Most people experience feelings of shame at some point. For some, it can be fleeting, but for others, it is constant. However, not all shame is the same – people experience many different types.
According to Joseph Burgo, there are four aspects of shame that he has named shame paradigms. They are:
- Unrequited love – Burgo terms unrequited love as the most basic shame situation. Shame caused by unrequited love – whether that love is romantic or familial – can cause a yearning for more complete love. Rejection of love can be intensely shaming, and those who grow up experiencing rejected love from their parents can carry shame with them for years.
- Unwanted exposure – when people draw attention to themselves in a way they do not want to, such as when they spill something or arrive late to a meeting, they often experience shame or embarrassment.
- Disappointed expectation – shame can arise when people set goals and do not reach them or when a friendship or relationship goes wrong.
- Exclusion – the human need for connection and relationships makes being excluded from social groups or events a difficult experience that often generates a feeling of shame.
Many other types of shame can arise in everyday life, such as:
- Transient shame – this form of shame is very fleeting and often does not create significant problems. For example, when a person makes a mistake at work, they may feel ashamed for a while, but the feeling quickly passes.
- Vicarious shame – people can feel shame on behalf of another person, known as vicarious shame.
- Secret shame – some people feel shame about experiencing shame in the first place, leading them to keep their feelings a secret from others.
- Shame around strangers – commonly associated with social anxiety, shame around strangers can be caused by a fear that other people will discover something wrong with them.
There are multiple other types of shame that people experience daily, but these common types can significantly affect people’s lives. No matter the kind of shame experienced, it can damage self-esteem and mental health.
The ‘Still Face’ Experiment was a 1975 study examining how infants reacted to their mothers’ responses. After three minutes of interaction with an unreactive mother, the study found that infants grew wary and withdrawn, and turned away from their mothers.
The ‘Still Face’ Experiment demonstrated that early attachment and life experiences are key players in developing shame in later life. Neglect or emotionally unavailable caregivers can lead to toxic shame throughout adulthood, exemplifying the importance of social connection from an early age.
Shame can also have roots in forms of emotional abuse, such as gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which someone will try to convince another that something is untrue because they are crazy or delusional. When people project blame or feign innocence to control others, the affected party can constantly doubt themselves and question their reality and may feel too ashamed to even question the other person.
A deep sense of chronic shame that continues arising may be toxic. Toxic shame involves a debilitating sense of self-loathing and worthlessness, in which people feel they are not good enough.
Toxic shame can often stem from childhood abuse and traumatic experiences, such as neglect or various forms of assault. However, it can also be caused by people shaming them for getting an answer wrong in class or telling them they will fail when they share their dreams. Constant negative feedback can cause people to believe their worth is based on what others say or think, leading them to internalize this belief and create a sense of shame.
There are many negative consequences of toxic shame. People can often stake a lot of their self-esteem on what others think of them, constantly talking down to themselves and striving for perfectionism out of fear of failure. They can also isolate themselves from others out of the conviction that they are unworthy of connection or that they will be automatically rejected.
Experiencing toxic shame is vastly different from other forms of shame. Whilst other forms of shame can dissipate over a few hours or a few days, toxic shame can last for years, causing feelings of intense inadequacy and avoidance of potential sources of shame in the future.
All forms of shame can fester and damage relationships, mental health, and self-esteem if not treated. However, it is possible to work through feelings of shame and move towards healing:
- Challenge negative thoughts – shame can cause many negative thoughts, such as ‘I’m worthless’ or ‘I can’t do anything right’. Catching these thoughts and reframing them to a more positive, self-compassionate position can help reduce feelings of shame and prevent negative thoughts moving forward.
- Seek supportive relationships – relationships and social support are crucial to recovering from deep feelings of shame. Some relationships can be incredibly toxic, but healthy, fulfilling relationships can help support people to work through difficult emotions and even reconsider long-held beliefs.
- Cultivating empathy – shame thrives in secrecy and silence, but empathy can stop it in its tracks. Empathy involves listening and understanding what others are going through, and receiving empathy from others and cultivating empathy for ourselves can prevent shame from growing into something more.
Shame is not limited to just one iteration. There are multiple forms of shame that people contend with every day, stemming from various sources. However, what all types of shame have in common is how negatively they can affect someone’s life. If left unaddressed, shame can damage relationships, self-esteem, and mental health, so it is vital to take steps toward identifying and managing the source. From here, healing can begin.