Making Therapeutic Distinctions Between Shame, Guilt, Humiliation, and Embarrassment
Shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment are painful and universal human experiences; the terms are often used interchangeably and do overlap, but are different from one another. Owing to differences in culture, religion, ethics, and personal standards, we experience them differently to even similar others in our social sphere, and certainly to people in other cultures. In this post and a follow-up one, we will be examining these often hidden emotions, with an eye to disentangling them from one another (in this post) and then seeing how we can best respond therapeutically (in a companion article).
Perhaps the most important thing to remember as we go into this discussion is that each of these experiences does have a function, so while they are uncomfortable, they can – if addressed in a healthy way – serve our greater growth.
Definitions and examples
The simplest definition here is that shame equals a sense that “I am bad” (Shepard, 2014; Hazelden Foundation, 2016). Known to most people at some stage in their lives, shame is seen in one of the earliest recordings of human behaviour: the Book of Genesis, in the Bible (GoodTherapy.org, 2015). The Online Etymology Dictionary (2018a) identifies several sources of the root word: (1) Old English “scamu” – to express a feeling of guilt or disgrace, dishonour, or loss of esteem or reputation – which may come from Old High German “skem”: “to cover”; and (2) An older English word, “shand” from the Old Norse word, “kinrodi” meaning “cheek redness” (2018). These origins address both our felt sense of what we need to do in shame – cover up – and also the physiological response of redness or blushing.
In our contemporary understanding of shame, we seem to be more involved with the first notion, that of covering, in that we may physically try to cover ourselves, as in making a covering gesture over our brow and eyes (with a downcast gaze) or beyond that, work very hard to ensure that our shame is always hidden and never seen by anyone. Sadly, the less we talk about it, the more it festers, engendering shame-based thinking and reinforcing our sense of shame as going beyond anything that we say or do. We get a sense of this with some of the shame-based thoughts that shock us with their severity: “I am defective”, “I am dirty”, “I am incompetent”, “I am bad”, “I am pitiful”, and “I am nothing”. The sad fact about shame is that it occurs on several levels: first, that of an exhaustive list of our faults adding up to “I am not good”; and second, a declaration, “And I’ll never be good enough”. In other words, shame settles in as a permanent part of ourselves (Hazelden Foundation, 2016).
The origins of deep, toxic shame are usually in childhood; thus, in therapy we can uncover the experiences that led to shame to help relieve it and engage in new experiences to foster a sense of goodness and worth. It has often been rooted in experiences of a sexual nature, such as when sexual abuse occurs. We even try to hide the presence of the shame in which the toxic experiences are hidden; we do this through masks of narcissism, addictions, self-harming behaviours, eating disorders, drug use, dissociation, or anxiety and depression. Some respond with arrogance, blame, or contempt. People with low self-esteem are more prone to shame, as they are often more harshly critical of themselves (we’ll be talking about how to orient therapy to clients like that in the next article). Unfortunately, all of these defences lead to even deeper shame and lower self-esteem.
Mild to moderate shame can motivate us to lead lives with higher ethical and moral standards. It develops in step with our compassion and empathy for others, helping us to regulate our behaviour. But pervasive, permanent, deeply-rooted shame is overwhelming and ends up being destructive, not least because it lacks a channel for discharge, staying inside us and intensifying (Burton, 2014; Brighton Therapy Partnership, n.d.)
In contrast with shame, guilt is an expression of “I did something bad”: that is, related to actions. Guilt involves falling short of one’s own moral standards, as opposed to shame, which involves failing to meet cultural or societal moral standards. Note that this means that we can feel guilty about something that society in general does not disapprove of, such as driving a luxury car (when children are starving in the world), or eating meat (when we say that we intend to be vegetarian).
Shame and guilt often occur together, which is probably why we confuse them. Let’s say we hurt someone. We probably feel guilty about injuring the person (guilt), but also feel bad about ourselves (shame). Shame is ego dystonic: that is, in conflict with our self-image and the needs and goals of our ego, whereas guilt is ego syntonic: consistent with our self-image and the needs and goals of our ego. Guilt, unlike much shame, is inversely correlated with poor psychological functioning. This makes sense, because if we do something that we should not do, we feel guilty until we atone for our “sin” and thereby make amends, thus restoring our sense of ourselves (Burton, 2014).
As an example of the difference between the two, we can imagine the situation in which a friend asks us to do something for her: accompany her to a difficult meeting after work, for example. But let’s say before heading into the meeting, we pop into some shops to run personal errands and get caught up with our own things, completely forgetting to go to the appointment with our friend. If, when we remember – too late – our immediate self-talk goes something like “I’m such an awful friend; I let her down because I’m a complete loser”, that is shame and may not be that helpful to us. If the self-talk is more like, “Wow; I can’t believe I did that; that was a poor choice on my part to try to run those errands at that time”, we are experiencing guilt. The latter is an appropriate reaction of remorse, which will hopefully lead to asking our friend for forgiveness and trying to do reparation: a healthy outcome.
