Guilt, which carries with it a motivation to improve behavior in the future, can have a developmental aspect. Shame, on the other hand, is an emotion that is much more unpleasant and harder to bear. Is it possible to get rid of it?
We experience emotions throughout our lives. We start to feel them already in the prenatal period and from that moment until death, emotions will be with us through good times and bad. However, emotional functioning is not fully developed at birth. It takes several years for the range of emotions we feel and our ability to control our emotions to mature.
The first emotions that a newborn experiences are relatively uncomplicated and arise in response to simple stimuli. After birth, a person is capable of feeling only two very general emotional states – pleasure and dissatisfaction. After a few more weeks, joy, disgust, sadness, surprise, and fear begin to emerge. However, the matter becomes more complicated in the second year of life when a child begins to experience jealousy (when someone has something we want) and embarrassment (when someone focuses their attention on us in an undesired way). The class of feelings that includes jealousy and embarrassment are self-awareness emotions, which require the ability to focus on oneself and one’s internal experiences. For a child to be jealous of something, they must realize that they do not have something attractive that another child has, and that it would be great to have it too. In the second year of life, the range of emotions becomes even more varied when a child learns what other people expect from them or begins to expect something from themselves. This type of self-awareness emotion is called evaluative emotions. What emotion will a seven-year-old feel if they accidentally spill carrot juice on their mother’s favorite dress? Will they feel ashamed? Or will they feel guilty? Well, the matter is much more complicated, as complex emotions like shame and guilt require the presence of other people or at least their image in our minds. This makes us very different from each other in terms of when and how we experience these emotions.
NORMS, RULES, AND GOALS
Michael Lewis, one of the most renowned researchers of emotional development, believes that experiencing shame and guilt in children and adults requires knowing what norms exist (both our own and others’), what rules we should follow, and what goals we want to achieve. These are extremely social emotions. It’s important to note that it’s not just a matter of simple recognition of these standards, rules, and goals.
First, let’s note that social interactions and the course of meetings with people are based on certain scripts that show us how we can/can’t and should/shouldn’t behave. Through socialization, we learn how to behave in a store, at a celebration, and on a romantic date with someone we don’t know well. When everything goes according to plan, we usually experience positive emotions. We feel like everything is as it should be. However, sometimes the situation goes awry: the rule as well as our goal expectations are not met. They want to shake hands and we kiss them, and in the end, they blush and look like they’re about to fall to the ground. The first step towards feeling shame or guilt is assessing whether we are responsible for what happened. It’s no surprise, then, that shame is a much more unpleasant emotion and harder to bear when guilt, which has a motivational aspect to improve behavior in the future, can even have a developmental aspect. When analyzing different situations that can cause shame or guilt in someone or ourselves, it’s important to keep in mind that interpreting events as such for which we are responsible leads to a violation of rules or expectations that are the result of our permanent disability or individual behavior, and are only a product of our mental activity.
People differ significantly in their tendencies to use global or detailed attributes, and therefore to experience shame or guilt in situations of failure, lack, or error. Unlike disgust, which arises in response to certain stimuli (odor or taste), shame and guilt are very private and individual emotions. To paraphrase a British proverb, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” it can be said that shame and guilt are a matter of interpretation. It’s no wonder that perfectionists with extremely high standards, which are difficult to implement and also have a strong tendency towards self-criticism, feel shame more often than others. Marcia Webb, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Pacific University, and her colleagues showed in their study that people who typically use a global attribution in situations of failure also suffer from depression more often.