The Adaptive Value of Shame

I’m a big fan of Brené Brown. Her book I Thought It Was Just Me changed my life by giving me a much clearer picture of how shame works and the language to talk about it with others. In fact, I respect her work so much that I posted two videos of her TED talks on my inspiration page, up there in the navbar and I’ve given her book to several friends. But there’s something that she holds firmly that I disagree with quite strongly.

In her talk Listening to Shame, she says that she thinks that there is no positive value to shame. Like many other people, she makes a distinction between guilt and shame. In her view, the former can motivate us to make positive changes, while the latter is always toxic. I disagree, though I suspect that’s more an issue of semantics than anything else.

When I talk about shame and shame reactions, I’m using those terms to describe a whole category of emotions, in much the same way that I might use the word anger to talk about mild irritation, annoyance, rage, vexation, hostility, impatience, and outrage, among other feelings. They range in scale and scope, in cause and effect, but there’s a commonality among them. When it comes to anger emotions, they’re all expressions of “there’s something going on that I don’t like.”

For a while, I thought of these different emotions on a spectrum, until a recent conversation with my friend Megan helped me realize that a spectrum implies a zero-sum game. In our chat, we came up with the idea that our emotions are more like tents. The anger tent contains all of the feelings I listed above, and many others. They have some common characteristics, though they vary a lot in terms of how they arise and how they manifest. But it’s not as if they’re all the same thing, with differing volumes, which is what the spectrum model implies.

Similarly, in the “shame tent”, we might find chagrin, humiliation, embarrassment, guilt, stigma, remorse, reproach, mortification, and regret. And just as some of the emotions in the anger tent can be adaptive, depending on the reasons for them and how we act upon them, some of the emotions in the shame tent can be, as well.

In my view, shame is a powerful medicine. At its most fundamental, it’s the emotion of disconnection: it causes and is caused by disconnection. That makes it a really effective tool for controlling people– if you don’t do what I want you to, I will disconnect from you. Of course, that only works to the degree that you want me to engage with you. If you don’t care what the Pope thinks, the fact that he’ll excommunicate you for your sexual choices is irrelevant.

But those emotions are also quite good at teaching people what our expectations for their behavior are. For example, I expect the folks in my life to demonstrate respect for other people, regardless of their sexual orientation, sexual practices, or gender expression. If you don’t, I will call you on it. If you persist in not changing your actions, I will disengage from you. To the degree that you want to be in connection with me, that can be a motivation to explore your ideas and beliefs and perhaps, change them.

I’m certainly understand that shame can easily become toxic. Sometimes, the rules that are being enforced are inconsistently applied, or relate to things that we can’t change (or at least, not without great cost to ourselves). Or perhaps the disconnection is disproportionate (such as when the we are triggered and overreact). When there isn’t a clear path to reconciliation and reconnection, unprocessed shame lingers and festers. And of course, when the rules simply don’t make sense or aren’t explained in ways that we can understand, the recipient has no clear way to change their actions. The difference between medicine and poison is the dose, the timing, and the individual reaction to it.

So I’m with Brown that shame can cause many different problems. And perhaps my disagreement with her comes down to a matter of semantics. I use shame as an umbrella term while she uses it to talk about a specific emotion. But in my experience, all of those different feelings that are in the shame tent have a lot in common. And when we’re able to encompass them instead of being overwhelmed by them, they can be amazingly motivational.

The one time I cheated on my partner (yes, sometimes, polyamorous people can and do cheat. It’s a long story.), I felt such deep shame afterward that I told her about it immediately and have never been tempted to do it again. It wasn’t guilt that I felt- it was shame. It’s the difference between “I did a bad thing” and “I am a bad person.” And just like the dog that won’t cross the invisible fence after getting shocked, I won’t do anything that violates our relationship agreements again. Fortunately, we have a really solid foundation and are quite practiced at reconnecting with each other when conflicts arise.

I think that much of why I prefer to think of all of these different feelings residing within the same tent is that they share a lot of characteristics. When I feel guilt, remorse, stigma, or humiliation, my somatic responses tend to follow specific patterns and I usually feel it in similar places in my body. I tend to blush, I have trouble maintaining eye contact, my shoulders slump, and my chest collapses inward. I might also notice a shift in my perception of time as my cognitive functioning freezes up and I get hyper focused on “what I did wrong.”

Further, the skills I use to deal with these different feelings have a lot in common. On a physical level, taking a walk, or doing some gentle back bends to release my chest can work, no matter where I am in the shame tent. And talking about the situation in terms of what I did instead of how I’m wrong can begin to release me from the pattern of the shame spiral. So can taking a break from things to give my attention to something else, in order to calm down before returning to deal with it.

