Garret Hardin's idea that the emotion of shame can help to manage a common resource has always been a favourite for me. Up to 150 people, as Hardin suggested, can help one another do the right thing (for them all) by instilling a feeling of shame in transgressors. Seems he and I have been wrong. Not about the role of shame, but about what to call it. Brené Brown told me so in her TED talk, listening to Shame.

Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is "I am bad." Guilt is "I did something bad." ... Guilt: I'm sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I'm sorry. I am a mistake.

It hadn't really occurred to me before that when I felt ashamed, it was for who I am rather than for what I did. In fact, it has never felt that way, and it doesn't now. Shame and guilt, guilt and shame, for me are not quite synonyms. If I broke a written law that I believed to be wrong, I would be guilty, but I wouldn't feel guilt. Or shame. The same if I broke an unwritten law that I believed to be wrong, I would feel neither guilt nor shame.

Brené Brown 1 may well be onto something, that there is an aspect about how people think of themselves that correlates with all the things she says it does.

Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. And here's what you even need to know more. Guilt, inversely correlated with those things. The ability to hold something we've done or failed to do up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It's uncomfortable, but it's adaptive.

In fact, I am sure she is right. Without doing a huge literature search, it does seem that (some) psychologists distinguish negative behaviour-evaluations from negative self-evaluations -- guilt from shame -- although it is very complex.

I can't help feeling, though, that in her TED talk Brown is doing that thing that psychologists (and other -ists) often do; taking a perfectly good word and giving it a special somewhat technical meaning (intelligence, extravert) and then slightly forgetting to remind people that when she talks about shame she doesn't mean shame, she means "shame," the thing that's measured on her preferred shame scale.

I'm not rejecting the idea at all. In fact, I rather like the distinction, although not sure how I can use it. And I'm not ashamed to say so.

  1. "Ph.D", by the way, everywhere you look; no shame in flaunting it, obviously, though not everyone feels the need to.  

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