’s world, most likely feel shame at what people were thinking of me, even though I would know for a fact that I had done nothing wrong (except perhaps to be unwise in triggering people’s ignorance).

  4. An american authoress once had one of her novel characters utter these words: “Don`t be too hard on humanity, Howard, remember that you are part of it.”

    An italian proverb says that bed is the poor man`s opera, and I am inclined to think that some have little but their sexuality to flaunt. A James Michener , a John Grisham or a Joseph Burgo are, in my view, also out to nurture their ego.; although in a far more worth while manner.

    I guess I am no exception, even though I am so ashamed of myself that I am hiding under a fictitious name.

    1. You voice my own thoughts. I’ve been thinking all week about he narcissism involves in writing this site and will be writing a post about it tomorrow.

      1. In a way the credit belongs to George Orwell (Eric Blair) who back in 1946 wrote an interesting article titled ” Why I write “, where he voiced that thought.
        Chance had it that I stumbed on that article a couple of hours before I
        clicked on afterpsycotheraphy.com

      2. Isn’t there a danger of getting into an infinite regress when weighing the narcissism involved in publishing something? Is it narcissistic to publish something which is the result of one’s professional expertise and is providing help and illumination? Surely, it’s only narcissitic if one thinks one has published the definitive words on the topic and then suffers from rage when one’s opinion is challenged?

        1. I agree. I tend to use the word “omnipotence” to describe that type of behavior but it’s also narcissistic.

          1. When does self-esteem shade over into narcissism? My own intuition is when I feel that a challenge to an opinion of mine is some sort of threat and avoid responding to it in terms of its own merits.

  5. Over time, what I have noticed is that some people feel comfortable sharing their ‘secrets’ and others do not. I have never been one to share private information when in a group situation where others are doing this. Nor have I been one to feel comfortable doing it even with very close friends. If others share such information I always keep it to myself.

    Maybe the way we are with sharing or not sharing private information is related to how we were brought up and whether or not this was done in our family. I am not sure. I have never felt comfortable sharing such information, about myself or others.

    1. I’m sure you’re right, that it has something to do with how we were brought up. In addition to my parents, I was also “brought up” by a therapist who emphasized the importance of privacy. I also think there’s a difference between sharing “secrets” in a way that’s like airing dirty laundry vs. disclosing information to an intimate friend when you need compassion, advice, or simply not to feel so awfully alone with a painful experience.

  6. Joseph, an interesting article and I have several responses. I might ramble a bit, but here goes:

    I disagree I think with Gurstein’s thesis. Though I believe experiences of shame begin developmentally with respect to bodily functions and physical realities, I think being shamed, feeling ashamed, shaming, are fundamentally relational. We can’t be shamed in the absence of an other, or without an inward sense of how another would/has seen us.

    Shame is not only connected to physical privacy, secrecy, and/or a sense of exposure but it is about cringing over “getting it wrong”, which can happen in absolutely any context and can mean exposure of any aspect of a person – sexuality, physicality, ignorance, identity…you name it). In addition, as a speaker I once saw noted, when a person feels ashamed there is a deep sense not just that the act was wrong but that there is something fundamentally wrong about the person him or herself. The speaker I’m thinking of went on to say that this kind of shame leads people to feel undeserving of a connection between themselves and others. I’ve experienced this to be true, on quite a spectrum, for many many people.

    When it comes to people who choose to go on very exposing talk shows, what has been striking to me repeatedly is that they are by and large people who choose to expose copious amounts of what would be shameful to someone else _rather_ than deal with it privately, and that there is an audience tuned in to exactly that, so maybe it’s a way of trying to reverse the shame experience by “choosing” to make it so incredibly public.

    Those dramatic examples aside, I do think there are everyday experiences of shame and there are times when the shame is warranted and even helpful in informing someone that he or she has done something to be sorry about in relationship to another person.

    Lastly (maybe) I think it’s ironic that as you note if you hold certain attitudes today that may seem antiquated, you’d risk being labelled a “prude” or “uptight” — labels intended to shame the person who’s reluctant to overshare?! Hmmm…..

    1. I mostly agree with what you say about shame, except that I think there is another kind of shame that is NOT relational, except that it does involve a dread of being seen for who one really is. I don’t think it comes about by being shamed or is caused by anyone else, except in a global sense. I believe there is a fundamental kind of shame that represents the awareness that we are psychologically and emotionally damaged. Shame = damaged. I’ve discussed this in detail in my post about basic shame.

      1. I am going to play with this idea: I, too, have seen my dogs in shame. I can tell exactly which dog caused breach in pack protocol by which one is slinking with ears back and tail down the most. Our top dog will look upset, because he shares a sense of responsbility for keeping the pack in line, but he looks nervous and sort of ‘I didn’t do it! I told them not to!’ rather than ‘sorry sorry sorry I did bad, bad dog bad dog.’

        Since I think this a ‘purer’ form of shame than the immense trappings of human neurosis and biology (another topic, humans becoming increasingly ‘this or that’ due to decreased pressures to survive physcially and mentally thus more ‘diversity’ and ‘dysfunction’ survives in the population over time), I see a dog which ,the first time she was caught tearing up the cat bed on the couch was quite happy and pleased with herself. She only learned that she had ‘done bad, was bad dog’ after she was found doing something she found enjoyable and was chastised by the authority figure whom she respected most, needed to please most, and from whom she gained her psychological and physcial security.

        She learned that she had broken an important social rule which might not make biological sense at the time, but she recognizes she has caused a rift in the social structure between herself and the alpha of the pack. There would be a strong psychological and emotional internal backlash inherent in this knowledge because her social status, indeed her very place in the critical membership of the pack, is potentially at stake. Conflicting with this is a desire for her own internal wants which can supercede the needs of the pack, and evolutionarily, predates it.

