Dear Dr. Hurd: What’s the difference between shame and embarrassment? And does a highly confident person with self-esteem ever experience shame?
Dr. Hurd’s reply:
Embarrassment is an emotional state of intense discomfort with oneself, experienced upon having a socially unacceptable act or condition witnessed by or revealed to others.
Shame is painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace.
Embarrassment is a less intense emotion, and it covers a broader array of possibilities than shame. You can be embarrassed for someone else, even a stranger. Shame is more personal. Shame refers to a sense of having betrayed one’s fundamental values, not merely having violated some social or interpersonal custom or rule.
We all have fundamental values, as part of our basic psychological and emotional make-up. Some of us have consciously articulated those values, and others have never given them a moment’s conscious thought. Either way, we all have internalized some sense of right or wrong, what’s proper and great in life in contrast to what defines the opposite.
Psychological theorist Carl Rogers wrote that the ‘ideal self’ is the person we would like to be. The extent to which we live up to our consciously or subconsciously held ideal is the extent to which self-esteem is possible. Needless to say, how that ideal is defined—how realistic it is, or whether it’s even true—is crucially important. People sometimes feel shame because they’re not living up to an ideal which is not necessarily realistic or possible at all (e.g., being infallible).
Even a sociopathic criminal has internalized some form of valuing, however wrong or amoral those values might be. According to research on criminals (by Stanton Samenow and others), a criminal feels a certain sense of regret or even shame over having been caught, or exposed. Criminals typically pretend to value the same things as non-criminals, making an apology or regret seem plausible, but that of course is only an act.
You might feel embarrassment at committing a social faux pas or perhaps saying something you later realize was a little foolish, or insensitive, or not reflective of what you actually think or believe. In your own mind, you recognize the event is not reflective of your own best, ideal self, but it’s not the end of the world either. You didn’t betray any fundamental or core values. You simply made a mistake, and you feel a little silly.
Shame cuts more to the core. When you’re ashamed, you perceive yourself as having acted against your own most fundamental, core values. Again, not everyone has thought out what their values actually are. But somewhere along the way they internalized some basic ideas. A common one is the idea that it’s wrong to be ‘selfish.’ There’s a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding involving this concept, but the vast majority of people seem to believe it’s always wrong, and if one perceives oneself as having been ‘selfish’ in some context, there’s some level of shame, i.e. a sense that, ‘I betrayed an important principle.’
Sociopaths or criminals aside, there’s a huge amount of unearned shame that people feel. A lot of this shame stems from the false belief that ‘my good fortune or success is somehow an unfair act to someone less fortunate or successful.’ As a result, a certain amount of shame is experienced by people for illogical or irrational reasons. I call this the zero-sum fallacy, where a person believes that the gain of one person is automatically, and by definition, a loss for somebody else. (‘Gain’ and ‘loss’ here are both material and spiritual/psychological.)
A person with high self-esteem, by definition, does not experience any unearned guilt or unwarranted shame. Such a person is capable of feeling shame if he acted against his most fundamental or cherished of values. However, it’s unlikely that someone with high self-esteem will have the ‘opportunity’ to experience shame. This is because part of what makes self-esteem flourish in a person is integrity. Integrity refers to consistent loyalty to what one considers right and true, not just in major events but also smaller issues of daily life. Integrity leads to a sense of serenity. Serenity is the opposite of shame.
I would not go so far as to say a person with high self-esteem and self-respect/integrity is incapable of shame. Such a person is most likely motivated by a desire, at least implicitly, not to experience shame. His psychological programming, so to speak, tells him on a very basic level: ‘Don’t act against your values. Why would you want to do such a thing, to yourself most of all?’
There’s really no reason to feel shame if you go through life acting according to what you know is true, and if your values and principles truly are rational—i.e., you don’t buy the contradictory silliness about self-interest being wrong, for example, or that you should be above error. Shame is always possible, but not a likely or tenable emotional event for such a person.
What’s more likely in a person of authentic self-esteem is a willingness to question. ‘Did I act correctly there? Did I act consistent with what’s right, or with my highest values?’ The willingness to question, tweak or make corrections as necessary, also minimizes the capacity for feeling shame. If you’re thoughtful, objective and reality-oriented in all your dealings, there’s no basis for shame in the first place.
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