What’s The Real Definition Of Shame? Scientists Sort Through The Ambiguity


One of the most complicated things about being human are emotions. In fact, emotions are so complicated that even psychologists don't have common and widely known definitions for them.

Take the emotion "shame." Although we think we know what it is, actual definitions are ambiguous.

According to Merriam-Webster, shame is "a feeling of guilt, regret or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong." However, the Oxford Dictionary states that shame is "A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior."

Although the definitions are similar, there's still a lot of wiggle room. For psychology researchers, that leaves too many unanswered questions. How are they supposed to define shame?

One of those researchers, Thomas Scheff, tries to tackle the subject in a new paper.

"This paper is a first step toward correcting the chaotic nature of the language of emotion," says Scheff. "Our society treats emotions as a negligible and largely destructive matter, but that's a total fib. Emotions are like breathing; they only make trouble when they're obstructed."

He focused on shame because it is one of the least understood human emotions. His research began by looking at historical references to shame in research, starting with sociologist Norbert Elias. In the early 20th century, Elias wanted to understand the taboo of shame in society. That led Scheff to psychologist Michael Bling, who studied the nature of repression.

Scheff's research eventually led him to his mentor, psychologist Helen Lewis, who devised a method of nailing down emotion via verbal cues. Lewis learned that although shame was the most frequent emotion, it was hardly ever mentioned by patient or client. However, this "unacknowledged shame" came with physical sensations, such as pain, confusion, blushing, sweating and even rapid heartbeat. Another form of this shame came with "fleeting" feelings, as well as rapid and obsessive thought and speech.

Scheff suggests that this happens because shame terrifies people.

"If you hurt my feelings by saying that my nose is too big and if I pretend that I'm not hurt, then it's going to hurt me for a long time," says Scheff. "I'll feel ashamed. But if I say, 'You hurt my feelings,' then you say, 'What do you mean?' and I tell you my feelings, it's going to be a fairly minor event. Yet we live in a society that bypasses or misnames emotions, especially shame."

Although shame is a common emotion, Scheff's research discovered that the use of the word itself is rapidly declining. This suggests we need a better definition, perhaps one that doesn't make people so terrified, at least when it comes to psychologically understanding it.

[Photo Credit: Anthony Easton/Flickr]

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