Embarrassment & Shame

In our research centre, we have a  birthday tradition that I learned during my time as a postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Marsha Linehan. On our birthdays, we have to answer three important birthday questions: What are we most proud of from the last year? What are we most looking forward to over the next year? What is the most embarrassing thing that has happened over the past year? As you can imagine, this birthday tradition is both fun and, for some, incredibly anxiety provoking. Even before people get to the question about the most embarrassing thing, they often feel embarrassed about talking about what they’re proud of. This is rather interesting, in that pride is often considered the opposite of shame (which is related to embarrassment). The way we think about shame in DBT is that shame evolved to help us remain connected with important people or groups. Back when our survival was critically dependent on our ability to maintain harmony and order in our social relationships, it was dangerous and potentially deadly to transgress against one’s social group. If you violated an important rule or norm of the group or possessed some characteristic that the group found undesirable or threatening, you were in danger of becoming separated from that group. And, it was incredibly hard to survive alone (it still is, but perhaps for different reasons). The value of shame in that kind of environment is that it makes you feel like doing things that might protect you against being rejected by the group. For example, when people feel ashamed, they often feel like hiding averting their eyes, lying or misleading people about what they might’ve done or about certain personal characteristics, and so on. Shame also can prompt behaviours like apologizing and attempting to atone for perceived wrongdoings. Given all of this, why would someone feel embarrassed or even ashamed to talk openly about things they are proud of? While expressing a certain degree of pride may have social benefits, possibly by affirming or elevating your status (see some interesting work by Dr. Jessica Tracey on this topic: http://ubc-emotionlab.ca/), discussing your accomplishments could also elicit envy among others. And, envy could be a dangerous emotion. Envy often comes along with a sense of resentment that others have things that you don’t have. Envy could also have evolved as a mechanism to either protect or attain important resources. Considered in this manner, it could be dangerous to make others envious, as they might attempt to take or undermine what you have. Indeed, one of the tendencies that goes along with envy is called “schadenfreude,” or deriving pleasure from the misfortune of others. Although this is perhaps not the most optimistic note on which to end a blog before the long weekend, I will stop here for now and return to this topic next time. ~ Alexander L. Chapman, Ph.D., R.Psych.