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Schouborg, Gary (2013).

"The Many Faces of Shame: A Response to Robert Stolorow’s Blogs on Shame".

Clio's Psyche, 6 (2), 48-50.



The Many Faces of Shame

A Response to Robert Stolorow’s Blogs on Shame


Gary Schouborg


In a recent blog exchange, Stolorow (2013b) argues that shame is unqualifiedly dysfunctional, whereas an unnamed colleague sees it as developmentally desirable. Unfortunately, neither is clear about what he means by shame, each talking past the other and even contradicting himself.


The confusion comes from overlooking the many closely related but often conflated everyday meanings of the word, which lie along a continuum of sensitivity to disapproval. At one end is some basic caring about what others think, the absence of which suggests psychopathy. At the other end is a catastrophizing of disapproval that is dysfunctional under many conditions but not all.


Identifying and distinguishing among the various meanings reveals that the core of the most intensive version of shame is the belief of personal unworthiness, which in turn reveals the internalized nature of shame, its difference from embarrassment and guilt, and its role in human development. 


The aim of the following semantic detail is not academic nitpicking but nuanced listening. If we have only a simple account of shame in our minds, we will very likely hear only that narrative when a client mentions the word. Awareness of the many possible intended meanings helps identify emotional issues that we may otherwise miss, which yield to effective interventions that may not otherwise occur to us.



 Key meanings of shame


In ordinary discourse, shame refers to many different emotions running along a continuum of degrees of sensitivity to disapproval. Thus, to build on Sartre's example, when the peeping Tom says to himself, "I'm ashamed of peeping through the window at that naked lady," he might mean several things, in increasing scope and internalization. The list is not exhaustive:


1. My girlfriend would disapprove of my peeping. (Scope is narrowly focused on my behavior and her disapproval of it rather than of me; it is also externally oriented — i.e., my concern is that my girlfriend disapproves, not that I do.)


2. If my girlfriend saw me, she would never speak to me again. (Scope widens beyond her disapproval, but is still externally oriented, to her behavior of shunning me.)


3. No one else would want to be around me either. (Scope universalizes but remains externally oriented.)


4. Even I disapprove of my peeping. (Disapproval begins to internalize in that I am now the one disapproving of my behavior; but it is still focused narrowly on my behavior rather than on myself.) 


5. I do not even want to be around myself when I act like that. (Internalization increases, more explicitly moving beyond behavior to myself. Still, my being uncomfortable with myself is restricted to the moment.)


6. That is not the kind of person I want to be. (The scope broadens from behavior and my temporary state to a disposition — the kind of person who would do such a thing -- internalization of shame increasing accordingly. Still, I do not yet fully identify with being a peeping Tom; I have good qualities as well.)


7. I do not deserve anyone's respect or love, even my own; I am unworthy of it. (See Schouborg 2011, 1978 for an extended argument, though one that had not yet identified the continuum of disapproval).



 The internalized nature of shame


Shame #7 is fully internalized. The prior meanings leave some, though less and less, distance between the object of disapproval and my whole self. In #7, however, I identify completely with the object of disapproval, in this case being a peeping Tom. 


Note that the progression of internaliztion is more fine grained than the list itself, which identifies only key phases. Even when the focus is on my behavior in shame #1 and #4, I am the one who is peeping and therefore to some degree am the object of my disapproval, since behaviors express the self to some extent, marginal to full. 


In #2-3 and #5-6, I can minimize the internalization by arguing that the behavior is a unique lapse, therefore saying nothing about who I really am. Nevertheless, I remain the individual who was capable of the lapse. The struggle against internalization is more difficult the more the behavior is a pattern; but even then I can distance myself from identifying with being a peeping Tom by labeling it a bad habit, an addiction, an illness — I am a good, lovable person with this deficiency. This strategy is the more successful the more I can identify with approved behaviors and traits. Even so, this distancing can be difficult in practice, though it can succeed to the extent that I and others can refuse to insist on perfection and love me for the flawed person I am.


