Shame is probably our most painful and hidden emotion, but it has an important function. It activates when our personal sphere is breached, private things become unvoluntarily visible, when we feel judged or believe to have failed other people´s expectations. In its linguistic root, shame means “to cover”. When we feel ashamed we want to hide, vanish into thin air or wish the ground would open up and swallow us. We withdraw and try to protect ourselves.
Shame is a social feeling which helps us learn and adapt the rules and norms of our surroundings. As shame signals whether we can expect support or rejection if we behave a certain way, it substantially influences our behaviour.
Shame has a regulating function
Shame also acts as an alarm signal when our private, intime space gets violated. It often correlates with anxiety or a feeling of anticipation. We expect or suspect how others will likely react. Our previous experiences influence these presumptions.
The intensity and length of shame varies. Embarrassment, blushing, shyness, uneasiness and feeling awkward are all shades of the shame spectrum. At worst, shame will cause existential self doubts.
Feelings of shame can be episodic or chronic. Which circumstances trigger shame varies for different persons and cultures. Most shame triggers are learned through education and cultural upbringing. But also unmet needs create shame.
Consequently, not all people react to a situation the same way. While one person will feel deeply embarrassed, it would have no effect on another.