Now, let’s paint another colour into the picture: that of humiliation. Shepard (2014) observes that the element separating shame and humiliation is that of deserving. Let’s say a university professor is commenting on projects that the class did and remarks to the whole class, “Steve Jones did this one, and it was awful! It made me wonder what he was smoking while he slapped it together.” Now, if Steve Jones has an adequate measure of self-esteem, his self-talk is likely to go something like, “That was mean and nasty! I have been showing up, being cooperative and attentive and trying hard, and he humiliates me in public like that? I don’t deserve it!” In this case Steve is experiencing humiliation and will probably want to share it with someone close to him in order to process it. If, however, Steve has really low self-esteem (say, from strongly humiliating or rejecting incidents in childhood), his self-talk is likely to be more like, “The professor is right. I am a stupid waste of space. I should never have tried to gain admittance into this university. I am hopeless.” In this case, he will be experiencing shame, and will want to cover up the incident because he believes he is hopeless or stupid and there is therefore nothing to tell.
The etymology of the word “humiliation” is found in the Old French word “humiliacion” or the Late Latin word, “humiliationem”, both meaning “humbling” (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2018b). As the root suggests, it is a strong feeling of mortification, coming with a loss of self-respect and self-esteem, plus a serious downgrading of pride. It can be brought about by intimidation or physical or mental mistreatment, and is a public affair in which someone degrades us by saying we have committed a socially, legally, or otherwise offensive act or failed to do something we should have done (Differencebetween.info, n.d.). Contrast this with shame, which we may experience profoundly inside ourselves without anyone ever knowing that we have it.
Finally in this category of emotions we’d rather forget, we can describe embarrassment as an emotional state of self-consciousness that is experienced in a socially awkward condition in front of other people. It is a state of intense discomfort with ourselves in which we feel that everyone is staring at us because of a real or imagined faux pas. There may be a loss of honour, such as with humiliation, or at least dignity, although the amount of embarrassment depends on the situation. It often does not involve a moral lapse, but a social one. For example, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard was once on a foreign trip and had to walk over soft grass. Her narrow heel sank into the grass and trapped her shoe, tripping her. It made for a most awkward moment for her when all the cameras (at least for the Australian film crews) were focused on her.
Embarrassment threatens to undermine the image of ourselves that, for whatever reason, we seek to project to those others with whom our awkward aspect is being revealed. Prime Minister Gillard, for example, would undoubtedly have sought to project grace, power, confidence, and a dignified stance on the world stage: hard to do when one is picking oneself up off the turf. Embarrassing incidents/aspects can include behaviours such as belching or nose-picking, conditions such as a facial pimple or an open fly, or merely embarrassing thoughts, feelings, or dispositions (Burton, 2014). They can even include the people related to us, such as our good-for-nothing uncle, alcoholic parent, lazy partner, or rich-but-materialistic friend.
There are several differences between humiliation and embarrassment. One is related to the degree, with humiliation being much more severe. The other is related to the feeling that we are left with after an embarrassing (versus humiliating) incident. An embarrassing one can be funny and brief, and we often are able to laugh it off and move on, not left to feel totally isolated in the way we can with humiliation, and also shame. Prime Minister Gillard, for example, is probably at the stage of being able to laugh about the time she was on that foreign trip and she pitched headlong into the grass…
As another example (and you probably have many from your life), think of a time when you might be out with a special someone whom you are trying to impress. You run your tongue over your front tooth and suddenly realise that there is a piece of green spinach decorating it – and you don’t know how long it’s been there! OMG: embarrassment! But if the love affair survives, you and the special someone will one day laugh about it: “Remember on our first date when you got that spinach on your teeth and it was there for two hours? I couldn’t keep a straight face!” You might have felt embarrassed, but it’s not isolating, because it could happen to any of us.
In this post, we’ve tried to disentangle the overlapping states of shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment. We can experience more than one of them with a single incident, and the types of situations which engender them, along with our cultural, religious, social, and individual backgrounds, determine how severe our reaction may be. While some of these experiences can help us to sharpen our ethical and moral standards and others can gently remind us that we – like everyone else – are human and thus subject to human failings, some of the experiences, such as chronic shame, have long-lasting effects on our whole life and are best released with the help of a therapist. In our companion article, we will describe the kinds of techniques that can be helpful if you, as that therapist, are seeing a client who is experiencing any of these states.
- Burton, N. (2014). The psychology of embarrassment, shame, and guilt. Psychology Today. Retrieved on 17 May, 2018, from: Hyperlink
- Differencebetwen.info. (n.d.). Difference between embarrassment, shame and humiliation. Difference between: Descriptive analysis and comparisons. Retrieved on 17 May, 2018, from: Hyperlink
- GoodTherapy.org. (2015). Shame. GoodTherapy.org. Retrieved on 17 May, 2018, from: Hyperlink.
- Hazelden Foundation. (2016). Behavioural health evolution: Overcoming shame-based thinking. Hazelden Foundation. Retrieved on 17 May, 2018, from: Hyperlink
- Online Etymology Dictionary. (2018a). Shame. Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved on 21 May, 2018, from: Hyperlink
- Online Etymology Dictionary. (2018b). Humiliation. Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved on 21 May, 2018, from: Hyperlink
- Shepard, K. (2014). Shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment. Portland Therapy Centre. Retrieved on 17 May, 2018, from: Hyperlink