However, in #7, my struggle against fully identifying with being a peeping Tom fails completely: I am simply and unqualifiedly a peeping Tom, a person unconditionally unworthy of respect, even my own. I have catastrophized whatever disapproval may exist for being a peeping Tom into full identification. I am a peeping Tom. I may hear dim, distant voices telling me that that is not the whole story, but they do not take hold. Still, there may be an opening for change. I may be completely crushed by my unworthiness, so that I cannot summon up the will to change; but I might instead have a glimmer of self-respect, enough that I can choose behaviors that can dig me out of this hole.



 Shame v. embarrassment


Stolorow (2013a) views embarrassment as a mild form of shame. However, many researchers claim that it is "inherently a public emotion. This distinguishes it from other self-referent emotions (e.g., guilt or shame), which can be experienced even when one is alone" (Dong, Huang, & Wyer 2013). Both characterizations depend on which meaning of shame and embarrassment they have in mind. An analysis of the meanings of embarrassment similar to that for shame can resolve the disagreement. 


1. I would be embarrassed if my girlfriend, but not my buddies, caught me peeping. (Externalized fear of disapproval. Scope is limited to my girlfriend's disapproval; my buddies would not disapprove.)


2. I would be embarrassed if anyone caught me peeping. (Externalized fear of disapproval. Scope generalized beyond my girlfriend.)


3. I am embarrassed doing this, even if no one catches me. (Disapproval is internalized, turned on myself.)


4. I am embarrassed being a peeping Tom. (Scope increases from an act to a trait. Fear of disapproval could be externalized, internalized, or both.)


5. I am easily embarrassed when people turn their attention on me. (A new example separate from that of the peeping Tom. Embarrassment commonly felt, a dispositional fear of disapproval. The fear could be specific — I stutter — or unspecified — they might see something they disapprove of, though I can’t say what that might be.) 


Dong, Huang, and Wyer’s objection that embarrassment, unlike guilt and shame, cannot be experienced when alone is belied by #3-4. Seeing that the core of embarrassment is the belief that I am being disapproved of enables us to understand that I myself can disapprove of my behavior or of my self. Disapproval can be internalized and therefore experienced when alone, which raises the question of how embarrassment and shame differ.


Stolorow's view of embarrassment as a mild form of shame is correct for some versions of shame and embarrassment, but not others. Embarrassment #1-2 involve public or externalized disapproval, as do the externalized versions of embarrassment #4-5, so that all of them can be rightly contrasted with internalized versions of shame. On the other hand, embarrassment #3 is internalized, and #4-5 may be, so that Stolorow is right insofar as some kinds embarrassment are mild shame, the disapproval involved differing from shame in that the disapproval is less severe or the core of self is less implicated (Lewis 1995, p. 212; 1992, p. 82; Tangney, Miller, Flicker, & Barlow 1996). For example, I might be ashamed of being a bad father, but only embarrassed by being a bad driver — or vice versa, depending on how severely I disapprove of either deficiency or how deeply I identify with either role.


Attention to the many meanings of shame and embarrassment, along with the consequent realization that different beliefs are at their core, would resolve many conundrums in the literature on self-conscious emotions generally. For example, Lewis (1995, 1992) characterizes one kind of embarrassment as "not . . . caused by negative self-evaluation, but by simple public exposure" (1995, p. 212; see also 1992, p. 82). Focused on negative self-evaluation and satisfied that it is the effect rather than the cause of public exposure, he fails to explain why public exposure by itself would cause embarrassment. Embarrassment #1-2 and the externalized versions of #4-5 provide a ready explanation: public exposure makes us vulnerable to disapproval, which we experience as unpleasant in itself even if considered unjustified and therefore not internalized. This agrees with Lewis' point that self-evaluation does not cause the kind of embarrassment that is linked to public exposure.



 Shame v. guilt


Guilt has meanings straightforwardly analogous to those for shame if we replace disapproval with punishment. Guilt and shame, then, each refers to its own continuum of emotions varying in degrees of internalization. For example, just as shame #1 is externalized fear of someone's disapproval of my behavior, so guilt #1 is externalized fear of someone's punishing me for my behavior. And just as shame #7 is produced by my own internalized belief in my unworthiness (my own self-rejection), so is guilt #7 my own internalized belief that I have done something wrong (my own self-punishment).


