How Shame Influences Our Behavior

Shame can be a source of great learning and growth.

How does shame influence our behavior and our culture? originally appeared on Quora, the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

This is a question I have been asked a lot recently, so much so that I have made it the subject of a book I am currently writing. The answer to how shame influences our culture in general is a much more straightforward one than how it affects behavior more specifically, so let’s start there.

One of the reasons that shame is so intriguing, is because it is so deep rooted in every human culture and has been for as far back as the records show. Shame influences culture through order and control. Such that, if there are societal rules or cultural norms that need to be adhered to, the prospect of shame from others and shame on oneself is enough to encourage that order be maintained. But this order can easily be weaponized into a means of control, as we see at the foundation of many religious systems.

On a behavioral level, shame is a little more complicated. As proposed by Thomas J. Scheff in his eloquent writing of “Shame in Self and Society”, shame might just be our moral gyroscope, alerting us to when our behaviors are morally, socially, or otherwise reprehensible. Evidently, shame serves a purpose, it signals to us that we must change our behavior to realign it with our personal standards and that of our social group. Thus, if we recognize shame as an opportunity to learn and grow through our experiences, we may adjust our future behaviors to be more appropriate. For example, research has shown that shame can motivate prosocial interpersonal behaviors by making selfish behaviors less appealing.

However, when it comes to shame, its existence is somewhat taboo. Thus, rather than talking about it or recognizing that we feel it, many of us hide from it, allowing it to manifest within us silently and take the shape of denial. The denial of shame may subsequently affect our behavior by causing us to behave in problematic ways as a means of escaping both the source of shame and the feeling of shame itself. Consequently, this can lead to isolation, difficulty self-regulating emotions and behaviors, substance abuse, problem drinking, and self-harming behaviors, as well as difficulty self-regulating eating behavior. Each of which have serious, even life-threatening, health implications.

In sum, shame can be a source of great learning and growth, as well as the source of great pain and suffering. Our underlying psychological adjustment or maladjustment decides which way the scale tips.

This question originally appeared on Quora.

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