Notes on Shame

This post examines the virtue of shame. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.

“He who feels no shame of evil and does not hate it is no man. Shame and hate of evil are the beginning of virtue.” ―Mencius[1]

“Where there is yet shame, there may in time be virtue.” ―Samuel Johnson[2]

What is this virtue?

There’s a terrible terminological muddle around shame. I’m going to use “shame” to mean an unpleasant sense that one has failed to live up to one’s own standards in some way. To have a well-tuned virtue of shame (or sense-of-shame) is for this sense to reliably and usefully alert to appropriate things.

Arguably, this virtue might also include responding to this sense well: how you process shame, learn from it, dispose of it properly, and so forth.

Shame vs. guilt

Shame overlaps with guilt and sometimes “guilt” is overloaded to include shame among its meanings. I think “shame” is a better word for precisely describing the virtue. For one thing, you can be ashamed of something (e.g. not living up to your potential) without necessarily being guilty of some specific transgression.

Also, you can judge someone else to be guilty, or they may just objectively be guilty based on the facts of the matter — whereas shame is more of an introspective, subjective evaluation. It’s true that you can try to shame someone, but for this to succeed it requires their cooperation: they must acknowledge and internalize the shame by becoming ashamed, or the attempt sputters out ineffectually. This is why you can say simply “you are guilty” but shaming takes a more complex construction: “you should be ashamed of yourself.”

These linguistic categories are blurry, though: Ashamed people sometimes say they “feel guilty.” Some people restrict “shame” to refer to an I-am-bad sort of shame, and use “guilt” for I-did-bad shame about specific discrete acts. Just to keep things confusing, I-am-bad shame is sometimes called “free-floating guilt,” and at least one researcher insists that “shame” refers to feelings regarding violating social norms and “guilt” to those about violating personal standards.

In short, it’s frustratingly easy for people who discuss shame and guilt to talk past each other, and it takes a lot of effort to decipher the literature about shame because people use the same words to mean many different, sometimes subtly different, things.

Shame vs. regret or remorse or embarrassment or humiliation

When people shame you, and you become ashamed in response, this feels similar to embarrassment or humiliation: the awful feeling of being held up to ridicule, scorn, rejection, disgust, and things like that.

One possible way to distinguish shame from embarrassment/​humiliation is that the latter usually implies external judgement: you are embarrassed or humiliated because of how you appear to someone else. In contrast, you can feel shame over something nobody else is aware of.

But how do you distinguish shame from remorse or regret — also private negative feelings about something you have done?

While I was working on this note, I took a break to walk to the grocery store. Along the way I tried to recall an incident from my past that I’m ashamed of. It happened about twenty years ago, and although it was nothing tremendously awful, it did reveal a selfish, covetous, ungrateful side of me that even now makes me cringe a bit to think about. After getting home from the store, I inhaled a pint of ice cream. That was probably a mistake. I have reason to regret it. I would be embarrassed to mention it to my physician. But I’m not ashamed of it: I think of it as a foolishness but not a shame.

Maybe this is how shame and regret can be distinguished: When I think back on something I’m ashamed of, it seems to involve learning something unpleasant about my character — I thought I was a brave person, but I chickened out when it counted, or, I thought I was a generous person, but I was stingy at a time when generosity was called for. Mere regrets don’t seem to have this component. I can regret a mistake I made, or a decision that seemed like a good idea at the time but turned out poorly, but when I regret, while I may notice that my wisdom was underdeveloped or that I could have been more on-the-ball about something, I don’t notice some fundamental character flaw revealing itself. Things I’m ashamed of, on the other hand, hit deeper at the heart of me. There is more urgency to shame. When I think of something I’m ashamed of having done, this thought is accompanied by something more like “I must never do that again,” or “how could I have done that?” or “I thought I was better than that”. When I do something I merely regret, it’s less emphatic: “jeez; I ate the whole carton of ice cream? that was dumb.”

There’s more hand-wavey vagueness in this definition than I’d like, though. Which foibles touch on “character” or “hit deeper at the heart of me” and how do I know? Does my sense of shame tell me which those are, or do I learn which those are some other way and my shame response learns this in parallel and adjusts accordingly? I feel as though I have developed a more refined and more exacting standard of character as I have matured, and that I have done this in a more-or-less deliberate, rational, conscious way. When I am now ashamed of things that I did twenty years ago that I apparently was not sufficiently ashamed of doing when I did them, I feel as though my conscious shaping of my character has also shaped my more emotional sense of shame, not the other way around. But maybe I could tell a plausible story in which my shame evolves subconsciously, and I consciously concoct a description of my character to match its contours as they emerge.

