What is the purpose of shame and how to make it work for us

To be honest, I wanted to write this post with the intention of shaming shame (ironic, I know). But as I started to make my traditional research on the matter, I found some interesting information, that completely transformed my initial idea for this article. 

I am the person, who feels shame on a regular basis. But what I found interesting is that we feel shame for a reason

Many of us are driven by shame. The more advice we get, whether it’s about dieting, parenting, relationships or friendships, the more ashamed we feel for not being "good enough". Prior to this article I thought shame is a byproduct of the growing amount of information that we receive on social media. But now I understand, that information has only intensified the inherited from our ancestors emotion.

What is the purpose of shame

Interestingly enough, scientists suspect that the emotion of shame is the expression of a neurocognitive system that evolved to defend against social devaluation[1].

"When facing the prospect or actuality of being devalued, people feel pain, avoid taking acts that could cause or exacerbate devaluation, and conceal damaging information".

Basically we fear to be rejected[2]

I was amazed when I realized that shame is actually a result of evolution of our species. Our mind developed an ability for us to feel something, when there is a threat to basically our existence. 

From protection to destruction

Just like anything else humans tend to abuse whatever ability nature has given them. And shame is a good example of that.

Till this day shame played a role of a "protector", but oftentimes from a perceived threat. Probably more than ever we are afraid to be rejected for doing something "wrong" or not being "good enough".

One of the best, in my opinion, examples of encouraging unnecessary shame in our society is the idea of original sin. According to Bible first people Adam and Eve started to feel shame after they rebelled against God’s commandment and ate of the tree of knowledge[3]

Society functions on guilt and shame. From a very young age we are taught what is right and what is wrong, but those concepts are something that our parents believe themselves. Shame teaches us that love from our family and friends (and even from God) is conditional. If we do something "wrong" we will be punished or abandoned (by friends). 

So we learnt to internalize those admonishments of loved ones, so they became a part of our own judgement of ourselves. 

We are no longer shamed to survive, we shame ourselves, because fear of devaluation has transformed into low self-esteem, which in turn leads to depression and anxiety. Perhaps that's when we no longer use a word shame, but guilt to describe promotion of socially adaptive behavior[3]

In my opinion, shame is guilt taken to another level. But it doesn't surprise me that social construct that we live in isn't perfect. It often happens that we abuse something that we used to use as a tool for survival. We are not usually taught how to use certain tools, we are not told that they may become weapons that can eventually destroy us.

Overdosed on shame

Today shame has become even more dangerous. As I wrote in the beginning of this post, exposure to the unending amount of information almost inevitably leads to comparison, envy and... shame. Because in the world of "perfect" people, living their best lives, it's hard to feel good enough.

The message "be yourself" contradicts the overall polished look of models and influencers selling us products. What I am trying to say that we are only encouraged to be yourself in words, but when it comes down to actions, we always "lack something". 

Shame has become a part of our culture. We still praise it, claiming it's something that helps us achieve our goals. But does it really? Does it ever motivate you when someone straightforwardly shames you? Even though for me it is no, I know, for many it would be "yes, it does". That's why shame is still alive, and probably stronger than ever.

We don't need it for survival, but we "need" it to fit in. And when I think about it, fitting in is our new "survival". Being liked and accepted is something that we as human-beings are longing for, and knowing that we don't need it for an actual survival anymore doesn't fully click in our brains. Yet.

Welcoming the beast

The reason why I wanted to start this post with a background of shame, is so that we would stop associating shame with something inheritly bad, as it once served a good purpose

At the same time, I want you to be more mindful of why you feel ashamed in certain situations and what does it do to you. Can it maybe be helpful, or is it absolutely unnecessary?

All emotions that we have are good. They all help us navigate in this world. They let us know what we like and what we don't like, they show us what we want to change. However we should use our brain/logic more often to decide what emotions are worth taking into account while making decisions. They are all welcomed, but some of them require self-analysis instead of direct action, because many of them can't even be transformed through actions. 

Practicing self-acceptance, compassion and forgiveness is important. Doing so, you can make shame actually work for you instead of against you. How? If you feel ashamed, try to focus on how to improve your actions, don't blame yourself and don't let your actions define you. If you hurt someone, apologize, and find ways to make things better. Appreciate your mistakes for what they are, think about what lessons they have taught you, and distract yourself from beating yourself up. Remember that many of your emotions today are no longer needed for your actual survival, but they still play an important role in your well-being.


[1] Daniel Sznycer, John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, Roni Porat, Shaul Shalvi, Eran Halperinc, Shame closely tracks the threat of devaluation by others, even across cultures, research article, 22 September 2016, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4790975/>

[2] Roy F. Baumeister, Dianne M. Tice, Point-Counterpoints: Anxiety and Social Exclusion, research article, <https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/10.1521/jscp.1990.9.2.165>

[3] Annette Kämmerer. The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame, research article, 9 August 2019, <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-scientific-underpinnings-and-impacts-of-shame/>