Shame: The Quintessential Emotion
It’s the quintessential human emotion, says New Brunswick, N.J., psychologist Michael Lewis, Ph.D., in his writings.
All extravagant behaviors are reactions to it, says Philadelphia psychiatrist Donald I. Nathanson, M.D.
It’s the root of dysfunctions in families, says Montpelier, Vt.-based Jane Middelton-Moz, author of “Shame & Guilt: Masters of Disguise.”
After decades of obscurity — spent, Middelton-Moz says, confused with and overshadowed by guilt — shame is increasingly recognized as a powerful, painful and potentially dangerous emotion,- especially for those who don’t understand its origins or know how to manage it.
A Complex Response
According to Alen J. Salerian, M.D., psychiatrist and medical director of the Washington, D.C., Psychiatric Center Outpatient Clinic, shame is a complex emotional response that all humans acquire during early development. “It’s a normal feeling about ourselves and our behavior,” he said, “not necessarily a symptom of an illness or pathology. In many situations, it’s abnormal if we don’t experience it.”
Embarrassment and shyness, for example, are two forms of shame that seldom cause trouble — unless they’re extreme or long lasting. And humility, another of the forms shame can take, is generally considered socially desirable.
But there’s mounting evidence that problems occur when shame or humiliation becomes an integral part of a person’s self-image or sense of self-worth. Over the past two decades, psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals have reported that abnormal styles of handling shame play an important role in social phobias, eating disorders, domestic violence, substance abuse, road rage, schoolyard and workplace rampages, sexual offenses and a host of other personal and social problems.