Shame as a “quasi-virtue”

“To be so constituted as to feel disgraced if one does such an action, and for this reason to think oneself good, is absurd; for it is for voluntary actions that shame is felt, and the good man will never voluntarily do bad actions.” ―Aristotle[3]

Aristotle considered shame to be a “quasi-virtue.” For one thing, it seems closer to an involuntary emotion than a voluntary characteristic: for example, as with anger or fear, shame is often accompanied by involuntary physical symptoms (like blushing). But also, if you feel shame from a well-tuned sense of shame, it’s probably because you’ve done something anti-virtuous, so if you characteristically or habitually exhibit shame — that is, if shame were like the other virtues in that regard — it would not be evidence that you are living a flourishing life of eudaimonia but that, on the contrary, you’re screwing up an awful lot. But on the other hand, if you are incapable of feeling shame — if you’re shameless — you are in need of a virtue that you lack.

Aristotle for this reason draws a parallel between shame and self-control: If a person desires to do what is wrong, but then has the self-control to refrain from doing it, that’s better than if they lacked self-control — but it would be better yet if that person were temperate enough not to have that bad desire in the first place. Similarly if a person does what is wrong, but then has the sense to be ashamed of it, that’s better than being shameless — but it would be better yet if they hadn’t done the wrong thing in the first place.

If we think of this virtue as a “sense of shame” rather than “shame” plain and simple, we can avoid at least some of Aristotle’s awkwardness. If you habitually, characteristically, skillfully call yourself to account and weigh yourself in the balance of your high standards, then you can be said to have the virtue of a-sense-of-shame.

Essential shame

Sometimes shame seems to attach itself to you so strongly that it becomes part of who you are, rather than being something temporary that you work through and set aside. There are a number of perspectives on this sort of shame.

Often, this sort of shame is discussed as a sort of pathology or mistake: as “toxic” shame. For example, you are told that you are unworthy or terrible as a child, incorporate that into your self-image, and live your life under that awful shadow. Or powerful voices in culture decide that something about you (such as your sexuality or your race or your appearance) is an ineradicable flaw or crime against nature. In such cases you will be encouraged, in your favorite sources of pop-psych advice, to overcome this shame or heal it or free yourself from it by means of therapy or some ritual or other.

Original sin is a sort of essential shame that plays an important role in Christianity. Shame first appeared when Adam & Eve defied God to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and thereby became aware of good and evil. The first symptom of their newly-won knowledge was shame. Sin — shameworthy thoughts, desires, and actions — was henceforth baked into human nature. Acknowledgement of this sin (and perhaps formal confession), humble shame before God, repentance, and begging for divine mercy, are important parts of Christian practice.

Essential shame may result from processing ordinary shame poorly. Rather than using shame productively to retune your decision-making process and to make necessary amends, in such a way that the shame does its work and goes away, you convert the shame into essential shame and dye it into the fabric of who you are. This may be because you never learned how to go through the process well, or it may be because you have a lot of essential shame already and so adding a little more shame to that pile is easier than trying to work through it.

Sometimes, essential shame is thought to attach to a person if their transgression is sufficiently serious or irreparable. If you cannot possibly make amends, perhaps you therefore cannot resolve your guilt and you are doomed to carry the shame of it with you always. You now have shame, like an injured person might forever have a scar or a limp.

German philosopher Karl Jaspers thought, for example, that Good Germans who had permitted and enabled the Nazi atrocities had thereby acquired a sort of permanent guilt that must shape the rest of their lives into making amends: “Our life remains permitted only to be consumed by a task,” he wrote.[4] Theodor Adorno seemed to go further, implying that such crimes had covered everyone with shame, when he wrote that “after Auschwitz, to write a poem is barbaric.”[5]

What good could it do to feel shame over something you did not personally participate in? Isn’t “collective guilt” a pernicious myth? If you demoralize shame and think about it more functionally — what it does, what it’s for — this sort of shame makes more sense. Shame over a personal misdeed helps you notice the disconnect between the sort of person you thought you were and the sort of person you turned out to be, and to course-correct accordingly. Shame over humanity’s evils might be similarly helpful. Perhaps you once had illusions about the dignity of humanity and thought that there was some modest limit below which you could not possibly sink. When you learn the depths to which humanity can fall, a feeling akin to shame might help you to adjust and refortify your defenses against participating in atrocity.

