I've been chewing on the book The Language of Emotions by Karla McLaren a lot, lately. It gives a surprising and (to me) unique perspective on emotions and how they behave when they're able to act in their healthy un-stuck ways ("Flowing" as the book calls it).

Shame in particular was very interesting to me.

First, here's some quick definitions from the book that might not match what you're used to. I'll be using these definitions for the sake of this post.

  • Shame is the emotion you feel when you've done something wrong, feel that you are Wrong, or have gotten one of those messages from others.
  • Guilt is not an emotion, but rather the state of being having done something wrong. Because it's not an emotion (per this definition), we don't discuss it much.

Another common definition of these terms instead call both emotions, and split along the lines "I did something wrong" (guilt) vs "I am Wrong" (shame). This is also a fine definition, but not what the book or this post use. (For example, I think Replacing Guilt is pretty compatible with these ideas, just using different words).

The Types of Shame

Per the book, Shame has three forms (two of which are closely related):

  • Applied Shame / Manufactured Shame
  • Authentic shame

Let's start with the first two.

Applied Shame is what you feel when someone else is shaming you. They are applying shame onto you from the outside. Think of kids making fun of you at school, or parents/authority figures telling you "you did a Bad Thing and you should feel Bad". Social rejection in general also fits, though more loosely.

Manufactured Shame is when you have learned that a behavior tends to result in applied shame, so you automatically manufacture the shame yourself without anyone needing to apply it to you. If for example your parents would shame you thoroughly any time you cried, there's a good chance you internalized that other people see crying as a shameful act, and so you installed a piece of that person into yourself to create the shame on their behalf whenever you would (or do) cry.

So, Manufactured Shame is essentially just Applied Shame that you've implicitly agreed to apply to yourself on others' behalf. Often this response pattern of manufacturing shame lingers from very old wounds.

(I won't be going into detail on how to disown Applied/Manufactured shame in this post because they're hard to summarize succinctly enough to fit within the confines of this post, but please check out Chapter 10, "Building Your Raft" for her techniques on this.)

Authentic Shame, however, comes totally from inside you. It's what you feel when you are about to act against your own values (or have just done so); when you truly think an action of yours is wrongful. When Authentic Shame is flowing properly, it's mild and you may not notice it — but if you bottle or resist it, it can build up and become noticeable (and have stronger physical signs).

Identifying Authentic Shame

The trickiest part of dealing with shame is distinguishing between these types — because the healthy response to each type of shame is very different. And per McLaren's models, Authentic Shame is the only kind that can flow, guiding you in healthy/beneficial ways.

Each emotion in The Language of Emotions comes with "internal questions" that you should ask yourself to investigate the message in the emotion. To distinguish between Authentic and Applied/Manufactured Shame, I've found the Internal Questions for Shame to be very illuminating.

The Internal Questions for Shame are:

  • Who has been hurt?
  • What must be made right?

If the answers are "My friend, and I need to repair the damage I did to our relationship with the wrongful action I just took", and you truly believe that your action was wrongful per your own judgment, then that is Authentic Shame.

Or if the answer is "Myself, and I need to not throw myself under the bus in situations like that", that's also Authentic Shame.

If the answer is more like "Well, nobody, really. And I'm not sure" then this is almost surely an old pattern of Manufactured Shame that's lingering despite not really being attached to reality anymore.

Or if the answer is "My friend, but I really can't think of ways to act more in line with my values here", it may be applied shame coming from your friend (or manufactured shame that just feels like it's being applied by your friend).


A quick aside about applied vs manufactured shame: I think most of the time, when it comes from interacting with someone, distinguishing between the two is difficult and not very helpful. The way to deal with them both is similar, anyway (and it's not to blame the other person for applying shame).


Some examples of this helping my processing recently:

  • Authentic Shame: I notice my teeth feel gross, or my space feels cluttered, and a hint of shame arises, and I notice myself starting to bounce off of it and turn toward a distraction. I ask the Internal Questions, and the answers are "I'm hurting myself, and to make that right I should take care of my body / space better". This is authentic shame because I do really care about those things and am not living up to my own endorsed standards, and once I recognize that the obvious thing to do becomes: brush my teeth / clean up my space. I do that, and then the feeling resolves without becoming anything bigger. This is Flowing Shame, because it did its job and naturally resolved itself when acted upon.
  • Manufactured Shame: I consider dancing, but when I do, I feel a crushing shame that stops me from actually dancing. I ponder the questions. Who would have been hurt by my dancing? Nobody, that's for sure. This is just an old trauma baggage from being made fun of so many times. So, no corrective action necessary there; there's nobody to apologize to. 
    But that gets me thinking — I do feel shame about stopping myself from dancing, because that hurts myself, and what must be made right is I need to rekindle my relationship with my body and movement. That is authentic shame, and noticing the distinction between this and the above manufactured shame drives me to start working more on this disconnect I have with my body.
  • Applied Shame: Fortunately I don't experience this as much these days, so not much to report here.