The usual distinction drawn between guilt (evaluating the behavior) and shame (evaluating the person or self as a whole) is therefore conceptually valid for their internalized meanings. However, it does not prevent them from coexisting to the extent that disapproval is wielded as a kind of punishment or that behavior implies something about the agent, a point made in an earlier section on The internalized nature of shame.



 Clarifying Stolorow


It is not clear whether Stolorow seems shame as internalized or externalized. He seems to view shame as externalized when he says approvingly, "Sartre's peeping tom feels shame about being seen, not guilt over violating the naked woman" (2013b my italics).


However, he appears to see shame as internalized, if we read the preceding statement in light of an earlier blog (2013a), where he explains that "Sometimes, we, ourselves, can be our viewing other," explaining further that, "In feelings of worthlessness or valuelessness we experience our inherent flawedness as defining the core of our being."


Then again, he inexplicably states, "Sociopaths, perhaps like Sartre's peeping tom, are guiltless, not shameless" (2013b). Sociopaths are both, if they fail either to believe they are unworthy of even their own respect (shame #7) or have done something wrong and deserve to be punished (guilt #7). Stolorow adds, "We should be much more alarmed by people who are guiltless than by those who are shameless" (2013b). Since guilt focuses on behavior that hurts others and shame focuses on self, is he is thinking of sociopaths as being more dangerous to us than to themselves? In any case, the section below on Lessons for healing will show that we need not be alarmed at either shamelessness (shame #7) or guiltlessness (guilt #7) under certain conditions.



 Clarifying Stolorow's colleague


Perhaps when Stolorow’s colleague says that, "The child grows through shame to a greater awareness of the social world," he is thinking of strong personalities who are shamed #7 wisely (called to their better selves) and can respond constructively. Or he may be thinking of shame #1-3, where complete insensitivity to the disapproval of others would suggest psychopathy. Thus, for a child to experience disapproval without caring in the least would be troubling. Even free-thinking adults who have worked out their values for themselves and disagree with their critics might reasonably be expected to find that being criticized is more unpleasant than just being left alone.


Shame #4-6 may or may not be problematic. Internalization of the approval or disapproval of others has many benefits. We like and often learn from being approved of and agreed with. Unless we are personally committed to examining the fundamental assumptions of our culture, it is not useful for us to reinvent the wheel, to reexamine every opinion of others. Not doing so saves us much time and often provides lessons that we could not learn on our own. Problems arising only to the extent that we inappropriately hand over our judgment and discernment to others, an issue left for another time.


However, shame #7 is radically different, claiming not merely that others do not respect me but that I deserve neither their respect nor even my own. Unfortunately, Stolorow's colleague conflates shame with acknowledging weakness, concluding that shame is developmentally useful. Well yes, if you have shame, then it is developmentally useful to work through it. But that is like saying that hitting your head with a hammer is developmentally useful because choosing to stop builds character. Still, it is too strong to condemn the colleague's thinking as simply "wrong-headed" (Stolorow 2013b). Identifying the many meanings of shame  has allowed us to listen more carefully to the colleague and uncover meaning that he may have intended but did not adequately express. Doing so also provides lessons for healing more generally.



 Lessons for healing


The aim of the preceding semantic detail was not academic nitpicking but nuanced listening. If we have only a simple account of shame in our minds, we will very likely hear only that narrative when a client mentions the word. Awareness of the many possible intended meanings helps identify emotional issues that we may otherwise miss, which yield to effective interventions that may not otherwise occur to us.


Because of limitations of space, this article will not address the emotional issues that may or may not be presented by shame #1-6. Fortunately, counselors can understand and address them fairly straightforwardly. The difficult case is shame #7, which for convenience I will hereafter refer to as simply shame.


Whether shame is productive or destructive depends on how powerless I am, which depends on at least four factors: control, identity, discernment, and validity.