Weaponized shame

As already mentioned, it is a common human pattern to try to cast shame on someone else (“shame on you” is the paradigmatic form of this spell). Rather than causing them pain directly, you try to provoke their sense of shame so that they cause themselves pain.

You can also do this indirectly and anonymously and remotely. If you can contribute to a shared cultural understanding that Χ is shameful, then you can disincentivize and/​or morally subordinate people to whom the tag Χ can be stuck. So-called “slut-shaming” is one example.

Online shaming mobs are often repulsive and can be shameful in their own way, but they are arguably very effective in establishing and policing certain (sensible or not) boundaries of behavior. (Jon Ronson’s usual sharp wit and insight is on good display in his examination of this phenomenon in his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.)

Since shame can be an effective goad, advertisers sometimes use it to sell products. What kind of a mother would deny her child Producto™? Your psoriasis is not only treatable with Miraclon-X™, but you ought to consider yourself a pariah for not having already figured that out.

Shame as entertainment

Other people’s shame can be entertaining. This helps fuel the outrage mobs of online shaming. It also forms a lot of the appeal of television like Judge Judy, Jerry Springer, “reality TV,” and the “scandals,” “gaffes,” and such that make up a disproportionate amount of political reporting. Much tabloid-style press takes the form: celebrity caught doing something shameful.

People who deliberately act or present themselves in what would ordinarily be a shameful way for entertainment purposes are usually categorized as clowns of one sort or another. Sarah Silverman’s hilarious comic persona, for example, guilelessly exposes her own shameful thoughts and impulses again and again (“I don’t care if you think I’m racist. I just want you to think I’m thin.”).

Why is shame entertaining? I don’t know, but if I had to cough up a just-so story, it’d go something like this: We like to watch other people’s shame because it teaches us where the boundaries are without us having to cross them ourselves and meet the consequences. I bet it’s a hoot and a holler to the other cows when one of their fellows runs into the electric fence.

A sense of shame helps you hold yourself to high standards, and so is kin to virtues like honor, propriety, rectitude, and upstandingness. Shame can be thought of as an inward-pointing version of judgment or righteous anger, one that preserves those virtues from being hypocritical. Shame is related to humility in that in order to be ashamed of something you have to be willing to acknowledge that you screwed up: If you are unwilling to permit your self-image to be deflated, you will turn a blind eye to shame.

There is some obvious tension between the virtue of shame and the virtue of pride. For example, one way to defy being shamed is to assert your pride (e.g. “gay pride”). On the other hand, it is because you have pride — because you value your character — that self-inflicted damage to your character is painful: that you feel shame.

A well-tuned sense of shame coordinates well with the ability to accept fault gracefully and to apologize, to repent, and/​or to atone for one’s misdeeds (those things might be considered virtues of their own, and I hope eventually to do a write-up on them). Shame helps you accomplish the “fearless and searching moral inventory” that is important in 12-Step programs, Christian reconciliation with God, and other such processes of renewal.

Sometimes the role of shame is assigned to a faculty called “conscience” — less as a virtue and more as a sort of sixth sense. I was struck by what I read in the Dalai Lama’s book Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World: He says that “conscience” — a mysterious mental faculty that acts as a sort of ethical lodestone — is not part of his philosophical/​psychological heritage. In its place is a conscientiousness motivated by self-respect and by consideration of others’ opinions: self-respect says “this misdeed is unworthy of me” and consideration-of-others says “and I’ll be poorly thought-of for doing it.” This seems to me to describe something very similar to how shame functions.

The vice of deficiency regarding shame is “shamelessness” or one of its synonyms. The vice of excess — people who are ashamed too easily, or in an affected way — might be “bashfulness.” People who are overly-ashamed are sometimes described as “debased” or “feeling worthless.” This can wrap around and become effectively as bad as shamelessness if the debased person thinks they are already so miserably awful that one more bad deed can’t possibly stain them any worse.

A chronic, “toxic shame” — for instance one learned as a child at the hands of emotionally abusive adults — is a miserable thing to carry around and can take some hard work to shed. It can become a sort of essential shame: a feeling not so much of having done wrong, but of being essentially wrong. An essential shame of this sort can prevent the development of a useful sense of shame. After all, if you think you are shameful, then if you do something shameful this does not conflict with your self-image and so you have no reason to feel more ashamed than usual.

What good is (a sense of) shame?

“We can remove most sins if we have a witness standing by as we are about to go wrong. The soul should have someone it can respect, by whose example it can make its inner sanctum more inviolable.” ―Seneca[6]

Shame seems to be like other useful though unpleasant feelings that cause aversion, like nausea or pain. Shame notices that we’ve stepped in it, and acts through visceral negative feedback to discourage the sort of prior steps that led there.