Obstructed Shame

So what happens if you feel shame, but you don't separate it out, and you don't act on it, and distract yourself by doing something unrelated? It becomes Obstructed, and will tend to increase in intensity until it's dealt with, maybe even becoming chronic if it goes unaddressed for a long time. From The Language of Emotions:

Signs of Obstruction: 
Crippling, repetitive guilty feelings that do not instruct you or heal your relationships; or shamelessness where you are endangered by your own behavior

If your shame doesn't even seem to be "about" anything anymore, or is about everything or is omnipresent, this is a good sign of Obstruction. If you're frequently bouncing off of shame and distracting yourself from it, holding it in stasis, that's another good sign.

Or if you're so tired of your shame that you just barrel past it and act like it's not even there (meaning acting against your own values, at times, because you've blinded yourself to your sense of whether you're doing that), that's also a good sign that your Shame isn't being allowed to inform you, and isn't Flowing.

Both of these have a tendency to make the feeling of shame ramp up in response.

Even if your shame is authentic, or part of it is authentic, if you turn away from it and ignore it (and don't ask the Internal Questions of it), it can get stuck, because it isn't fulfilling its job of informing you on how to change your behavior. And if you aren't asking yourself the Internal Questions, it's very difficult to distinguish between which parts are authentic and which are not, which makes acting on it nearly impossible — because the actions demanded by each kind of Shame are different.

The way out of stuck Obstructed Shame is to pause, turn toward it, and seriously ask yourself the Internal Questions. Make a clear distinction between what is Authentic and what is Applied/Manufactured. Then act on what you learn from it — whether that's by changing your behavior to align better with your values, or recognizing it for Applied or Manufactured Shame and consciously disowning it.


In future posts, I'll talk about:

  • Anger and its relationship to Shame, and in particular in drawing that sharp line between You and Not-You
  • How to disown Applied/Manufactured Shame — For now, though, I recommend just checking out Chapter 10, "Building Your Raft" from The Language of Emotions, which has the specific symbolic-imagery skills she recommends using for all of this.
  • Other specific emotions from the book, as I process them enough to have coherent thoughts on them

Discussion questions

How do you notice and identify Applied/Manufactured Shame? What helps you disown it? How do you relate to your shame?

What other models or techniques about Shame (or Guilt) have you found value in?


Addendum 2021-10-14:

There's a section from the book Loving Bravely that I think captures this well, in which the author (a parent) encourages her child to connect with her own authentic shame, in part by not applying any external shame at all:

Red Light, Green Light

As adults, we take in great quantities of external noise about who we “should” be and how we “should” live. Our world is chock-full of judgments and opinions and advice. This noise can be so loud, in fact, that it is nearly impossible to hear ourselves from within. But I don’t think we start off unable to tune in to ourselves.

I remember playing Chutes and Ladders with my daughter Courtney when she was about six years old. She pulled a fast one, moving her piece an extra spot in order to avoid a dreaded big slide that would knock her from nearly the finish line to nearly the start. I watched her do it, and I could see her choice written all over her sheepish freckled face. I was at a parental crossroads as I contemplated my next move. Luckily, I was experiencing a moment of mama-clarity. I took my turn, quietly and with a neutral face, as I could tell that she was standing at her own crossroads. Within a minute or so, she said quietly, “Mommy, I cheated a little.” I asked her to take a deep breath and be still for a moment, and then said, “Courtney, I’m so glad you’re telling me this. Tell me, how did cheating feel in your body?” “Bad,” she said. “Where did you feel that bad feeling?” “Right here,” she said, pointing to her belly.

I talked to her for a moment about “green light” feelings and “red light” feelings. “Green light” feelings tell you that the choices you’re making are healthy and aligned with the person you are and want to be. “Red light” feelings tell you that the choices you’re making don’t serve you very well and probably aren’t best for you. The sense she got in her belly was clearly a red light feeling.

Did I punish her? Nope. Any desire to teach her some abstract (and external) lesson about how she should behave was trumped by my desire to strengthen her ability to tune in to herself, as I trust that she came into this world with an internal compass. Her life will afford her many moments of choice, and I won’t always be there to praise her “green light” choices and give consequences for her “red light” choices. What will always be there is her gut.


New to LessWrong?

New Comment
6 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:11 AM

The Last Psychiatrist talked a lot about the difference between (his definitions of) guilt and shame. To him (warning: noob summary of very complex ideas coming up), guilt was a thing you felt inside, and shame was the social aspect of it. Most important to his view was the idea that talking among the public, your friends, etc, about things you feel guilty about, converts that guilt into shame, and shame is easier to bear. So in some cases, where you know you've done something seriously wrong, maybe you shouldn't externalize it too much - because that makes it too easy to bear / forget / etc. Here's a good article that uses this perspective of his: https://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2010/12/infidelity_and_other_taboos_me.html

Huh. Yeah, that is interesting, hadn't seen that before.

