Shame and the Self-Conscious Emotions

self-conscious emotions shame on little boy

Have you ever taken a second to pay attention to that little voice inside your head? The one that navigates all of us through our daily life?


Inner Monologue and Self-Talk …

That little voice is often called our “inner monologue” or “self-talk”. And paying attention to that voice can be crucial for identifying internalized shame and other self-conscious emotions. In this article, we will hone in on four self-conscious emotions that are often used synonymously, although they are quite different. We will take a look at what it means to practice vulnerability and why it’s so important..


Self-Conscious Emotions

1. Shame

2. Guilt

3. Embarrassment

4. Humiliation


Why are they called “self-conscious” emotions?

To be “self-conscious” implies an ability to self-reflect and self-evaluate. Which, by nature, requires a sense of self, a set of values and/or standards, and the ability to compare oneself to others. Self-conscious emotions afford us the ability to relate to and judge ourselves against those around us. Additionally, these types of emotions allow us to have an awareness of how other people perceive us.


Definitions from the American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology:


n. A highly unpleasant self-conscious emotion arising from the sense of there being something dishonorable, immodest, or indecorous in one’s own conduct or circumstances.

Shame is typically characterized by withdrawal from social intercourse—for example, by hiding or distracting the attention of another from one’s shameful action—which can have a profound effect on psychological adjustment and interpersonal relationships. Shame motivates avoidance behavior, but also defensive retaliatory anger.



n. A self-conscious emotion characterized by a painful appraisal of having done (or thought) something that is wrong.

Guilt often elicits a readiness to take action designed to undo or mitigate this wrong. It is distinct from shame, in which there is the additional strong fear of one’s deeds being publicly exposed to judgment or ridicule.



n. A self-conscious emotion in which a person feels awkward or flustered in other people’s company or because of the attention of others.

For example, being embarrassed when observed engaging in actions that are subject to mild disapproval from others. Embarrassment often has an element of self-deprecating humor. And it is typically characterized by nervous laughter, a shy smile, or blushing.



n. A self-conscious emotion, similar to shame, that results from being disgraced or criticized.


self-conscious emotions

Guilt often elicits a readiness to take action.

Why is shame the most harmful self-conscious emotion?

It is important to pay attention to our shame because it is possibly the most detrimental emotion we experience. Shame doesn’t motivate us to do better. In fact, quite the opposite. Shame triggers lowered self-esteem and prompts behaviors that reinforce a negative self-image.


Shame is a universal emotion, which means that as long as you are capable of experiencing emotions, you’ve experienced shame.


As a self-conscious emotion, shame incorporates the whole self and is often associated with feeling unwanted, inadequate, or unworthy of love. When we experience shame, it is common to also experience physiological symptoms. A dry mouth, the feeling that time is slowing down, a racing heart, twitching or tunnel vision – similar to symptoms that occur when we have a flight-fight-freeze response to something scary or traumatic. It’s worthy to note that each person responds differently to shame.


What is the difference between Guilt and Shame?

Dr. Brené Brown is a leading researcher at the University of Houston and an expert in the field of shame, vulnerability, courage, and authenticity. Brown says, “Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is, I am bad; Guilt is, I did something bad.”


Psychological research studies have consistently demonstrated a correlation between shame and a variety of mental health problems, including substance abuse, depression, eating disorders, aggression, low self-esteem and isolation. On the other hand, evidence has shown guilt to be inversely related to those problems – instead, guilt is correlated with motivation to change.


I did something bad…

How do Embarrassment and Humiliation tie in?

The words “humiliation” and “embarrassment” are often used interchangeably. But the characteristics of embarrassment are: it’s fleeting and we aren’t alone – others have been there also. Humiliation on the other hand feels lasting, solitary and undeserved. Humiliation often stimulates a similar physiological response to shame (rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, etc.) But with humiliation, we understand it is unmerited.

Embarrassment is brought on by ourselves, whereas humiliation is something that is brought on by others.


How can we reduce our feelings of shame?

Step 1:Try to be aware of and pay attention to your negative self-talk. We cannot address our internalized shame if we are unaware of it or unable to identify it.


Step 2: Identify whether or not your negative self-talk is concentrated on your behavior (guilt) or your whole self (shame). Work to recognize when you’re feeling like you are “not enough”.


Step 3: If you recognize that you are experiencing shame, attempt to identify your trigger(s). Ask yourself questions such as: Who have I felt this way around? What was I doing? What was going on when I felt this way? When did I feel this way? Where was I? Why might I feel shame about that?


Step 4: This part is absolutely critical. Brown’s research has revealed that the most powerful anecdote for reducing feelings of shame is talking about it. You must tell your story to someone you trust; someone who is willing to practice vulnerability; and someone who will meet you with empathy.


Step 5 (Bonus): Practice positive self-talk!

When you catch that voice in your head putting you down, insulting you, or leading you to a fight, flight or freeze response – turn it around. For example, instead of that voice saying things like, “I haven’t accomplished enough, ”say something positive.  For example, “I’ll try to do better next time.” Or say, “I have many accomplishments. And there is plenty of time to set and reach future goals.”


Have you heard that forcing a smile can trick your brain into making you feel happier? Well, several research studies have proved this to be true. If we can trick our brain (so to speak) by faking a smile, then shouldn’t playing the whole “fake-it-till-we-make-it” self-talk card, have some benefits?


How does vulnerability help to manage shame and self-conscious emotions?

Working on addressing and reducing our own internalized shame is not a walk in the park. It might sound simple, “Just share your feelings of shame with someone you trust.” But we all know that some things are easier said than done. Here’s the cold-hard truth… If you don’t practice vulnerability, your shame isn’t going anywhere. But, practicing vulnerability is generally uncomfortable, awkward, and sometimes even anxiety-provoking. Vulnerability is our friend who feels more like a ‘frenemy’.


What does it mean to be vulnerable? Many people think being vulnerable means you exposed, weak, inadequate, or defenseless. However, people who practice vulnerability are usually courageous, brave, and often more resilient for doing so. Practicing vulnerability means revealing your authentic and true self. Flaws, mistakes, regrets, secrets and all.


It is a sincere, honest, and meaningful expression of your deepest thoughts and feelings to someone you trust. The evidence is irrefutable, human beings are hard-wired for connection with other human beings. And the driving force behind connection is vulnerability. Without vulnerability, it is simply not possible to build healthy connections with others.


Be patient and kind with yourself.


So, go out there and be brave.


And be vulnerable.


Create meaningful connections with others. (Even if the connections are virtual!)


And pay attention to your self-talk. Train your inner-monologue to sound more like talking to someone you love and respect. Understand the difference between shame, guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation. And be patient and kind with yourself. Only share your story with someone who has earned the right to hear it.


Lastly, at the end of each day remind yourself, you will never be “not enough”.



The American Psychological Association (APA) Dictionary of Psychology.
Brown, B. (2007). Shame resilience theory. Contemporary human behavior theory: A critical perspective for social work.
Brown, B. (2015). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. Penguin.
Brown, B. (2008). I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from What Will People Think? to I Am Enough. Avery.



Founded in 2015, Sanford Behavioral Health is licensed and accredited as a substance use disorder, eating disorder, and co-occurring mental health treatment facility, serving the state of Michigan and beyond. Each of Sanford’s five facilities in Greater Grand Rapids, is carefully and diligently crafted to create a welcoming and comforting environment. Sanford is led by a growing team of medical, clinical, and support personnel providing medication-assisted, evidenced-based treatment to residential, outpatient and telehealth patients. For more information, visit