Although we often think about how social circumstances can influence emotional development, the reverse is also true. Many of the emotions we experience are the result of millions of years of brain evolution. In order to thrive in a social environment, the human brain comes equipped with innate emotional responses designed to help individuals stay in good standing with others (Elison et al., 2014). I bring this up, to talk about one of our most important social emotions: shame.
Shame can be broadly defined as the negative emotions associated with a perceived personal mistake/failure. Often, this emotion is triggered by the violation of one’s own moral code or the social norms of a community (Terrizzi & Shook, 2020). In order for one to feel shame, one must have the capacity to reflect on their own actions. Developmentally speaking, we gain the ability to experience shame at about 18 months. In fact, we are able to feel shame, before we are capable of feeling guilt (Neborsky, n.d.)!
So what exactly is going on in our brain when we experience shame? Well, neuroimaging studies of individuals actively experiencing shame have found increased activation of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) which is involved in social and emotional processing, and the parahippocampal gyrus which is involved in contextual processing of emotional memories (Aminoff et al., 2013; Lavin et al., 2013; Michl et al., 2012).
While shame is can sometimes be a helpful reminder to do the right thing, it can very easily become pathological. Chronic shame can be debilitating and an underlying factor in many psychiatric disorders such as eating disorders, PTSD, and OCD (Dolezal & Lyons, 2017). If you battle with shame on a daily basis, it’s a good sign that you may need a little extra help, which is A-O-K in my book!