Can I change the object of my shame? If Erica is ashamed of her race, she cannot. If Eric is ashamed of his wrinkles, he can undergo cosmetic surgery. If Jimmy is ashamed of bullying his little sister, he can change his behavior.


Control varies according to outer circumstance — e,g., Eric may not have the money for cosmetic surgery. Control also varies according to inner resources. Suppose Jimmy is a child who has just hit his little sister for the first time and his mother says, “I’m ashamed of you for hitting your little sister. No one likes a bully.” Depending on his mother’s tone — anywhere from vicious to caring — and his own capacity for empathy, Jimmy might take this merely as a lesson not to get caught in the future or he might hear this as a loving intervention calling him to the better angels of his nature. If the latter, he might then be ashamed of himself for what he did and decide that he is not going to be that type of person. On the other hand, if hitting is an established habit, a simple choice may not be immediately available to him and feeling shamed may very well create a debilitating feeling of powerlessness and resentment for being condemned as beyond human respect.





Can I change what attributes I identify with? Erica can be ashamed of her race only if she identifies with it. Even if she buys into its having some negative attributes, she is not necessarily ashamed if she has other qualities with which she identifies more — e.g., intelligence, competence, good looks, charm, reliability, athleticism, achievement. Eric can do the same even if he agree with others than his wrinkles are unattractive. So can Jimmy, seeing himself as a great kid with a pardonable fault — “No one’s perfect.” Of course all of this depends on how strongly others have shamed someone, what attributes are involved, and the strength of the target’s inner resources.





Choosing what qualities to identify with involves differing with others’ views on which ones I should be ashamed of. Can I distinguish between another’s view of me and my own self-evaluation? Even though Erica is powerless to change her race, she does not have to buy into racist shaming. She can distinguish between others’ evaluation of her race and her own. Even though Eric has the money for cosmetic surgery, he may save it and instead refuse to buy into others’ rejection of him for being wrinkled. On the other hand, Jimmy would be an exceptional child indeed, if in answer to his mother’s shaming him for bullying, he could non-defensively think to himself, “I think she’s overreacting.” But a sophisticated adult might. In other words, discernment depends on the shaming individual’s forcefulness and the power of the target’s inner resources.





Distinguishing between others’ shaming of me and my own self-evaluation raises the question of how valid beliefs about unworthiness are. Some seem more intuitively plausible than others. It is one thing for Jimmy’s mother to tell him that as a bully he is unworthy of human love and companionship, but that she knows he is better than that. It is quite another for her to define him as a bully in an absolutist tone, implying that there is no way out for him. The caring judgment opens the door for personal development. The absolutist judgment promotes nothing positive, since it leaves no possibility for him to change —  a view which he is most likely too young to be able to disagree and avoid identifying with.


Although some beliefs of unworthiness are more plausible than others, and some are expressed more caringly and therapeutically than others, there remains the question of whether any are really valid, strictly speaking. My view, for which I have argued informally over the years and currently in a work in progress, is that there is no objective basis for the belief that anyone — not even Hitler — deserves complete rejection. This does not necessarily keep shaming from sometimes being salutary. We tell each other salutary half-truths and even lies all the time. But if there is no objective basis for the core belief of shame, then perhaps there are less misleading and more effective ways than even the most instructive shaming to deal with bullying and other undesirable behaviors.


That there is no objective basis for the core belief in shame can find some empirical and epistemological support. Empirically, name the attribute that is supposed to make someone unworthy of any positive regard, and careful listening often finds another that makes the individual a desirable member of the human race, or that at least can be nourished so as to help that individual develop into one.


Epistemologically, judgments of deserving (in an unconditional, non-contractual sense) have no rational basis. Briefly, contractual deserving is conditional: based on specific circumstances. For example, I contractually deserve that you lend me your car, since I have lent you mine in the past and we agree on a roughly 50-50 relationship. In contrast, the claim that I unconditionally do not deserve your respect means that you do not owe me that for any reason.


My view is that centuries of epistemological reflection have found no proof free of question begging or self-contradiction that unconditional deserving has a rational basis. Such an extensive failure makes the odds of success so low that it is reasonable to abandon that quest and move on to empirical research that explains why we in fact often believe that shame is unconditionally deserved. This strategy is all the more reasonable in light of the success that such research has enjoyed so far.


