Shame Series: The Self-Conscious Emotions

I’m on a shame kick. And by shame kick, I mean that I am trying to dive into the information and research and interventions focused on shame. Shame is an emotion that I see time and time again with clients; even though it is rarely the “identified problem” when a client first reaches out to me. A lot of times, shame doesn’t even get named by the client until we’ve established a real rapport. Shame is hard to touch, it is hard to look at, it is hard to feel. It would be much, much easier to leave shame covered and hidden and work on the other things that don’t feel quite as scary. But, that is not me serving the best interest of my clients. I’ll be doing a “shame series” here on the blog- if you have any of your own questions, let me know!

Brené Brown is a master of studying shame. The information that I am going to share in today’s post includes information from a shame webinar hosted by Brené Brown that I recently completed.

Self-Conscious Emotions

Brené Brown identifies shame, guilt, humiliation and embarrassment as the emotions of self-consciousness. In this first post of the shame series, I am going to focus on differentiating these four emotions. The reason why this is important is that you have to be able to accurately identify and recognize emotions as you experience them in order to be able to regulate and respond to them in the best way. Misidentifying shame as guilt or embarrassment or humiliation can interfere with your ability to move forward from a shameful experience.

Shame: “I am bad”. Shame is focused on the self. It encompasses you as a person in your entirety. You, as a human, are flawed, unlovable, unworthy, and do not belong. Even typing these words make my stomach begin to drop; I feel it in my heart and the pit of my gut, and it makes me want to turn inwards and hide from the world

Guilt: “I did something bad”. In my experience as a therapist, shame is most often mislabeled as guilt. The difference between these two emotions is the focus- guilt is focused on a behavior, where shame is focused on the self. Now, guilt is still going to be an uncomfortable emotion for most people. There may still be psychological distress in response to guilt; however, there is a lot more room for growth with guilt. Think about it- if you did something bad, you have an opportunity to rectify it, or to improve, or to make amends and do better next time. If you are rooted in a belief that you are bad? That feels as if there is nowhere to go; you’re trapped- that’s who you are.

Humiliation: Humiliation feels very similar, maybe identical to shame, on a physiological level. Your body experiences these emotions as the same. Brené Brown shares that the difference is your assessment of whether you deserve it or not. When you are feeling humiliated, you do not feel deserving of it; when you are feeling shame, you do feel deserving of that. Shame- “I am bad, and I deserve to feel bad.” Humiliation- “I am not bad, and I do not deserve to feel bad.”

Embarrassment: Embarrassment feels the “lightest” of these emotions; after writing about the previous three, the idea of embarrassment makes me want to laugh. Yes, embarrassing moments are not enjoyable, especially in the moment. A good marker of embarrassment is your ability to recognize, even in the moment, that you are not alone; you are not the first person to trip or to stumble over your words. You can usually share these moments with others soon afterwards, and you can often laugh at it.

I encourage you to start to notice how these emotions arise in your life! When you feel that flush of self-consciousness make an attempt to explore the beliefs that come alongside the emotion, and ask which of these emotions is at play. The next post in this series will explore the common ways we cope with shame.

To learn more or to book an appointment, contact me via telephone or email.

Brenna Burke, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Valencia, CA. She provides individual psychotherapy and couples counseling. Information provided through this website is for informational purposes only. It does not create a therapist-client relationship and does not replace clinical assessment or professional consultation.