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.