Emotional Education Series Part III(a): Shame

by Jake Wiskerchen

Shame [sheym] noun – the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another

If you have read the previous entries in this series, you already know that emotions have a purpose. That purpose is to tell us something going on in our environment. Emotions in and of themselves are very neutral – neither good nor bad, only informative – yet the definition above implies pain. Why? Pain is subjective, not objective. It perceived as bad, not neutral. Do you agree or disagree?

Here is what I have learned: shame simply tells us that we failed to meet someone else’s expectation(s). The so-called dictionary definition definitely alludes to this but is not as neutral as it probably needs to be. In relation to sadness, which was addressed in Part II, shame occurs when we create or cause sadness in someone else. If a person has an expectation and we fail to meet it, they experience disappointment and we feel ashamed.

For example, picture yourself walking into a McDonald’s for a Big Mac and a Dr Pepper. You are typically not aware of it, but you have an expectation to eat that food you desire. If you order your meal and walk to the soda fountain, you unconsciously expect to stick your cup under the Dr Pepper dispenser and have Dr Pepper flow. Except you get a clear beverage: soda water. They are out of Dr Pepper. Disappointed, you tell the cashier and the cashier replies…

“I’m sorry, we’re out today. The distributor didn’t show up with the syrup.”

I’m sorry. She is taking responsibility for your pain – your disappointment - even though it is not her fault. As the employee wearing the uniform, she feels shame as though she is responsible for your disappointment and is compelled, as if automatically, to offer some sort of condolence for your pain.

That is called guilt.

Read the next entry for the conclusion to this thought.