|Shame and Motivation to Change
We know the feeling only too well: Our pulse quickens. Our faces flush. The feeling is so bad that we want to escape at all costs.
Shame has been called our “most dreaded emotional experience.”1 Whether we suffer shame ourselves or witness shame in others, who among us actively seeks the experience that Brené Brown defines as “believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging–something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection”?
Shame may well deserve its bad rap, with repercussions ranging from the inconvenience of ineffective workplace team performance to using shame as a way to manipulate others to the lifelong debilitating shame resulting from childhood trauma. Shame researchers such as Brown make compelling arguments for why we should be careful not to let shame rule our lives, and why guilt may be a preferable negative emotion, as it focuses our attention on specific events or behavior rather than the self.
But is shame always bad for us? Maybe not, at least not if we are interested in self-change.
Shame as a Predictor of Wanting to Change
The authors of “Shame and the Motivation to Change the Self” (Emotion, December 2014) found that feeling shame was a stronger predictor than guilt or regret for motivation for positive self-change. They offer the following definitions of guilt and shame (emphases added):
“Guilt arises when a person focuses on what specifically he or she did wrong (‘I did a bad thing’), often results when one has harmed an important relationship, and generally motivates reparative motivations including efforts to apologize for, fix, or undo the blameworthy act.”
“Shame has a more dispositional focus in which people attend to negative aspects of the self (‘I was a bad person’) and has been linked to distancing motivations aimed at escaping the blameworthy event or hiding from public view.”
The researchers looked at to what extent emotions predicted
wanting to change oneself (the “urge to be a better person,” wanting to change completely or change aspects of one’s personality);
the desire for reparation (feeling the need to apologize or otherwise take action to “make things better”); and
the urge to distance oneself (wanting to hide or remove oneself from a shameful situation). They found that shame "was uniquely associated with the motivation to change the self above and beyond moral self-blame and harm to others."
Why would shame more so than guilt predict a desire for self-change? One possibility raised in the study is that because we feel the need to apologize and make reparations when we feel guilty, we may be less motivated to make more global changes in ourselves.
Shame As a First Step Toward Personal Growth
In 1967 Kazimierz Dabrowski wrote in Personality-shaping Through Positive Disintegration of shame’s role in the long-term process of personal change and growth. Dabrowski proposed that shame indicates a "readiness" to address disharmony between who we want to be and who are are, and he provides examples of how sensitive children who are prone to shame can be helped to distinguish between when their highly tuned responses are useful and when they are not.
In Dabrowski's theory, shame is an important but ultimately only first step toward personality growth. Dr. Cheryl Ackerman explains that only when shame and guilt occur in relation to who we know we want to or should be—our evolving understanding of our ideal self—rather than in response to the judgment of others, do they "take on a development role." The conflict for such a person is one of an internal hierarchy, based on "a vision of who she should be based on internal reflection and consciousness."2 Any shame we feel is shame for ourselves based on who we know we should be rather than an external expectation. We can work past this shame by striving to live our lives more closely to our own ideals so as to reduce the inner conflict.
Bridging the Gap
The authors of the Emotion article suggest that when shame persists through the process of change or if we "try to suppress or deny" shame rather than allow ourselves to experience it, our "motivation to change might not always translate into actual change." They also ask if believing that we can change plays an important role in bridging the gap between desire for change and change itself.
Dabrowski's theory offers another possibility, that shame arising from a desire to change to please our own higher nature may be more adaptive than shame felt as the finger-pointing of others. And, here, the issue becomes in part one of semantics, for as Brené Brown reminds us, referring to guilt, the "ability to hold something we've done or failed to do up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It's uncomfortable, but it's adaptive" ("Listening to Shame").
1 Lickel, B., Kushlev, K., Savalei, V., Matta, S., & Schmader, T. (2014). Shame and the motivation to change the self. Emotion,14(6), 1049-1061
2 Ackerman, Cheryl M. (2009). The essential elements of Dabrowski's Theory of Positive Disintegration and how they are connected. Roeper Review,31(2),81-95
"Shame" image by Anthony Easton/flickr: PinkMoose [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Could the emotion we run from the fastest help us to be better people?
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We know the feeling only too well: Our pulse quickens. Our faces flush. The feeling is so bad that we want to escape at all costs. But is shame always bad?
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In her 1928 novel, The Hotel, Elizabeth Bowen presents the following declaration: "Isn't it funny that for everybody there seems to be just one age at which they are really themselves? I mean, there are women you meet who were obviously born to be twenty (and pretty at that) and who seem to have lost their way since, and men you do wish you'd known when they were, say thirty, or twenty four, or feel sorry you mayn't come across them when they're forty or fifty-five, and children . . . who are simply shaping up to be pale, sarcastic women of twenty-nine, who won't, once they're that, ever grow older.”
Certain wines have a particular moment when they should be poured into goblets, certain fruits have a ripeness that almost begs for the sweet first bite, certain paintings are seen best in an instant of light that passes almost as quickly as it appears. Maybe it’s the same with us: maybe there are moments when we are most ourselves and this is what we glimpse when we imagine ourselves as a certain age.
This idea is about the true age of a person, the age one has always been meant to be, the age one works up to and then backs down from. It seems to be a topic some folks have spent time thinking about--certainly more than time that I expected.
I figured that my husband Michael would laugh or be baffled by the question about how old he pictures himself, but when I asked, he didn’t miss a beat, didn’t even raise his eyes from the paper. “I’m about 15,” he answered. What could I do but agree?
My brother turned 63 last year and was perplexed. “I’m not supposed to be 63,” he announced, explaining with exaggerated emphasis that “Dad is supposed to be 63.” Unprepared for this mandate, I asked, “How old are you supposed to be?” since it seemed--in the context of this highly illogical discussion--a logical question. “I’m supposed to be around 22.” He sounded pretty confident about it. Curious, I asked “And me?” “You’re about 12,” he answered with alacrity, as if I had always been twelve and always would be.
Inevitably, I presume former undergraduate students remain between the ages of 18 and 22, even when they’re running their own marketing companies, living in the suburbs, and having baby after baby. They’ll mail me photographs of the latest kid and I’ll have to shake my brain around to realize that what they’re holding in their arms is their own offspring, not their younger sibling.
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And it’s not like I’m out of touch, it’s just that a person simply can’t keep up. I have no idea what kinds of birthday cards to send: I’ll send one with a clown button saying “IT’S MY SPECIAL DAY” to a friend’s child only to discover that the child in question will have recently purchased his own marina.
I pretty much think of myself as being 46. Okay, 45; I shave a year off, not for the sake of vanity but because saying “46” sounds as awkward as when little kids tell you they’re five-and-a-half, with the last bit tacked on for show.
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A couple of weeks ago I turned 58. It sounds older than it feels, but I'm always good with birthdays because they're like getting a badge for attendance--for having shown up in the world for 365 days in a row.
What is your essential age? Does it really matter?
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