Shame is unpleasant enough that the threat of it can be sufficient to deflect us from our path, so, if we take the time to deliberate about our future actions, shame can also act proactively to discourage and prevent misdeeds. (In this way, shame can help to improve temperance.)

A good sense of shame is evidence that you measure your real-world behavior against your values and ideals, and give yourself useful feedback by which you can make course corrections. Shame is one of the mechanisms by which we learn from our mistakes.

A well-tuned, reliable sense of shame can protect you from going along with immoral mob- or state-encouraged atrocities, which can often come packaged with excuses that can seduce the intellect. “It was not our minds that resisted but something inside our breasts,” wrote Alexander Solzhenitsyn of how shame protected him and people like him from the temptation of joining Stalin’s secret police. “People can shout at you from all sides: ‘You must!’ And your own head can be saying also: ‘You must!’ But inside your breast there is a sense of revulsion, repudiation: I don’t want to. It makes me feel sick. Do what you want without me; I want no part of it.”[7]

Shame can be a sort of “alarm” that warns you that you might be called to account for something you have done (or are thinking of doing) and so you ought to get your story straight and prepare to defend yourself. In this way, shame does not so much protect you from doing wrong as it helps you protect yourself from the consequences.

Shame can be a way of learning about values that you hold subconsciously. If you become ashamed of something that you more consciously or rationally do not believe to be shameful, and you notice this disconnect, you can then try to integrate yourself better.

Shame encourages you to withdraw from society. If you have recently done something that exposes you to scorn, when people see you that will likely be the most prominent thing they will associate with you, which is probably not to your advantage. If you lay low for a while, you allow for fewer opportunities for people to be reminded of your misdeed, and to associate you with it, and in this way you can reduce the damage to your reputation.

Shame as signalling

Scott Alexander considered how legible displays of shame can signal to others that you are a good cooperation partner:

The conspicuous experience of guilt is an evolutionarily advantageous way of assuring potential trading partners that you will be punished for defection. The behaviors associated with guilt are costly signals that help differentiate false claims of guilt from the real thing and add to public verifiability of the punishment involved.

He also suggested that signalling lies behind the phenomenon of “survivors’ guilt” in which people who survive — e.g. a battle, an atrocity, a disaster — when others have died will feel guilty about it. Were a survivor to feel too self-satisfied about their survival, this might provoke suspicion that they had been clever about shifting the risks onto the victims and were congratulating themselves. By instead feeling conspicuously bad about their good fortune, they make this seem less likely, but also preemptively punish themselves so nobody else feels any urgent need to wonder whether such punishment would be actually justified.

When one has done nothing wrong, it can sometimes be advantageous to paradoxically display guilt in order to prove one’s lack of wrongdoing.

Shame can be a useful signal to broadcast when you have been caught doing something that is sanctionable. For example, criminal court judges in the United States will often adjust the sentences they pass down according to the amount of remorse they feel has been demonstrated by the convict. A convict who accepts guilt and demonstrates remorse can reasonably expect this to pay off in the form of a more lenient sentence. In this way, self-induced shame can be a sort of culturally-approved proxy for other-inflicted punishment.

If you signal that you can successfully be shamed, this may broadcast that you are on board with the current cultural consensus about correct behavior: that you can be counted on to behave according to the current fashion, or to get back in line should you happen to deviate from it. This may make you more predictable to others and therefore make it easier for you to join in cooperative arrangements.

Conversely, if you publicly demonstrate scorn for community consensus about shame, this can bolster your credentials as a radical independent thinker with genuinely revolutionary values. See, for example, Diogenes living in a tub, eating in the marketplace, masturbating in public, and so forth.

How can I better tune my sense of shame?

“Be attentive to the appearance of evil. There is an inner voice in your soul which always tells you about approaching evil. You feel unpleasant, you feel ashamed. Believe in this voice; stop and seek to improve yourself, and then you will defeat evil.” ―Tolstoy[8]

For shame to work well, it needs to be well-tuned so the things that evoke shame in you are the same things you want to be disincentivized to do. However, it is not uncommon for one’s sense of shame to be miscalibrated. You may over-learn things that adults wanted you to be ashamed of as a child, and continue to be ashamed of them as an adult when this is no longer helpful. Or someone may have tried to shame you in order to take advantage of you or for sadistic reasons, before you were confident enough to shape your own sense of shame, and you ended up stuck with a sense of shame that’s more harmful than helpful. Sometimes shame is used as a way of enforcing social norms and taboos, such that there may seem to be a consensus that certain things are shameful (“boys don’t cry,” “well-done steak is an abomination”) when really they’re just unfashionable.

