How Do Guilt, Shame, and Embarrassment Help Us?

Believe it or not, the emotions of guilt, shame, embarrassment are all very helpful (Klass, 1990). We need them to help guide us away from poor social behavior. Every society has “norms”, which are behaviors we are all expected to engage in or avoid. For example, if a relative stranger says, “Hi, how are you?”, you shouldn’t begin complaining about everything that’s going wrong in your life. This person would give you a look of utter confusion, and you’d probably feel pretty embarrassed. The norm, which this person would be expecting, is a response of something like, “I’m good, how are you?” Deviating from this pre-programmed response would often result in a negative response. Think of it as a secret handshake that proves to this person that you are a well-adjusted and socialized member of the same society. It’s kind of a test that we all put each other through when we meet.

Without the experiences of guilt or embarrassment, people might not learn what these social norms are. For example, someone gets in a fight with their neighbor and says something cruel to hurt them out of anger. If this person continued to verbally harass their neighbor, it could cause the neighbor to avoid them. If this person verbally harassed everyone in their life, it would likely lead to social isolation, which is very harmful to both our physical and mental health (Huige & Ning, 2020). Humans as a species really do not like feeling rejected. Guilt, shame, and embarrassment serve to stop us from continuously engaging in behavior that would cause this. They protect us!

However, too much of anything tends to be a bad thing. Excessively high levels of guilt and shame are connected to social anxiety (Klass, 1990) among other negative and unhelpful outcomes. To prevent them from becoming overwhelming, it is important not to judge them. Judging any emotion as bad actually increases its intensity and adds additional anger to the mix (Van Dijk, 2012). The key to navigating these painful emotions is accepting them first then allowing them to guide you. Think to yourself, “Did that violate my own morals or values? Did I violate a social norm of the group I’m in? What can I learn from this experience?” Also consider that you may be responding to a past memory of when you were embarrassed in a similar situation. Consider whether you are still in such a situation. An example of this could be someone who was shamed for talking loudly as a child speaking too quietly at a social gathering in the present when loud music is playing. In situations such as these, you may consider using new experiences to recalibrate that internal compass. It may be necessary now to speak loudly enough to be heard without feeling guilty.

It may also be helpful to differentiate between these emotional experiences. Embarrassment is a response to a social situation, especially in the presence of people you perceive to be of higher social status than yourself (Julle-Daniere, 2019). It is our guide in social situations specifically. You may feel embarrassed if you get caught chewing with your mouth open in public but probably not when you are eating alone. Guilt arises when we do something that violates our own ethical code. We feel this when we do something we personally believe is wrong. Shame results in feeling like you are a bad person because you did something wrong. It invokes a powerful desire to hide, make yourself small, and avoid other people. Guilt, on the other hand, usually motivates us to correct our mistake. It can often be more helpful to change your mindset when feeling shame. Try saying, “Oops, that was the wrong thing to do, I’ll apologize if necessary and do it differently next time,” instead of beating yourself up and calling yourself names.

Hoffman, M. (1976). Empathy, Role-Taking, Guilt, and Development of Altruistic Motives. In T. Lickona (Ed.), Moral Development: Current Theory and Research (pp. 124-143). New York: Holt, Rinehart, & Winston

Huige. L and Ning X. (2020). The role of oxidative stress in cardiovascular disease caused by social isolation and loneliness. Redox Biology, 37.

Julle-Daniere, E. (2019). Shame, Guilt, and Embarrassment: What’s the difference?. Psychology Today.

Klass, E.T. (1990). Guilt, Shame, and Embarrassment. In: Leitenberg, H. (eds) Handbook of Social and Evaluation Anxiety. Springer, Boston, MA.

Su, L., Raju, S. and Laczniak, R. (2021). The Roles of Gratitude and Guilt on Customer Satisfaction in Perceptions of Service Failure and Recovery. Journal of Service Science and Management, 14, 12-33. doi: 10.4236/jssm.2021.141002.

Van Dijk, Sheri. (2012). Calming The Emotional Storm. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

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