The feeling when you think that other people know something bad about you. What they know is true, so you also feel bad about yourself.

You feel shame when you think that other people know (or could know) something about you that you don’t want them to know, because you think it will reflect badly on you1. This ‘something’ can be a shortcoming, a failure, or a character flaw – something that is part of who you are, but which you know is ‘bad’ – or at least very unpopular. For example, a person may be ashamed of her inability to read and doesn’t want anyone else to know this. Or, someone can be ashamed of an unattractive part of his body and goes to great lengths to cover it up.

The possession of any personal characteristic that is looked down on by a group or society in general is a candidate for feelings of shame: e.g., being selfish, poor, unintelligent, lazy, unhygienic, or boring. An important source of shame is to fail in the eyes of someone important. For example, a child can feel shame when his parents are deeply disappointed in his school results.

Shame is also associated with having done something morally bad (in which it seems similar to guilt), for example, someone can feel ashamed when they are caught speeding in a school area. However, it is not so much the bad action, but the character flaw that it exposes which elicits the shame: only an immoral person would do such a thing2.

Central to shame is that it requires an ‘audience’, a person or group of people who can find out about your shortcoming. However, it is possible to experience shame when you are alone, in which case the audience is imagined or remembered3. Unlike guilt and regret, which are evaluations of your bad actions, shame is an unfavorable evaluation of your whole person. This means that shame can be a very intense emotion. People who feel shame have a tendency to cover their shameful truths, or, if they have been exposed, to hide or disappear4. The typical body language of ashamed people is a ‘shrinking’ body, bowed head, and averted eyes2.

In the comic, Murphy hears his co-workers boasting about their great weekends, and does not want to let on that his weekend was a lot less glamorous. However, his colleagues quickly find out what his weekend was really like – and that he was lying about it.

Movie clips


Typical expressions

“What will they think of me?”

“I wish I hadn’t made a fool of myself.”

Murphy's bad day

Comparisons with other emotions

Shame & Embarrassment

Shame and embarrassment are often confused. For example, someone who gives a terrible public presentation may be both embarrassed and ashamed. Although the two emotions are close in experience, there are several important differences that set them apart. First of all, embarrassment can be said to be more superficial than shame5. Embarrassing events are often just unfortunate, and do not include a negative evaluation about yourself. When you are ashamed, on the other hand, it is because people have found out something about you. The bad presentation is just embarrassing if you don’t like being put on the spot and getting attention. It will feel shameful, however, if you perform very badly, and are now afraid that people will think less of you because of that. Thus, embarrassment is more often about (superficial) norms and standards, whereas shame is about more profound values. Secondly, embarrassing events need an audience in the moment that they happen (you are only embarrassed if your pants rip at a moment that other people can see it), whereas you can also be ashamed if people later hear something bad about you.

Shame & Humiliation

Humiliation and shame both make a person feel bad about himself. The differences are that humiliation is always provoked by another person, while shame can also be caused through chance events or one’s own doing. Secondly, in shame a person mostly focuses on oneself (and how others perceive him), while humiliation is also about the hurt that the other person is deliberately causing him. Note that English speakers sometimes use the word ‘humiliated’ to mean deeply ashamed, as in the sentence ‘Alex felt humiliated when people found out he couldn’t swim’. This use of the word humiliation is not adopted here.

Shame & Guilt

Guilt and shame are among the most-often confused emotions. This is understandable, as they seem very similar at their core: they are both emotions about our relations to other people that include a negative evaluation of ourselves. If someone does something wrong, like cheating on her partner, she may feel both guilty and ashamed. However, there are some important differences between the two emotions. First of all, guilt is an emotion about something you did (your actions), whereas shame is an emotion about who you are (your ‘qualities’)6. This may seem like an arbitrary difference in some situations – there seems little difference between thinking ‘I have cheated’, versus ‘I am a cheater’ – but it in other situations this difference is important. Most importantly, while guilt is always about your actions, you can feel ashamed about something that is not something you did, such as your appearance or the amount of money your parents make. Secondly, you can feel guilty about something that you feel responsible for, but that doesn’t reveal some character flaw. If you break something completely outside your own fault, you may feel guilty about the damage you caused the owner, but you arguably won’t be ashamed. Another difference is that shame is sometimes regarded as a ‘social emotion’, because it requires other people, whereas guilt is more of a ‘personal emotion’, in which you have violated your personal standards of what is harmful and wrong. Interestingly, research shows that although the experience of these two emotions is somewhat similar, their effect on people’s behavior can be very different. Shame is associated with a tendency to hide the shameful truth, or to get away from the people who know about it (‘trying to cover it up’). Guilty people, on the other hand, have a tendency to confess their wrongdoing (‘getting it off their chest’) and to atone for it (‘coming clean’)3.

Sources and further reading