Why are people ashamed

Why shame is a good thing

The middle blouse button is peeling off in the canteen, of all places. The teacher criticizes the shortcomings of the German essay in front of the whole class. Ticket control, forgot ticket. The result in all cases: shame. Everyone knows them, experiences them, for a lifetime. Professional failure, obesity, poverty, and unemployment can trigger deeper and lasting shame.

"Feelings of shame are among the strongest, most uncomfortable and intimate human emotions," says Dr. Udo Baer, ​​body therapist from North Rhine-Westphalia, who has written a non-fiction book on the subject. Anyone who is ashamed has been hit to the core. He wants to dissolve immediately, sink into the ground, crawl under the carpet fringe, stick his crimson head in the sand. But the body shows the exact opposite. By blushing, our insides turn outwards. The shame becomes visible. For all. How embarrassing!

Shame protects our intimacy

At the moment, however, the shame threshold seems to be falling dramatically: On television, young people allow themselves to be humiliated in front of an audience of millions; married couples abuse one another on talk shows; Internet blogs openly reveal the most intimate secrets. "The publicly practiced shamelessness leads to natural shame gradually losing its value," fears Dr. Bear. But this is important because it protects the limits of our intimacy - and the limits of others. "If I happen to find my daughter's diary, I am embarrassed. This uncomfortable feeling leads me to put the book back without looking in, so as not to violate her privacy."

Do we really feel less shame today than before? On the contrary, claims social psychologist Dr. Brené Brown from the University of Houston. Especially among women, shame has grown into a "social epidemic", is their conclusion from a survey of hundreds of women. "We are ashamed because we believe that we are too fat, bad mothers, not sexy enough." Behind this is the fear of not being enough. Shame triggers perfectionism, addiction, anxiety disorders, feelings of guilt, aggressiveness and the embarrassment of others. They change relationships, families, societies, "without our being aware of it."

Shame is deeply human and holds the community together

One thing is certain: the ability to feel shame is exclusively human. It is probably in our genes, its external signs are universal: blushing, lowered gaze, sagging shoulders, sunken chest. Unlike emotions such as fear or anger, the feeling of shame has to mature first. According to the researchers, from around two years of age, when the toddler becomes aware of his or her individuality, it is capable of being ashamed.

Why do we need this feeling? For Daniel Fessler of the University of California, shame has been the "crucial mechanism for establishing and maintaining group collaboration since early human history." The tormenting emotion drives you to adhere to the applicable norms. This ensures that they remain in the group - and thus their survival. Inwardly, shame works like an alarm bell, outwardly it appeases: Look, I've broken a rule and I'm not doing well with it. No more punishment is necessary.

American judicial authorities, for example, want to use this effect when they impose shame on delinquents instead of imprisonment or a fine. Like in Florida, where suitors caught working with a prostitute are shown on television. Meanwhile, the city of New York plans to publicly display photos and names of notorious rascals.

Ashamed of others: We are embarrassed by the embarrassment of others

That sits, not only with the traffic offender. Because embarrassment often attracts larger circles: the wife, whose husband misbehaves at the party, is ashamed of her husband because she assumes that both are perceived as belonging together. Another variation, being ashamed of complete strangers, is particularly cultivated on television and has meanwhile become so widespread that the term "foreign-feeling ashamed" has already made it into the dictionary. The psychologist Sören Krach and his team from the University of Marburg have used imaging methods to prove that the embarrassment of others is embarrassing in the truest sense of the word, i.e. it really hurts. Accordingly, when others are ashamed, the same areas of the brain are activated as when feeling sorry for the physical pain of others.

Shame is the glue that holds the community together. But it also harbors risks and side effects, including for health: Shame contributes to the fact that many people avoid medical check-ups. You avoid the check for the early detection of skin cancer, cancer screening by a gynecologist or urologist; Teenagers risk illness and unwanted pregnancies because they are embarrassed about using a condom. Professor Emily Merrill from Texas Tech University also found that overweight women often hesitate for a long time to seek medical help when they are ill because they are ashamed of their fullness.

When feelings of shame and guilt make you sick

Excessive feelings of shame make the soul sick. Shame settles on life like powdery mildew, dampens joy, slows down the vigor. The result: social withdrawal and isolation. Often shame occurs in a double pack with feelings of guilt. "Anyone who feels shame feels at that moment as worthless, inadequate, wrong. Feelings of guilt refer to having done something wrong," says therapist Dr. Udo Baer. Often patients come to his practice who feel dominated by strong feelings of shame and guilt, "Their mind tells them that these feelings are not in proportion to the trigger."

Therapy is, among other things, about strengthening one's sense of self-worth - and appreciating the positive aspects of shame. "Shame is the protective shield of our intimacy, we need it," says Dr. Bear. The psychologist Matthew Feinberg from the University of California at Berkeley sees it similarly. In a study he found that people who are easily embarrassed are perceived as more trustworthy, personable and more generous compared to more "unmoved" people. Feinberg's conclusion: "Our data shows that shame is a really good thing and not something that should be combated."