Critically important for healing is to understand what it means to say that beliefs in unconditional deserving are not rationally grounded. It does not mean that they are merely mistaken. For example, to believe that I am unconditionally unworthy of respect is not corrected by proving that I am worthy, or vice versa. Instead, it is to say that the core belief of shame is a category mistake: debating whether I am unconditionally unworthy of respect is as if people condemned me for being morally green and I defended myself by arguing that I was morally a more acceptable color.


Similarly, healing shame is not a matter of replacing a judgment of unworthiness with one of worthiness, but realizing that it is a matter of learning to love life directly, uncluttered by irrelevant attitudes about what I should be. In trying to help individuals out of shame, we appeal to their more desirable attributes not in order to logically argue them into a different view, but to bring them back in touch with fundamental life experiences. In contrast, valuing myself conditionally in order to get along in life is another matter. It is useful to know whether I have the charisma or connection to run for office, the energy and decisiveness to start up a business, the chops to date starlets. A negative answer to any of these questions does not logically entail that I should be ashamed of myself, since none implies anything about my worth as a human being.


If shame is not the product of a mistaken evaluation, it cannot be argued out of. It can be dissolved only in the direct experience of satisfaction in living, which arises not from judgments about various behaviors or life itself being of value but from experiencing life uncluttered by socially learned attitudes. It's the attitudinal clutter from over-socialization that obscures for us the inherent satisfaction of being alive. For example, I could have a host of attitudes for writing this email — show I'm worthy of respect, not the fool I fear you take me for, demonstrate my manhood, compensate for not having made the football team, overcome anonymity, demonstrate my superiority — but I'll directly experience the satisfaction that is, for me, inherent in this particular mode of living that is writing to the extent that my mind is uncluttered with such ungrounded and irrelevant attitudes. 


A concluding footnote and disagreement with Stolorow. "We should be much more alarmed by people who are guiltless than by those who are shameless. Sociopaths, perhaps like Sartre's peeping tom, are guiltless, not shameless" (Stolorow 2013b). I suggest that applying the preceding to guilt will find that it is precisely parallel to shame in being ultimately groundless, though many of its meanings are useful shorthand for expressing our resolve to punish certain behaviors. As with shame, that raises the question of under what conditions it is desirable to spell out the shorthand in order to achieve greater emotional clarity and flexibility.





Dong, Ping, Huang, Xun, & Wyer, Robert S. (2013). The Illusion of Saving Face: How People Symbolically Cope With Embarrassment. Psychological Science, 24(10), 2005-2012. doi: 10.1177/0956797613482946 Retrieved from http://pss.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/24/10/2005 


Lewis, Michael. (1992). Shame: The Exposed Self. New York: The Free Press.


Lewis, Michael. (1995). Embarrassment: The Emotion of Self-Exposure and Evaluation. In June Price Tangney & Kurt W. Fischer (Eds.), Self-Conscious Emotions: The Psychology of Shame, Guilt, Embarrassment, and Pride (pp. 198-218). New York: Guilford Press.


Schouborg, Gary. (1978). Philosophical Issues in the Psychological Diagnosis of Guilt and Shame. (PhD Dissertation), University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX. Retrieved from www.garynini.com/em-diss.htm  


Schouborg, Gary. (2011). Transcending the Shamed Self. Journal of Consciousness Exploration and Research, 2(9), 1438-1462. Retrieved from www.garynini.com/ist-transcShamedSelf.htm


Stolorow, Robert D. (2013a). The Shame Family.  Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/feeling-relating-existing/201310/the-shame-family 


Stolorow, Robert D. (2013b). On Valorizing Shame.  Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/feeling-relating-existing/201310/valorizing-shame 


Tangney, June Price, Miller, Rowland S., Flicker, Laura, & Barlow, Deborah Hill. (1996). Are shame, guilt, and embarrassment distinct emotions? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(6), 1256-1269. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.70.6.1256