Since my experiences of these various emotions show these similarities, I think it makes a lot of sense to call them all “shame reactions.” In fact, when I’m in one of them, I’ll often simply say that I’m having a shame reaction, rather than worrying about deciding exactly which emotion is going on.

I suppose if there was a different word to label the tent, I might use that. And I’m confident that Brown would agree with me that any emotion can be toxic, if it’s larger than our ability to manage: anger can become rage; sadness can become despair; happiness can become mania. But that doesn’t mean that we have to say that everything in those tents is necessarily a problem. And the fact that some of those emotions can be toxic doesn’t mean that they don’t have a lot in common with the more adaptive forms.

In the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter that Brown and I use the words differently, as long as people can learn to overcome their difficulties and rebuild their relationships. At the same time, given that shame is part of most people’s lives, I’d much rather not suggest to them that it’s a toxic emotion. There’s so much confusion around the word that I’d rather offer ways to make room for it than try to cast it out. And as part of that, I think that seeing it as simply the name of the tent is the way to go.

20 Responses so far.

  1. Lily says:

    The kinds of ways you describe applying disconnection mostly seem like you’re disconnecting from people who are, more or less, peers — they’re not dependent on you for a job, or for any other resources, etc.   

    Do you think that problematic shame tends to result from situations in which shame is applied where the power between two individuals is unequal?  For instance:  

    Parent shames child
    Teacher or boss publicly shames student or employee
    Media figure shames audience member

  2. Charlie says:

    Lily, those can certainly be problematic, but I think it has more to do with an unmindful use of power than shame.

    I also think that we don’t need to shame others in order to inspire change- if there’s a solid connection and a desire to maintain it, then telling them that they’re doing something we don’t like is usually enough to inspire them to change, at least in my experience. Shaming people in order to try to get them to change is often quite damaging. We don’t need to magnify it by actively trying to trigger shame. That usually causes more problems, as you point out.

  3. I liked this post a lot. It got me thinking about tents, I’ve become curious about the relationships between shame and disgust. I think there may be a couple ways they overlap.

    In particular I wonder if homophobia is partially an outgrowth of the interaction of the two. A person’s mere disgust at the thought of anal sex, for example, could lead to the attempt to shame people they believe are engaging in it. Likewise, a person’s own desires may trigger disgust leading to shame and self-loathing.

    You saw this recent piece in the NYT right?

  4. Charlie says:

    Mike, there are some pretty strong links between shame and disgust. Some researchers suggest that the root of disgust is actually an adaptive mechanism that causes us to spit out or vomit something that may be poisonous. Interestingly, some people like Gail Dines actively use disgust to try to trigger negative feelings about porn. Others have certainly done the same thing with respect to queers.

    The research on homophobia and same sex arousal isn’t new, though it’s great to see it getting more recent press. Here’s an article from 1996 on the topic.


  5. Eli says:

    I think that when people talk about toxic shame, they are usually referring to internalized shame. Internalized shame no longer has anything to do with disconnection from other people. Often those responsible aren’t even alive or otherwise part of our lives anymore. When people struggle with feelings of shame over things they rightly shouldn’t ever have been made to feel ashamed of, for making baby Jesus cry or whatever bogus reason, disconnection wouldn’t usually be part of the picture. So when you define shame as “disconnection”, I think you may be using the term in a way that isn’t shared by everyone. I’ve certainly never thought of shame and disconnection as being the same thing…

  6. Charlie says:

    Eli, when people internalize shame, part of the process is internalizing a mental image of the person whose expectations we want to live up to. It might be a specific person, like a parent. It might be an imaginary person like baby Jesus. It might be more general, like wanting to be accepted by a group of people rather than an individual. But in all of those cases, there’s still a desire for connection that motivates the attempt to live up to expectations.

    Approval IS a form of connection- that’s why praise makes us feel better. Disapproval IS a form of disconnection, in that it sends the message “I don’t accept you/want to be with you.”

    You’re right that, quite often, people are trying to meet standards in order to get the approval of someone who has died or who isn’t in our lives anymore. And when we’ve internalized shame, we’re trying to gain acceptance and connection from our mental image of that person. I’ve spoken with plenty of people who hear a parent’s voice in their heads when they feel shame, and they’re still struggling for acceptance and approval from that mental image.

    I don’t think that shame and disconnection are the same thing, any more than love and connection are. As I said, shame causes and is caused by disconnection, in parallel to how love causes and is causes by connection. Try to think of it as a cause and effect, rather than an equivalence and you might see how they relate to each other.

  7. James says:

    You wrote that shame is “a really effective tool for controlling people”.  Do you consider this a positive effect of shame?  I think that trying to control people is an unhealthy thing to do.
    You also wrote that shame is “quite good at teaching people what our expectations for their behavior are”, which seems to imply that shame is an effective communication strategy, which I would strongly disagree with.  Shaming people is a good way to make them stop listening to you and become defensive.
    I’m not sure exactly what you meant, so I hope I haven’t misconstrued your words.

