Shame is an emotion that informs us of “an internal state of inadequacy, unworthiness, dishonor, regret, or disconnection” (Lamia, 2011). Shame often feels like an intense form of embarrassment. It signals to us that our “feel good” state has been interrupted. It often motivates us to “shut down” via isolation, withdrawal or act out in dysfunctional ways. It eliminates our self-esteem in the context we’re in at the time, and it can be generalised to other (or all) situations .
People – especially people we admire or respect – can trigger shame in us, but so can a failure to meet our own circumstances, ideals or standards. When we have the perception that “I am flawed. I am not good enough. I am useless” (et cetera) it motivates us to hide or to do something to “save face” and not feel the shame. A maladaptive reaction to shame is avoidance. Avoidance can lead to social withdrawal, self-harm, or to addictions which is a maladaptive response to protect the self from further feeling shame. It may also be a form of self-punishment.
It is considered to be an adaptive, healthy response to shame when we’re able to esteem ourselves from within. We know our own value, worth, and abilities.
The gift of shame is that it keeps us humble. Shame reinforces that we are fallable humans – we’re not perfect. We are not God’s. This keeps the ego in check. Often, a person who feels toxic levels of shame will take on the mindset of better than or less than.