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Are Embarrassment and Shame the Same?

I was presenting a workshop with my colleague Dr Marcela Matos recently at a conference for Compassionate Mind Italia, organised by the wonderful CFT therapist and trainer Dr Nico Petrocci. Our workshop was on working with shame memories using compassion focused imagery and letter writing. I think you might be able to access the conference recordings here.

Anyway, we were asked a very interesting question which I thought I would share with you all, and see what you think.

Are embarrassment and shame the same thing?

So, embarrassment and shame belong to the same class, if you like, of human emotions, that is the self-conscious emotions related to our human capacity for self-awareness and sense of self as an ‘object in the minds of others’. We worry about what others think! It determines our place in the group, where we are in the hierarchy, and how safe and secure we feel.

Self-conscious emotions were evolutionary adaptive, because if we didn’t monitor ourselves and have a sense of how we might be seen by others, then the risk was being down-ranked in the group, potentially cast and, and then alone in the wilderness where would face certain death.

Serious stuff!

The Self-Conscious Emotions

There are a number of self-conscious emotions: embarrassment and shame, guilt, humiliation, just to name a few. In fact, if we think about the difference between guilt and shame, then that might give us some clues about the difference between embarrassment and shame.

The old adage is that guilt is I have done something bad, where as shame is I am bad. With guilt, we focus on having caused some sort of harm, and we experience a desire to repair of make amends. We might feel remorseful and sad, or regretful. But guilt is quite activating, motivating us to confess, apologise, make amends and try to do better next time.

On the other hand, shame comes along with a global negative sense of self, perhaps irrespective of any specific behaviours, but rather just a core sense of being inferior, inadequate, unlovable and no good. And with shame, we often experience anxiety, anger and self-disgust. And it is linked with really hostile forms of self-criticism and self-attack, and urges to avoid, hide or even simply disappear.

So, what about embarrassment?

Well, I think that, like guilt, embarrassment is more behaviour focused. Imagine the person walking along looking at their phone and then BOMP, they run into a pole. What’s the first thing they do? They look around to see if anyone saw!

This, I think, is embarrassment. When we do something, not that is bad or harmful, that would be guilt, but something that is silly, foolish, a faux pas or something that might cause others to laugh at us. It’s a lighter touch, more fleeting emotion. And often, later on, we might relate the story to someone else, and even have a laugh at ourselves.

Shame is really uncomfortable, in fact, it is really a very painful emotion. And when ever we are concerned with core parts of ourselves, that something about ourselves, our appearance, abilities, personality and so on, is bad and makes us a bad person, then we are talking about shame.

Embarrassment is common!

You mispronounce an easy word, you trip up the stairs at the cinema, a booger comes out your nose when you laugh, or you forget to do up your fly.

Gosh, I remember running a workshop once, there must have been 30 people there, and at the first break a lovely participant came quietly over and said “I just thought you might like to know that your fly is down.” Embarrassment! But I must admit I have been forever grateful to her for pointing it out!

There you go. Are embarrassment and shame the same? I don’t think they are. But what do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the differences here! Please make a comment, and if you enjoyed this blog, please hit the like button!

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