  8. Charlie says:

    James, controlling people often slides into destructive patterns, which is one of the ways in which shame quickly becomes toxic. I think we’re on the same page there.

    I don’t think shame is always an effective communication strategy, any more than anger is. They both lack nuance and are prone to misinterpretations. But they are also very common ways that we tell other people what we want them to do, and to the degree that they work, they can be very effective. It depends on the scope and scale of the emotion. As I said, when I use the word shame, I’m talking about a whole range of emotions.

    Here’s an example. Imagine that I’ve done something that bothers you. Maybe I was rude to you. Maybe I said I would do something and didn’t. There are lots of different ways you might communicate with me about the situation. And if I experience remorse or regret, the discomfort of that feeling (which is in the shame tent, remember) is part of what can motivate me to change my actions in the future. “I don’t want to feel this again” is a very effective mechanism- it’s the emotional version of touching a hot object and learning to not do it again. So in that sense, shame can be really adaptive. It’s not the only possible motivation in that example, just one possibility.

    But I don’t think we need to shame people- if I want your positive regard, the fact that you’ve told me that I’ve done something to reduce that is enough. And if I don’t want your positive regard, shaming me won’t work.

  9. Eli says:

    I still have the impression you don’t define “shame” quite like the rest of us, since you always fall back on the example of having done something you shouldn’t have. Regret and remorse is, to me, a different concept than shame, and I’m not sure we gain by conflating them all in one big tent.

    I’m thinking of the shame women feel for having a body that doesn’t conform to the standards of conventional prettiness. I’m thinking of the shame women feel when being wolf-whistled at for having a body that does conform to the standards of conventional prettiness. I’m thinking of the impossible and contradictory standards society imposes on us and shames us for not meeting, where it seems that the standards were never the point at all, but rather the point is to keep us in a perpetual state of shame so we can be more easily controlled. It seems to me that your redefinition makes it harder to meaningfully discuss that sort of shame. If you see what I mean?

  10. Charlie says:

    Eli, one way that this way of thinking about it can help is that the tools that we can use to deal with any of the emotions in the shame tent can often be useful when dealing with others. Similarly, the ways in which we might deal with anxiety often have things in common with the ways in which we deal with fear, worry, or panic. Knowing that can help us develop better tools.

    Another reason is that any of the smaller emotions in a given tent can increase the chances of feeling a bigger one. If I’m feeling irritated because of being stuck in traffic and then another event happens that triggers anger, there’s a good chance that my reaction to that second situation will be magnified as a result. Knowing this, I can take steps to try to mitigate that, instead of reacting. Similarly, my observation is that if we’re feeling embarrassed or regret for something we’ve done, a subsequent event that leads to a shame emotion can often trigger a bigger reaction, simply because we’ve been primed for it. Seeing these connections can help us find better ways to respond. “Oh. I felt embarrassed because I spilled my coffee on the meeting room table, so when my idea was rejected, I had a bigger shame reaction than I would usually have had.”

    And lastly, when we see the many smaller ways in which shame permeates our relationships and interactions, we can create better ways of relating to each other. You mentioned body shame. What if we actually noticed the many small ways that we reinforce that? You mentioned the contradictory was in which we get shamed if we do, and shamed if we don’t. What if we paid attention to the ways in which embarrassment is used in the same ways? What if we paid attention to all of the ways in which we send the message “I don’t accept you as you are”?

    My experience has been that the more I’ve seen the relationships between the different shame emotions, the more I’ve been able to step away from behaviors that hurt people. I more clearly see the small wounds that build up over time, the ones that create smaller shames that add up and make it easier to (as you say) control people. The more I recognize how they connect, the more I can change how I act.

  11. Greg Bailey says:

    Thank you for another cogent article, though I disagree wholeheartedly.

    Shame is Always a destructive force, since it is non-communicative.  It’s function is to use the force of social stigmata to manipulate persons into ‘socially acceptable’ behavior.  The power source of social stigmate is Fear, often of taboo.  I believe you know something of taboo.  Further, you claim that the power of shame is disconnection, and, in our modern times I can understand that error.  Death is the power of shame, as can be seen in your description, “a shift in my perception of time as my cognitive functioning freezes up and I get hyper focused on “what I did wrong.”  This is pure Fight or Flight response, which is hardwired and Death specific.

    One of the difficulties with shame is the supposition that every one ‘knows’ the answer, and I suggest that those instances where you have found shame help, you knew the correct behavior.  What of the situations where correct behavior isn’t known or is ambigous??  And, in any of those situations where you found it benificial, was there no better method of communication or was it simply the easiest…???

