Peace Partnership

Is There Such a Thing as Good Shame?

Posted by on May 2, 2016

shame-652499_640If we log on to our Facebook or Twitter account on any given day we cannot help but notice the many articles, podcasts, and videos (TedTalks) dealing with relational and psychological issues.  Brene Brown and Dan Gilbert pop into our media feeds with such regularity that they have become household names. One of the recurring themes we find in these media outlets is the harm involved with shame. It seems our culture is ashamed of shame.

But is all shame bad? Or maybe a better question would be, “Is there such a thing as good shame?”

There is no denying that a certain type of shame is unhelpful in facilitating growth and healing. Studies have revealed that shame can prevent personal growth, result in negative emotions, such as depression and feelings of worthlessness, and can create psychological barriers to addiction recovery (Johnson & Obrien, 939-941).

However, shouldn’t some of our actions and behaviors result in feelings of shame? If I physically abuse my spouse or steal money from my grandma to buy drugs, shouldn’t I be ashamed?

Oftentimes it is how we define terms that are the issue. Emotional terms such as sorrow, regret, guilt, and especially shame, can be very ambiguous. Merriam Webster defines shame as a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong. Current usage of shame in English aims toward an extremely narrow meaning: a crisis of feeling intense disgrace (Scheff, 49).

Shame is harmful when it is associated with negative feelings about the “whole self” rather than specific behaviors. The cliché explanation, which is somewhat true, differentiates good shame and bad shame in this manner. Good shame says, “I did something bad.” Bad shame says, “I am something bad.”  It is true that making judgment statements about our worth as a person, or having negative feelings about our value as a human being, does not result in positive outcomes.

So what should we feel when we do bad things? If someone challenges us about a negative behavior is it really healthy for us to say, “Don’t judge me, shame doesn’t help.” These types of responses usually result in us not wanting to take responsibility for our actions and a desire to mitigate our feelings of sadness, often associated with shame.

But in reality, when we do bad things, it is healthy to feel sadness. The difference between healthy shame and unhealthy shame is the focus. Unhealthy shame is self-centered and focuses on how something affects me. Healthy shame is other-centered and focuses on how my actions affect another person.  Unhealthy shame drives us to isolation and hiding. Healthy shame results in us feeling empathy toward people we might hurt and moves us toward honesty and personal responsibility.

Another benefit of healthy shame is interpersonal connectedness. If I can embrace the sadness I feel when I have hurt someone or made a poor choice, and I am sturdy enough in my view of self not to devalue myself as a person (unhealthy shame), I can receive criticism from others. This means I can become more relational and connected to people who challenge me, even if they are wrong, rather than defend myself and withdraw.

This doesn’t mean we enjoy feeling healthy shame. But we can understand that healthy shame is our friend, urging us to move toward empathy, personal responsibility, and positive relationships.


Johnson, E. A., & O’Brien, K. A. (2013). Self-Compassion Soothes the Savage EGO-Threat System: Effects on Negative Affect, Shame, Rumination, and Depressive Symptoms. Journal Of Social & Clinical Psychology32(9), 939-963. doi:10.1521/jscp.2013.32.9.939

Scheff, T. (2015). What are emotions? A physical theory. Review Of General Psychology19(4), 458-464. doi:10.1037/gpr0000058

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