        I submit that this conflict between personal desire and need to conform leads to that sense of shame. That ‘I am bad dog’ versus ‘but it was fun!’ or ‘but I had to!’ I think embarassment is being caught being an animal, and that people prostituting their flaws and mistakes for fame is lack of embarassment, something dogs don’t seem to experience nearly as much, perhaps only in a more slapstick version of physical lack of mistakes or lack of prowess.

        Shame’s role is to keep us in social line for the good of the group, despite our internal desires, and makes those internal desires become emotionally tied with selfishness, lack of care for the group, potential banishment. Rationalizations to justify choosing the ‘shamed’ behavior over the good of others may be what is being often addressed in counseling, though I wonder if much of what is trying to be addressed as ‘shame’ is actually a lack thereof, rather, entitlement which is rights of the individual without shame for the harm caused to others.

        1. Your view of shame is the traditional one, and I completely agree with your description. I just think there are other types of shame, some more fundamental ones that don’t have to do with internalizing social or pack values.

  7. Joseph says:
    “I don’t for a second believe those people who expose themselves on TV have high self-esteem or self-confidence and are indifferent to what others think about them. I think they are desperate for people to watch and see them because their own lives feel meaningless to them. Shamelessness can look like self-confidence but it’s not at all the same thing.”

    Totally agree! Why do people watch those trashy programmes I ask.

    And I absolutely agree with what you say about people (women in this case) who not only discuss (I mean, how common can you get!) their partners intimate details but also do so in a demeaning way. Very unfair, and a violation. Maybe it makes the gossipers feel important?


  8. I agree with Gurstein that one cause for shame is a connection with our biological reality; my question is whether this is functional or dysfunctional. You seem to arguing that it is functional, both from the traditional perspective that “shame keeps us from transgressing civilized norms of behavior,” and from another perspective related to “meaning.”

    Humanity’s discomfort with our animal nature is perhaps our most defining and universal trait. “As they become ‘civilized’, human beings everywhere want to distinguish themselves from other animals on the planet, to believe we are on a different plane; when we have an experience that confronts us with the fact that we are not so different — that we, too, are animals despite all the trappings of civilization — we experience shame.”

    I reach the opposite conclusion from you however. To me this speaks of great dysfunction in civilization with regards to this second function of shame. It feels like a giant defense mechanism on the level of society. Our attempt to see ourselves as non-biological beings is clearly denial (I think of Camus’ quote that “Man is the only animal who refuses to be what he is”); and the way we see ourselves as exceptional in nature is grandiose (did Camus ask any other animals whether they had defense mechanisms?).

    It would follow that mankind would benefit from reducing out shame about our animal nature, rather than encouraging it (I am not talking about the Jerry Springer or Oprah guests; the appropriate cliche for trying to extrapolate from such exceptional situations is “hard cases make bad law”).

    Your dog’s reaction to me feels like guilt rather than shame. I had three dogs growing up, and they all had similar behavior when they knew they had done something wrong. Her lowering her head and slinking away is because she knows she did something wrong, and by showing deferrence hopes to avoid punishment and retain your love, not because she is ashamed of losing control over her bowels. If she has shame it is because over the course of being raised she was so consistently punished, either physically or by having love witheld, that she has come to expect punishment as the default (an interesting theory springs from this: is shame a sort of consistent and constant sense of guilt?).

    My last thought on this subject: the desire to maintain privacy during biological functions seems to be directly correlated to how physically vulnerable we are while doing them. At one extreme is sex; if a lion or a hostile tribe happened upon your camp in the middle of intercourse, you would a) be distracted and would have a delay in noticing the threat; and b) your ability to react to the threat would be comprimised. Civilization is filled with stories about passionate lovers being caught unawares and murdered, from Pinhas in the Bible to campy horror movies.

    At the other end of the spectrum you have biological behaviors like urination, spitting, burping, and eating (in that order, at least in our society). All of these have rules about when it is appropriate to engage in each, but the amount of shame we feel about violating each is progressively lower. Consistent with this theory, men feel less shame than women about urination, and spitting and burping are not universally proscribed. Eating and drinking create just enough physical vulnerability to make sense to have some self-consiciousness while performing them, but it is minimal compared to other functions. Also consistent is that my dogs used to feel free to pee anywhere and anytime they were outside, but found it hard to assume the vulnerable position of defecation with one of us looking.

    If the above theory is true, the desire for privacy is based on the survival instinct for not becoming lunch or a victim of war, rather than shame. That would leave the role for shame as being to enable the formation of societies far more complex – and effective – than a wolf pack or a monkey tribe. I don’t don’t mean to denigrate that role – in fact it seems to be what has given us dominion over the world – but it does have important implications for helping individuals distinguish between behaviors that we do for the good of society rather than because we are inherently flawed or damaged.

    Thanks for humoring this long rant!

  9. Hi, it was very good to read this article. It is well written.
    I think being a shame leads to unhappiness and limit your ability to see yourself as a valuable person. Everybody make mistakes and hiding them is hiding a part of you. I think it is good to show others that no matter what has been done, I can be respected and loved. The sense of shame is really based on your perception of what the community or group will think of you. I believe that it does appear when you think that you do not follow the norm also you telle yourself that you are not normal means like everybody.
    It has nothing to do with who you really are. In my opinion, it is a very bad way form of self-destruction and it should not appear unless a crime has been committed. Nowadays even criminals are famous so why it is a shame to expose an alcoholic or sexual problem on tv?
    I think that shame does exist only to maintain a sense of control on how people not only behave but also feel which. Animals behave the same way WHEN they live within a group which include an alpha (male or female) also I think it s truly a form of control.

    Great post….

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