  12. Charlie says:

    Greg, just to be clear, I’m definitely not suggesting that shame is always adaptive. As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s a powerful medicine and more than a small dose easily becomes toxic. And while I think we mean something similar when I call it the emotion of disconnection (or perhaps “misattunement” is a better word in some cases) and you call it destructive, I don’t see that as inherently bad. Without endings, there are no beginnings.

    You’re right- the question becomes tricky when “correct” behaviors aren’t known. But think about what happens when a parent says to a child that hitting their sibling or stealing from another child is wrong. The child doesn’t know that their actions are not acceptable until that event happens, and shame is often part of the message. In situations like those, shame can be part of how we learn what to do.

    Of course, when the socially correct behavior is maladaptive, or when there isn’t a clear explanation of what needs to change, or when the parent’s reaction is disproportionate, or when there isn’t genuine amends and reconciliation, shame can easily become toxic. But I see that as a sign that we need better tools for navigating and digesting shame, not that it’s necessarily bad.

  13. Eli says:

    On further reflection, I think another reason I find it hard to agree with your proposition is that shame is irrational. It is entirely divorced from both reason and morals. When you say that (generic) you must be shamed in order to stop stealing or hitting people, it’s as though you say it’s impossible to decide the right course of action based on reason or ethics. As if you couldn’t possibly understand that theft and violence is bad and so you must be emotionally abused into refraining from them.

    Now I think that a lot of the things that people are shamed for are shameful precisely because there is absolutely no rational argument against them, so you wouldn’t know they were shameful if you weren’t shamed for them, and neither would the people shaming you if they in turn hadn’t been shamed for them in the past. For myself, I still have to spend a lot of conscious effort to overcome various shames over innocent things I never should have been shamed for in the first place.

    In addition, I personally believe that shame actually has a detrimental effect instead of helping us make moral choices, because it muddles the reasons for doing the right thing. For example, doing the bad things anyway if you think nobody sees you, or avoiding responsibility if you can get away with it makes perfect sense in the context of avoiding shame.

    But shaming a child sure requires far less thought than making the child understand the difference between right and wrong…

  14. Charlie says:

    Eli, I think where we’re getting stuck is that you’re talking about shame in reference to one specific emotion, while I’m using it to describe a whole bunch of emotions. Anger can be a positive force, and it can also become rage. The fact that rage is toxic doesn’t mean that all anger is.

    Similarly, there are emotions in the shame tent that can motivate us to grow in positive ways. Feeling guilty for hurting someone can help us change how we act in the future. Feeling contrition or remorse can also do that. These emotions are, in my view, in the shame tent. They can all be supportive of our growth, even when they’re painful.

    Further, I’m not saying that one must be shamed in order to refrain from violence or hurting others. I’m saying that feeling shame (or a related emotion) when we hurt someone can help us change our behaviors. We can feel the shame resulting from our choices without the other person shaming us. That’s a subtle, but important distinction.

  15. Eli says:

    If we seem to get stuck I’d rather say it’s because you use your own idiosyncratic definition of the word shame. I think for many (myself included) “shame” is a particularly toxic form of guilt-tripping by definition, so your redefinition is just too much of a leap. I’d bet you wouldn’t get half the amount of pushback on this if you wrote about “the adaptive value of contrition” or called your construct “the remorse tent”…

  16. Charlie says:

    Eli, I had more to say than I could fit into a comment. If you’re interested, here it is.


  17. Once when I had a mental breakdown and I didn’t understand it, I went for therapy and she said we might look at shame. I didn’t understand what that meant, I just automatically felt bad for something I needed to correct. I knew the word of course but I didn’t really understand the realm of those emotions–so it’s good for discussions like this one that consider the plateaus and usefulness of emotions rather then something that is bad and we must get rid of it. 

  18. SexualScientist says:

    Instead of tents what about water with color added. Your blues may all be shame or in the shame tent, but you can add a little of a different color without overpowering the blue color. The red undertones of anger tint the pool to the that you go from blue to a purple and eventually if you add enough to a red. The change in the color would easily represent a change to a potentially toxic situation.
    When trying to process you cannot look at just the blue but you have to see the colored undertones or you will not address the underlying issue.
    If I look at the tent analogy there are emotions that can easily cross tents especially in different situations. And if there are too many emotions often times the outlook looks black to the person with the emotions just because they cannot see exactly which pools of water (or tents) have combined.

  19. Lee says:

    I only wish I’d connected to my shame when I was younger.

    I’ve done a lot of things and it’s only when I went one stage to far that it finally hit me and the feelings of shame came, and are still there.

    But to be honest I’m glad they are as its help me to reassess myself and got me back in touch with my real values.

  20. […] may help explain why the shaming of Kenneth Krause serves an important public function. Glickman writes about what he calls the “adaptive value of shame,” arguing that shame is a powerful […]

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