“Shame” is now a verb in therapist circles. It’s usually one we use pejoratively. We scold others for shaming, apparently with no sense of irony. We shame people for shaming other people.
As a noun, shame refers to a sense of sadness and embarrassment upon recognizing (or being told) that you’ve done something wrong. Cultures around the world understand the concept. We can safely say that experiencing shame is part of being human.
But as we do with anger, therapists often treat shame as if it were toxic even in small doses. Shame is actually a useful and necessary experience. We should teach clients how to use it effectively with others, and how to handle it themselves.
(An important caveat here. Some forms of shaming are indeed inappropriate and worthy of judgment. “Slut-shaming,” where women are judged for having sexuality, is deeply misogynistic no matter who is doing it. “Body-shaming” is similarly problematic.)
As a verb, to shame is to cause others to experience shame. It’s a useful way of influencing others’ behavior, letting them know when they have crossed personal or social boundaries. It’s a good thing when someone feels shame upon realizing that they, without intention, crossed such a boundary. It shows their desire to be good, to act in ways that maintain good relationships. The experience of shame can help cement a memory of that moment, such that the person knows not to cross that same boundary in the future.
Some draw a distinction between embarrassment (the sense of having done something socially wrong) and shame. In the eyes of those making the distinction, shame is deeper than embarrassment, and involves a sense of being something wrong. But this is a distinction without much of a difference. It’s a way of saying that experiencing embarrassment too deeply — or taking someone’s attempt to correct your behavior too personally — means it was the person setting the boundary who did something wrong. It avoids any need to take responsibility for the initial mistake.
This distinction, where embarrassment is seen as OK but shame is not, can even be framed as part of a tendency among some therapists to discourage clients from deep experience of any negative emotions, no matter how potentially useful that experience might be.
If your self-esteem is intact, you can feel shame once in a while and learn a great deal from it. It’s an important part of child development, and it doesn’t entirely go away once we become adults. We all make mistakes. It’s appropriate, especially for loved ones, to challenge not just our behavior but also the underlying morality of that behavior. That can be deeply painful, and also incredibly helpful.
Of course, shame shouldn’t be an everyday experience. No one wants someone we care about to solidify a belief that their personhood is bad. But shaming someone for having done something so inappropriate or hurtful that you find it morally wrong? It’s fine. It’s necessary, even. (Here’s an example of me, quite intentionally, shaming training sites for doing something I believe is wrong.) And when done appropriately, therapists should not be discouraging it.