Sometimes, when other people behave badly (or when we think they do), it is just so tempting to try to shame them. It can feel good—like righting a wrong or putting someone in their place who deserves to be taken down a few notches.
But what are the costs?
Social scientists have learned quite a lot about the psychology of shame, and the results are not pretty.
Here are 11 terrible things linked to the experience of feeling shamed:
- Shame is bad for your mental health. People prone to shame are more likely than others to experience a range of distressing psychological outcomes, ranging from "low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety to eating disorder symptoms, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal ideation."
- Feeling shamed is bad for your physical health. For example, it seems to trigger "elevated levels of proinflammatory cytokine and cortisol" as well as physiological responses associated with hypertension.
- Feelings of shame are often part of a toxic emotional and psychological mixthat includes "a sense of worthlessness and powerlessness…a sense of shrinking and of 'being small.'"
- People who feel shamed also feel exposed. Even if other people are not observing them, they can imagine, all too painfully, how awful they would seem in the eyes of others.
- People who are shamed often try to "deny, hide, or escape the shame-inducing situation." They act defensively and they distance themselves from others.
- People who often feel shamed are more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as alcohol and drug abuse, reckless driving, and unsafe sex.
- People who are prone to shame are also prone to lash out. Their anger can be intense and it can be expressed in particularly destructive ways. Their aggression comes in many forms—physical and verbal, direct and indirect, other-directed and self-directed, outwardly expressed and inwardly stoked (as when shamed people ruminate endlessly).
- Shamed people are not very empathic; they are too preoccupied with their own distress.
- Shame is bad for relationships. The acting out and blaming of others does not endear the shame-prone people to anyone. Within romantic relationships, research suggests, "shamed partners [are] more angry, more likely to engage in aggressive behavior, and less likely to elicit conciliatory behavior." They may also be more psychologically abusive.
- Parents who demean and shame their kids are more likely than non-shaming parents to have children who grow up prone to feeling shame—with all of the sobering implications already described.
- Because shame involves such a sweeping indictment of oneself, it is difficult to find a road to redemption. It is not about just one bad behavior, for which a person could make amends, apologize, or promise to avoid in the future.
It is important to note that in many studies, the documented associations are correlations and therefore only suggestive; they are not definitive demonstrations that shame causes such bad outcomes. So we do need to be careful. But there are some true experiments in the mix, and the conclusions seem to point in only one direction. Shame is not like guilt, which is about particular bad behaviors, and can motivate people to try harder to meet their highest moral standards and ideals.
There are many scholars with expertise on shame, and I'm not one of them. I was driven to take a look at the scholarly literature (especially the article cited at the end) because of a headline published recently about a current presidential candidate, and the stories that followed in its wake: "Jeb Bush: Unwed Mothers Should Be Publicly Shamed." In his 1995 book, Profiles in Character, Bush repeated typical scare stories about the dire fate awaiting the children of single parents (debunked here, here, and elsewhere), then proposed his solution:
"[S]ociety needs to relearn the art of public and private disapproval and how to make those to engage in some undesirable behavior feel some sense of shame."
Ironically, if Bush were to succeed in shaming single parents, they would be even less likely to have successful relationships resulting in the two-parent households he so seems to admire. Instead, they would probably become less effective parents, whose children then really would be more at risk—not because they were being raised by single parents, but because they were being raised by people who had been shamed.
This isn't just about Bush, though: Public shaming has practically become a national pastime. Maybe we should go back to baseball.