Shame: from the evolutionary function to psychopathology

The shame is an emotion that falls in the set of those that have been defined secondary emotions. These emotions unlike the primary ones ( anger , fear, sadness , joy, surprise, contempt, disgust ) seem to develop thanks to the interaction.

The shame in fact to be proven requires physical or mental presence of a reference group, or at least the rules of conduct to be followed. In general, shame is defined as a sudden emotional activation linked to being exposed to negative judgment from others.

How shame works

According to the psycho-evolutionary approach, that is the branch of psychology that adopts Darwin’s evolutionary theory as a key to understanding the psychological processes, the emotion of shame has developed in order to guarantee the permanence of the individual within of their social group of reference.

In general, the drive of the human being to present a positive image of himself to others has played a fundamental role in the evolution of our species. Being welcomed by your group meant securing access to resources otherwise unattainable individually. The proximity of the other not only guarantees material goods, but allows to satisfy fundamental psychological needs such as safety, emotional regulation and self – esteem . It is clear, therefore, how maintaining a good self-image in the other’s mind is a priority for the human being.

The emotion of shame seems to be connected to maintaining that image, acting as an internal signal that indicates when our social image could be threatened.
When this image is questioned and the person perceives a threat to the way in which it is seen by others, the brain activates a set of physiological reactions in the body that lead to a characterized state which we attribute the name of shame .

Parallel to bodily sensations, the state of shame favors the emergence of thoughts and mental images centered on the theme of rejection by the other up to the actual attack as they are considered weak and defective (Gilbert, 2000, 2002). The person who feels intense shame lingers in thoughts in which his or her social image is irremediably compromised and is convinced that it will be found to be lacking in terms of skill, talent or aesthetic appeal (Gilbert, 1997).

The function of shame , however, does not end in its ability to signal a threat to the social image, but similarly to other emotions it motivates actions that can reduce this threat. In this way, the state of shame activates a set of behaviors aimed at communicating submission and pacification to the other with the aim of re-establishing the relationship.

Some examples of these behaviors are drooping of the head, avoiding eye contact, running away or the urge to hide. These actions are aimed at interrupting a possible escalation or defusing an interpersonal conflict that would see the person victim of social rejection and therefore exclusion (Gilbert & McGuire, 1998; Gilbert, 2002).

The shame experiences are characterized by being in situations where the person has been criticized, rejected, excluded or ignored by others. Such experiences are cognitively processed and lead to the construction of an idea of ​​oneself as unattractive, undesirable, defective or unlovable (Gilbert, 1998, 2003). Some examples of such experiences may be being told: “I think you are better than that”, “If you get fat you will not find anyone who loves you”.

The literature shows how when there is an absence of warmth and security in relationships or a high dose of threat, shame or submission, they can lead to an underdevelopment of the emotional system that regulates positive emotions thus resulting in fear-based submissive behaviors. of rejection.

Human beings, as mammals, possess the capacity and evolutionary drive to attach and protect their offspring. This drive finds a symmetrical and complementary response in the tendency of the offspring first and then of the adult, to respond positively to social and physical signals of closeness, care and affection. Some authors have hypothesized that these signals activate a particular emotional regulation system called the “Affiliation system”.

The ability to use and activate this system develops during childhood thanks to positive, safe and validating interactions with relevant reference figures. In this way the person develops memories and emotional regulation skills that will make him feel confident and able to manage his emotions (including shame ). However, if such experiences have not been made, the affiliation system seems to have been unable to perform its tranquilizing function in the adult individual.

Insecure children represent others as threatening by becoming extremely attentive to social rank by focusing on the possibility that others control them, hurt them and reject them. In this context, once they grow up they will develop defensive strategies aimed at self-criticism to prevent attacks and social rejections, thus making adults hypersensitive to experiences of shame .

Typology of shame

To date, two types of shame have been identified which, although interacting, try to explain the complexity of the emotional experience experienced when the human being is ashamed.

External shame: it originates from thoughts and images of ourselves in the other’s mind. It is linked to the idea that others see us negatively (unattractive, reputable, weak) and have feelings of anger and contempt towards us. When the emotion of external shame is activated, the world is represented as threatening favoring the emergence of protective behaviors similar to those mentioned above, such as avoidance, withdrawal and escape. The activation of external shame seems to be connected to a momentary dysregulation of the ability to process information from the outside resulting in the common experience of mental emptiness. The focus is on the contents present in the mind of the other than oneself.

Internal Shame: This type of shame is about how the person sees himself in the light of his own eyes. It has its roots in the development of self-awareness and in the assessments that the person has with respect to their way of being. The person considers himself inadequate, bad, deficient or defective; it tends towards self-evaluation and self-criticism. The person becomes his own judge by performing the function that others have in the emotion of external shame .

It is clear that the two types of shame are largely overlapping and can interact and reinforce each other. In particular, internal shame seems to be an innate mechanism that allows us to protect ourselves from external shame .

When the person finds himself in situations that could damage the idea that others have of him, external shame would be activated which, in order to be managed, would favor the emergence of internal shame in order to protect the person from ridiculous actions or behaviors. In fact, it is better to be hard on yourself and protect yourself than to be exposed to ridicule in front of others.

However, if this strategy is effective in the short term, the secondary effect is that of building a threatening external world and an aggressive, hostile and devaluing internal world. Under this type of threat (external and internal) the person feels overwhelmed and helpless, unable to find a safe place to take refuge.

At that point the same emotion of shame and the feeling of inferiority become the object of ruminative activity which is associated with depressive symptoms .

Shame and psychopathology

The shame is associated with some psychopathological symptoms, in particular eating disorders , social anxiety , depression , disorder, post-traumatic stress .

The excessive tendency to be subject to feelings of shame has been identified as a result of a negative self-idea that has been internalized through early social experiences.

Although shame is conceptualized as an adaptive emotion as it promotes prosocial behaviors, its dispositional form, hence the chronic tendency to experience shame , has been shown to be associated with maladaptive behaviors, anger and aggression.

According to Lewis, anger would be activated as a defensive and reactive response to feelings of shame. Thanks to the angry reaction directed towards others, the person acquires a partial sense of control and relief with respect to the threat of social rejection resulting from the experience of shame. Shame would serve as a signal to communicate to ourselves that there is a threat to one’s social status.

In this sense, there are two possible answers: accepting the new lower social status by communicating it with verbal and non-verbal expressions of submission or trying to maintain one’s status by increasing social attractiveness or through aggressive and angry behaviors.

Although shame is an adaptive and fundamental emotion for individual development, the literature has emphasized how when it becomes a persistent and dominant emotion within the life of the individual it leads to maladaptive and pervasive results (Gilbert, 1998; Kaufman, 1989; Lewis, 1992; Mills, 2005; Schore, 1998), deserving clinical attention and a consequent psychotherapeutic intervention aimed at understanding its origins and reducing its intensity.


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