There’s a lot of confusion about shame. On one hand, a life filled with shame for your mistakes and failings may be a life wasted.On the other, everyone reviles a psychopath who commits a crime yet feels no shame. So, is shame necessary? And how can it be both good and bad?

The answer is that there are two types of shame. John Braithwaite, an Australian criminologist, wrote an influential book called “Crime, Shame and Reintegration“. He describes two different experiences of shame: reintegrative shaming and stigmatic shaming. The type of shame you go through when you do something wrong makes a profound difference to the way you feel and act in future.

Reintegrative shaming means that you’re ashamed of what you’ve done. You understand that your actions hurt other people in specific ways, and you look for ways to make things better. You understand that what you did was wrong, but you also recognize that you’re still able to get things right in future.

Examples include fat-shaming someone for being overweight or laughing out loud to humiliate a coworker who made a mistake.

Stigmatic shaming means that you’re ashamed of yourself. You see that you’ve hurt others by the way you acted, and you believe this is because you’re a bad, hurtful or damaged person.

Because you’re at fault, the only way to make things better is to become a different person, however impossible that seems.

As an example, imagine that you’ve been unfaithful to your partner. You know it was wrong and you decide to admit what you’ve done and face the consequences.

If your partner decides that they’ll never be able to trust you again, that’s stigmatic shaming.

They have made a judgement that you’ve been untrustworthy in the past, you’re untrustworthy now and you will continue to be untrustworthy for the rest of your life.

On the other hand, if your partner explains how much you’ve hurt them but is prepared to believe that the infidelity was a one-off occurrence, that’s reintegrative shaming. It doesn’t mean that your partner isn’t angry or hurt, but the problem is the infidelity, not you. If you can show that you’ve left the infidelity behind, your relationship can still flourish.

This experience of shame doesn’t have to be between two people. Even if nobody else knows what you’ve done, you will still feel ashamed of your actions or ashamed of yourself.

Feeling ashamed of what you’ve done gives you a chance to forgive yourself, to learn from your mistakes and to move on.

Feeling ashamed of yourself means waking up each morning aware of the fact that you’re not the person you want to be. In the long term this can lead to mental health problems, social isolation or presenting a false identity to the world in the hope that people will like you.

Reintegrative shame is important. You (and everyone else) should have a sense of shame when you know you’ve deliberately done something wrong.

You should be able to take responsibility for your actions and understand that you’ve hurt people, then be prepared to make things right if possible and to move on.

Stigmatic shame labels you as a bad person, damages your relationships and reduces your capacity for growth. Being ashamed of what you’ve done and being ashamed of who you are might seem superficially similar, but the ways they affect your future are profoundly different.

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