What that makes me think of with respect to McLaren's definitions is the difference between the appropriate response to authentic shame ("what must be made right?"), and the usual Obstructed response to applied/manufactured shame — what I think of first is doing a sort of "performative penance", to assuage the social aspect and get social forgiveness without making any actual behavioral changes, probably internalizing it for a while afterward.

But McLaren does mention the exact opposite being a possible outcome too, of loudly not paying penance at all and declaring that there's nothing to give penance for anyway, which is what your linked article sounds a lot like. I and the people around me are so used to the first Obstructed response that I wasn't sure what the second would look like exactly, but that article is a great example. I think that's what happens when you decide that all shame, authentic and applied/manufactured, is bad for you and needs to be thrown out all together.

Distinguishing between the types seems to be the main thing that lets you not be racked with external shame while still owning your own authentic shame. (or at least, it's feeling like that for me so far)

(If this seems like I'm going a bit far to try applying this to everything, that's because it's my general strategy when given a new hammer; see what around me is close enough to a nail for it to be useful ;) )

What about the shame that comes with missing an opportunity?

Who has been hurt: yourself, because you can't benefit from that opportunity anymore, and possibly others who also would have benefited.

What must be made right: this is where I get stuck. No future opportunity can replace the one you missed; that cost will never come back. You can you possibly repay it?

Perhaps the thing to make right is to make yourself better able to take advantage of that kind of thing in the future when something similar comes up down the line?

You can always only ever change the future, so mostly I find "what must be made right" is my future behavior around some situation that I've not been acting my best in. I find that really freeing, myself, since it explicitly maps to how there is no sense in beating yourself up about the past as long as you've adjusted your behavior to be better for the future. If you've acted sufficiently on your shame in that kind of way, that's enough to let yourself release your shame because you've done all you can do to make it right.

For social situations where someone specific was wronged, stuff like apologies can help repair past damage, but I think that mostly just applies to social things. Maybe with yourself if you find that helpful to apologize to yourself about things (some might, some won't).

Interesting, thanks for writing this post - I found it valuable. 

It makes me think of some of the work in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) around self-empathy, in particular the process outlined in the book Graduating from Guilt. That book / process starts with a situation where you feel guilty / self-critical / regretful about something, guides you through identifying which unmet needs of yours lie at the root of that feeling, and what requests you can make of yourself to meet those needs. 

I've found it pretty useful, but I like the quick and simple approach of the 2 questions you've highlighted here.

(A somewhat tangential thought on anger vs shame from an NVC perspective - I think anger indicates a situation where you perceive your needs as unmet due to someone else's behavior, whereas shame/guilt arises when your needs are unmet due to your own behavior. I forget whether that is actually something I read in an NVC book or a connection I made myself.)


I'm curious, how successful do you find the following approach to engaging with Manufactured Shame? (Maybe more to come in one of your upcoming posts).

Manufactured Shame: I consider dancing, but when I do, I feel a crushing shame that stops me from actually dancing. I ponder the questions. Who would have been hurt by my dancing? Nobody, that's for sure. This is just an old trauma baggage from being made fun of so many times. So, no corrective action necessary there; there's nobody to apologize to. 

Excited to read your upcoming posts on McLaren's book -- I read it about a year ago, and had a mixed experience of its usefulness, but was also going through relationship stuff that I found intensely difficult at the time, so I'm curious to see if I find it more fruitful now that things in my life are much calmer.

Context on the timing: I wrote that note about dancing shame about a month ago when I first drafted this post, which was maybe a day or two after having that thought initially.

For the shame around dancing, where I'm at right now:

- I was able to stand up just now (in the privacy of my own room) and do some dancing without much shame coming up at all, which wasn't something I could easily do before. I'm actually slightly surprised by that just now; I expected it to be harder/worse before I got up and did it. Other feelings are coming up when I do it more, but mostly not shame, and I think in a good way that might help me process those other feelings. Nice.

- I still definitely expect to have some struggles around dancing around other people; there's still some  trauma-shaped fear of people applying shame, which I don't think is well founded but is there nonetheless. I still have more work to do on that front. Maybe I'll try out dancing with my partner later and see what material I get to work with, there.

But as far as I'm concerned, that result is a huge victory already! Using dance to process other feelings was one of my major [things I want to unlock] goals of late, cause I know dancing can be hugely useful for other people in processing emotions and trauma-stuff in particular. I'll have to play around with that more today and see what I can get from it.

Thanks for asking this question! I hadn't actually queried where I was at with dancing by trying to dance until just now, and didn't expect as much change as there apparently was.