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The Difference Between Shame and Humiliation, and How Compassion and Self-Compassion Can Help.

In previous blogs I’ve spoken about shame, external and internal shame, and I've talked about guilt and where guilt fits in. Most recently I teased out embarrassment. But what about humiliation?

In this blog I'm going to differentiate humiliation from shame, and talk about how and where it fits in Professor Paul Gilbert’s evolutionary biopsychosocial model of shame.

I've mentioned before a seminal book by Tracy, Robins and Tangney back in 2007 called The Self-Conscious Emotions: Theory and Research and in particular a chapter in that book by Paul Gilbert titled The Evolution of Shame as a Marker for Relationship Security. It was in this chapter that Gilbert outlined his evolutionary biopsychosocial model for shame.

Gilbert talks about the evolution of the human brain over 2 million years and certain cognitive competencies that developed, including competencies around social monitoring, self consciousness and self identity. These competencies evolved, of course, to aid in our survival, and the survival of our species. It was important to keep an eye on how we were going terms of our place in the group. All of this gave rise to self-conscious emotions.

In terms of these self conscious emotions, shame is very prominent. We experience external shame, that is a belief that others see us as inadequate, inferior, unlovable, and no good. And we also experience internal shame, which in someways is an internalised, submissive approach to coping with external shame. In internal shame we simply believe ourselves to be inadequate, inferior, unlovable, and no good.

Humiliation is different from shame

Now, this is where humiliation comes into Gilbert’s model, and it is different to shame.

Just by the way, Gilbert has elaborated on distinguishing shame and humiliation in a recent book that you may wish to get your hands on. The 2019 book edited by Mayer and Vanderheiden is delightfully called The Bright Side of Shame: Transforming and Growing Through Practical Applications in Cultural Contexts and Gilbert’s chapter is called Distinguishing Shame, Humiliation and Guilt: An Evolutionary Functional Analysis and Compassion Focused Interventions.

Any way, according to Gilbert's model, humiliation emerges from the same self-conscious, socially competitive dynamics that relate to our place in the group. And there are a number of overlapping features between shame and humiliation. However, according to Gilbert’s model, humiliation differs from shame in some important ways.

So, with shame there is an important element of internalised negative self-judgements even self-disgust and self-hatred. In fact, there is often a sense of self-blame, in other words, we blame ourselves for our perceived defects and painfully identify with the shamed self as if the shame self is the real self. This is not the case for humiliation.

In humiliation, there is external attribution of blame. When we feel humiliated it is the other, the person who has humiliated us, who we see as bad. In fact, our attention becomes focused on the other. We don't necessarily see ourselves as inferior. In fact a common feature of humiliation is a sense of injustice, unfairness, or being wronged.

As a result humiliation is commonly related with desires for vengeance in a way that shame may not be. And so, humiliation often generates aggressive responses directed at the other to restore our status and in a sense to take down the person who humiliated us and perhaps even humiliate them right back.

So in humiliation, we believe that the social put down was unjustified, an injustice, and we feel as if we have been ridiculed, bullied, devalued by others and so on unfairly and unjustly. We have a sense of having been wronged.

How dare you!

In shame, we often experience fear and an urge to hide ourselves away. In humiliation we experience anger and a desire for revenge. According to Gilbert’s model, where internal shame is an internalising, submissive approach response to shame experiences, humiliation is an externalising, aggressive response.

Of course both shame and humiliation come along with a real sensitivity to being put down or judged by others and they both relate to threat protection motives especially protection from social threat. And they both come along with threat system activation, an increase in physiological arousal and a whole range of complex emotions and complex cognitions, such as rumination.

And we can experience both at the same time. We can feel a terrible sense of inadequacy, unworthiness and shame, while at the very same time experience anger, aggression and a desire for vengeance as part of humiliation.

Switching from humiliation to compassion

So, how do we switch out of the competition and threat based motivational and emotional systems of shame and humiliation, and into a caring, connecting, compassionate motivational system?

Well first, remember that we all just find ourselves here, with tricky brains that were designed for us by evolution, not by us. We need to understand the way the mind works, and bring awareness to all of this, that we get caught up in loops of the mind that can be very painful. It makes sense that you might feel shame or humiliation, it’s not your fault, but if we can learn about the mind and learn certain helpful practices, then we can take responsibility for ourselves and our feelings in some very constructive ways.

Second, don’t forget Gilbert’s definition of compassion: a sensitivity to suffering in self and others, with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it. And so, with mind awareness, being sensitive to our own motivational and emotional systems, we can start to “pattern switch”, in other words, switch from the competition and threat-based brain and body pattern to a caring, connecting and compassionate brain and body pattern.

Third, know that there is a link between the motivational and emotional systems that might be activated within us, and a whole range of body-based, imagery-based and behavioural practices…we can use these practices to make a difference. They stimulate the vagus nerve in the central nervous system, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, and thus helping us switch to caring, connecting and compassionate states. Get into an upright, relaxed position, bring a friendly expression to your face, and slow down the breathing…just see how much of a difference it can make!

Oh, and make sure you work with your thoughts, especially the emotional tone of your self-talk. Try to create a warm and friendly voice tone when you are speaking with yourself.

Fourth, start to see if you can create, practice and gradually embody a compassionate self-identity, a version of you that is wise, strong, courageous and commitment to being helpful, to yourself and others. The compassionate self! Doing this can literally transform everything. Humiliation? Anger? Vengeance? No thanks, it simply causes too much suffering all round. Instead, let’s live our lives from a compassionate orientation, with compassionate thoughts, feelings and behaviours wherever possible.

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