The Underlying Causes Of Shame (+ Why It’s Not All Bad)

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The painful emotion of shame is a response to the breaking of social norms that the person values. It comes from a violation of expected codes and morals which are socially interested. Though as we’ll see, it’s far more complicated than that.

Embarrassment is considered to be a milder form of shame because it is derived from inconsequential violations of the valued social norms. It’s embarrassing, but not shameful, to trip in public or accidentally drop a drink.

A person who does not have toxic shame is not likely to feel shame from a dropped drink or accidentally tripping.

Shame versus guilt.

Guilt is different from shame because it focuses on a violation of the individual’s beliefs and morals. One might feel guilty that they told a lie or took advantage of a situation that they could have corrected.

Guilt is useful in that it tends to be a more easily processed emotion that spurs action. You can easily draw a line from your action to the guilt you feel because you understand that what you did was a violation of your morals and values.

Shame is more encompassing in that is often directed by how one fits into the social order. It is more based on the expectations of others than it is for ourselves. More often than not, shame isn’t reflective of reality.

It’s less knowing that you did a specific thing wrong and should atone, and more feeling as though there is some flaw in who you are as a person.

The person experiencing shame is often looking at the situation through a negative evaluation of the self. Rather than just taking responsibility for doing wrong, the person may feel as though they are fundamentally wrong.

And with that feeling comes other feelings like worthlessness, mistrust, and distress.

What causes shame?

As has been mentioned, shame is typically a response to the breaking of social norms. We feel shame when we act in a way that society as a whole deems undesirable or unacceptable.

But that’s not the end of it. Shame can also be felt when we perceive that others deem us to have done something undesirable or unacceptable, even if we have not.

A person may make an innocent mistake, but if they are then reprimanded for it in front of their peers, it can evoke feelings of shame. They may feel as though they have acted in a way that makes them inferior, even though everyone makes mistakes.

Shame can also come about not when we do something undesirable, but when we think we are undesirable.

A person may feel shame if they are excluded by a group that they were either previously a part of or wish to be a part of. This can make the person feel as though they are unlikeable and somehow “less than.” This can damage their self-esteem and self-worth.

Then there is failure. Some people can bat failure off as something trivial, but many people suffer shame when they fail. To fail infers that you are not good enough to be considered worthy. You fail an exam, you are not worthy of the qualification it relates to. You fail your driving test, you are not worthy of being in control of a car.

Another cause of shame is when our love for someone is not reciprocated. This could be a romantic interest, but it is just as likely to be a family member or friend.

If we feel strongly about someone but they do not feel as strongly, it can make us question ourselves and whether we deserve to be felt strongly about. Perhaps we feel as though we are unlovable.

This unrequited love is one of the roots of toxic shame. If we were not shown sufficient love as a child – if we were rejected or neglected or if our parental figure(s) were absent – we can write ourselves off as broken, flawed, and unlovable.

Toxic shame can also be caused by physical and emotional abuse both as a child and in our adult life. Victims of abuse in a relationship, or of bullying can internalize the messages of their abuser or bully – that they are unworthy of being treated well.

Another cause of shame is mental illness and substance abuse. These life challenges might make us act in ways that do break social norms, but they are not necessarily our fault (or, at least, not entirely). And even if we don’t break any social norms, the very fact that we are aware of these things may make us believe that we are broken individuals.

Shame can also come about when we have certain personal preferences that society deems unacceptable or once deemed unacceptable.

Homosexuality is one example. In many countries it is still highly frowned upon or even illegal. In other countries where it is widely accepted, a person may still feel ashamed of it because of their parents’ views about it, because it contradicts their religious faith, or simply because there are so few people in their local community who are ‘out.’

This list of causes of shame is not exhaustive. These are just some examples of how shame can come about.

Shame offers us a sense of control over unpleasant feelings.

Shame can be an easy mechanism to blame oneself and explain why things seemed to go wrong. It’s much easier for a person to tell themselves that they are a bad person instead of embracing the negative feelings that everyone must navigate eventually.

A person can cover up their feelings of heartbreak, grief, loneliness, loss, or helplessness by drowning them in their own shame.

If only I had done more…

If only I had been better…

If only I had reached out…

All of these things are much easier to swallow than the lack of control we might have over a situation.

Sometimes relationships don’t work out. Sometimes jobs fall through. Sometimes health fails. Sometimes you lose a loved one in a way that is entirely beyond your control.

It doesn’t matter what we should’ve done, because it’s now in the past. All we have to do is deal with the unpleasant feelings of the thing that happened, which we can’t do if we use shame to smother and avoid those feelings.

Shame gives us a sense of control over other peoples’ feelings.

Shame gives us an unhealthy option to overrule what other people actually think and feel.

A person may feel ashamed because of the bad choices that they made and decide that they are a lesser person for making those decisions, but their loved ones may not feel that way. Their loved ones may understand that they were struggling or trying to be better but just had a hard time succeeding.

To use shame in this way is to invalidate the feelings and perceptions of other people. Guilt and shame do often walk hand-in-hand when it comes to matters like mental illness or substance abuse. Feelings of being broken or unworthy can plague the person who is trying to recover and live a healthier life.

That can be much more difficult if the person can’t accept that the people around them can forgive them or understand that they have a hard time sometimes.

Shame in this context is unhealthy. We don’t get to choose how other people feel about us. We can only respond to those feelings, remedy the situation, and try to heal it as much as we can.

Can shame be a good thing?

Shame is positive in that it helps to guide us toward socially acceptable behavior that lets us preserve our place within our tribes.

A person who doesn’t feel shame or guilt about anything is going to do some very ugly things because they aren’t concerned at all with how their actions will affect the feelings of other people.

A feeling of shame may be a pointer that there is something in the way you conduct yourself that needs to be corrected.

However, shame can also be unhealthy. It’s worth examining why you feel ashamed and what the end result of that shame is.

People who are living with toxic shame from abusive situations, addiction, or traumatic experiences will have unreasonable shame reactions to reasonable situations.

The shame you experience might not be healthy because it’s not derived from a healthy sense of self. If your sense of self is overly negative or skewed, then you may feel shame for things that are not your responsibility at all.

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