The Science of Shame

Shame is a powerful emotion and has the potential to shape people’s lives in significant ways

Illustration: Simone Noronha

Systemic racism isn’t anything new, but many white people are newly grappling with their complicity in white supremacy — which can lead to some complicated emotions. While a healthy dose of guilt over the collective role in anti-Black racism can motivate people to listen, learn, and do better, experts say wallowing in shame could accomplish the opposite.

Both guilt and shame stem from a perceived sense of wrongdoing, but understanding the difference can affect your ability to disengage from damaging behaviors. Jena Field, a London-based psychologist, says guilt is focused on a behavior — that’s why researchers call guilt a “moral and adaptive emotion ”— while shame is focused on the wrongdoer’s identity.

“[Shame] causes a fear response that makes us either get defensive or hide, which doesn’t allow us to step back and see what we can do differently,” Field says.

Lea Flego, a marriage and family therapist in Oregon, says shame might keep you from changing behaviors, which can be damaging in the fight against systemic racism. “If we experience shame as allies, then we won’t want to acknowledge the times we’ve benefited from a racist society,” she says. “The criticism feels so bad, and naturally as humans we try to avoid that kind of pain.”

Guilt can be constructive; shame is destructive

The threat response many people experience during shame is a big part of why it’s so counterproductive. According to Gerald Fishkin, a California-based psychologist and author of The Science of Shame, the experience of shame is connected with the limbic system. That’s the part of the brain that influences the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response.

Guilt, Fishkin says, is associated with activity in the prefrontal cortex, the logical-thinking part of the brain. Guilt can also trigger activity in the limbic system. (That’s why it can feel so anxiety-provoking.) But since that stress response is associated with prefrontal activity, the adrenaline rush helps move you forward to repair whatever you did wrong.

“Guilt is a cognitive reaction to the breach of a learned value, and it requires thought and action,” Fishkin says.

Acute shame experiences, which some therapists call a “shame attack,” can trigger immediate physical changes associated with a fear response.

Shame, however, is more raw and typically doesn’t involve cognitive processes like logical thinking or reasoning. It’s an automatic stress response that “hijacks” the brain. Research shows that when your brain’s limbic stress response is more active, the prefrontal cortex, which controls logical thinking, is less functional.

Scientific research also links shame with the physiological urge for self-protection: The experience of shame recruits the same brain circuits that prompt people to hide from physical danger. “Shame isn’t associated with cognition at all. At the precise moment shame is triggered, we are emotionally hijacked, and there’s no prefrontal activity,” Fishkin says. “We automatically want to be anonymous and invisible.”

That specific type of stress, the automatic desire to hide, can trigger immediate and long-term biological changes. Acute shame experiences, which some therapists call a “shame attack,” can trigger immediate physical changes associated with a fear response. Field says shame often leads to a “sunken” body posture, a physical expression of wanting to disappear. And because it’s a type of stress response, it can also lead to common symptoms of sympathetic activation, like blushing cheeks, increased body temperature, sweating, or queasiness.

‘Toxic shame’ can have long-term physical and mental effects

Many times, shame arises from trauma and isn’t actually tied to someone’s wrongdoing. For example, Fishkin says infants who experienced trauma or kids who never formed secure attachments to their parents often experience what he calls “toxic shame” later in life — a type of deep-seated feeling of being unlovable and unworthy.

Most people experience fleeting moments of shame from time to time, but people who experience toxic shame experience it in every area of their identity. “[Toxic] shame is our greatest fears on steroids,” Fishburn says. “It’s the fear of not being good enough, not mattering, and being a failure.”

This type of shame can have long-term physical and mental effects. The ongoing “I’m broken” or “I’m bad” messages in the brain can trigger feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, which Arielle Schwartz, a Colorado-based clinical psychologist, says can look a lot like depression.

In scientific research, this type of shame is associated with increased depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Clinically, Field says she finds shame is lurking beneath anger, depression, and anxiety in the vast majority of her clients: “If you uncover all the layers, you will get to the core of shame.”

“With shame, I don’t want to look inside and acknowledge my mistakes, because if I do, then I’m buying into the narrative that I am bad or not good enough.”

According to Fishkin, toxic shame can also increase the risk of substance abuse and addiction, largely because it’s inherently isolating. People who view themselves as worthless may abuse alcohol or drugs, largely because they’ve missed out on those warm, fuzzy feelings associated with oxytocin, the social bonding hormone.

“Especially during times of significant stress, like with the pandemic and social and political strain happening right now, this is a time where we should be trying to connect with each other,” Flego says. “But shame causes us to look down and keeps us from making contact with others.”

Shame — unlike guilt, which usually propels people to change — can also prevent personal change and growth, which can cause people to feel “stuck.” That’s the paradox of shame: You feel like a horrible person, and you want to feel better. But the self-reflection required to improve your life probably feels threatening. So you stay in fight-or-flight mode as a way to protect yourself, and the cycle continues.

“With shame, I don’t want to look inside and acknowledge my mistakes, because if I do, then I’m buying into the narrative that I am bad or not good enough,” Flego says. “And if we can’t see ourselves clearly, we can’t do better.”

Treating shame

For many mental states, like anxiety and depression, the gold standard for treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on challenging thoughts that may result in negative behaviors. But since shame is an autonomic response to a threat, not a cognitive process, it typically requires a different approach.

Fishkin uses a therapeutic modality called compassion-focused therapy, which encourages people to see themselves and others through a more compassionate lens. Emerging research shows that it’s effective: In one 2016 study, the majority of participants with trauma-based shame experienced a drastic decrease in both shame and trauma symptoms.

For people who face shame in any capacity, Schwartz says self-compassion is probably the most important piece of the puzzle. Psychological researcher Kristen Neff, who developed the widely used “self-compassion scale,” defines self-compassion as being kind and understanding toward oneself during pain and failure and perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience. And her research shows that it helps people overcome fear and anxiety, connect with others, and improve overall psychological well-being.

Practically, Flego says, being more compassionate with yourself might mean working on letting yourself off the hook when you mess up or reminding yourself that you aren’t the only one who makes mistakes — it’s just part of the collective human experience. If your brain isn’t getting the message, Neff’s research finds that compassion from others can have a similar effect.

It’s a scientific process: When you’re in a state of stress, your body needs an outside signal that the threat is gone and it’s safe to go back to homeostasis. Feeling connected in relationships with others and yourself is a way to turn off that fear response and turn on your prefrontal cortex, which will allow you to learn and grow — and be a better human.

“When we can most lovingly accept our own pain or shame, we can actually do a better job being in someone else’s shoes,” Schwartz says. “In that way, shame can be a good teacher — it can connect us with empathy.”

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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