If shame is something like nausea, but meant to apply to our decisions and actions rather than to our digestion — what if we could harness shame the way an alcoholic harnesses nausea by taking a medicine like disulfram that will make her sick if she drinks alcohol? What if we could shape our decisions and our actions by giving ourselves immediate visceral negative feedback for things we want to avoid? Aspiring rationalists: what if, every time you relied on a logical fallacy to make an argument, you flushed bright red, felt a knot in your stomach, and became so mortified that you wanted to disappear into a hole in the ground?

Unfortunately, in my research I didn’t come up with much about how to go about deliberately crafting your own sense of shame. Intuitively, shame feels like it is more moldable than, say, pain or nausea. As I mentioned, I am not ashamed of the same set of things now as I used to be, and my sense of shame seems to me to have tracked my conscious decisions about what sort of person I want to be and what I value. But I don’t have much in the way of confident insight into how this process works or how one might optimize it. I have heard persuasive arguments that what I’m calling “conscious decisions” are better considered as rationalizing afterthoughts, and if so my intuition here might not be helpful at all.

How to react to shame in better or worse ways

If you feel shame, and this prompts you to course-correct, to make amends, and to adjust your decision-making process, then congratulations: your response to shame is helping you get through life well. But there are a lot of ways this mechanism can go awry. Here are several:

  1. You might ignore the connection between the shame and the specific deed you did (or failed to do) and try to convert the shame into essential shame: “I’m such a fuck-up.” That may feel like appropriate penance, but it actually gets you off the hook for doing anything about what you feel shame over, so it’s an unproductive cop-out.

  2. Instead of trying to reassess the decisions that you are ashamed of, you might try to shift the blame from the decisions to the context in which you made those decisions: “I feel terrible for cheating on my boyfriend. That’s what I get for trying to go steady.” or “I shouldn’t have driven drunk again! Why won’t they put a bar closer to my home?”

  3. There’s always denial: You could rewrite history so that the shameful thing never happened, or decide that it wasn’t really shameful for [reasons], or it wasn’t really shameful for you the way it would have been for other people because you’re special, or something like that. This “works,” but only in the same way that an anti-emetic works to help you digest more poison.

  4. You might try to fetishize your shame (“I’m a bad boy and ought to be punished.”). Some people get so hung up on this sort of thing that they deliberately do shameful things (e.g. pointlessly shoplift random shit).

  5. Similarly, you might take pride in your shame for how it demonstrates what good standards you have. For example, Rudolph Hoess, the commandant of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, used the disgust he felt about the atrocities he efficiently carried out as a way of reassuring himself that he was really a good person deep down inside.[9]

  6. You might minimize your shame by pointing to other people who did things even more shameful and thinking “well at least I’m not as terrible as they are.”

  7. You might use your shame to virtue-signal: making a big public show about how bad you feel, engaging in a histrionic public confession, going on a sackcloth-and-ashes kick.

  8. You might simply change the subject: “Sure I did something shameful, but the real issue here is…”

  9. You might wax speculative about determinism and free will, recall that “nobody’s perfect,” wonder if a life without regrets is perhaps an impoverished one, suspect that a proper übermensch would not be ashamed of anything he does, note that you can’t change the past, and so forth, and basically try to cover the whole thing up with a pile of self-help clichés and sophomoric philosophy until it all blows over.

  10. You might lower your standards so that you no longer feel ashamed about whatever it is.

Because shame is unpleasant, and the process of taking responsibility, atoning, and improving can be difficult, there is great temptation to resort to evasions like these. As a result, people often get less help from their sense of shame than they could. One possible antidote is to be aware of these various patterns of evasion, and when you find yourself adopting one of them, remember to add the caveat: “…or on the other hand, is there anything I can learn from this feeling of shame in order to improve?”

  1. ^

    Mencius, King Hwuy of Leang, book Ⅶ, chapters 6–7

  2. ^

    Samuel Johnson, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775)

  3. ^

    Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, book Ⅳ, section 9

  4. ^

    Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt (1946)

  5. ^

    Theodor Adorno “Cultural Criticism and Society” (1951)

  6. ^

    Lucius Annaeus Seneca (the Younger), Moral Letters Ⅺ.9

  7. ^

    Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (1974)

  8. ^

    Leo Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom (~1910) April 11

  9. ^