Shame by Dr Joseph Burgo (Extract)

Posted by Dr Joseph Burgo
12 July, 2019

Imagine yourself at a social gathering with people you recently met and whose company you enjoy. Conversation is lively; everybody appears to be having a good time. When another guest makes a comment that reminds you of a funny story you once heard, you take advantage of the natural opening and begin to recount it. Because you remember how much you laughed when you first heard the story, you look forward to sharing your enjoyment with these new friends.

As you glace from face to face, anticipating their laughter, you finally reach the conclusion of your story.


After a moment somebody says, “Oh, I see—that’s funny.” Still, no one laughs.

You suddenly feel yourself blushing as your face goes hot. You glace down and avoid making eye contact with any of the other guests. You feel briefly confused, your thoughts unfocused and disorderly. You wish you’d never told the story and that you could disappear. When another guest changes the subject and conversation moves on, you feel relieved that group attention has shifted, and you soon recover. No more than seven or eight seconds have passed since you finished your story.

What is the name of the emotion you felt when that story fell flat?

If I tell you that you felt a type of shame, you’ll probably object by saying, “That’s not shame, that’s embarrassment.” Most people react this way when I use the world shame to describe such an experience. They might insist there’s no reason to feel shame about something so minor. Everyone occasionally tells a joke that turns out to be a dud. Embarrassing, of course, but nothing to feel ashamed about.

Yet, from Darwin onward, researchers who study biology of emotion widely agree that the mental and physiological symptoms you experienced during those awkward seconds unambiguously denote the emotion of shame. Human beings everywhere, in every culture and on every continent the world over, experience shame in exactly the same way: gaze aversion, brief mental confusion, and a longing to disappear, usually accompanied by blushing of the face, neck, or chest.

What scientists understand and believe about shame differs broadly from the way a layperson conceives of it. Most people tend to view shame as something big and bad, a toxic emotion we hope never to feel – SHAME written in scary capital letters…

In contrast, researchers who study the emotions, including me, conceive of shame as more varied in nature and not always so imposing—an entire family of emotions, as Léon Wurmser describes it in The Mask of Shame. To feel shame can be agonizing or just slightly unpleasant; it might be transient or enduring…

Most preeminent books in the field of popular psychology, some of which you may have read, focus on SHAME as a largely destructive force. This book will introduce you to the entire shame family of emotions (including embarrassment, guilt, and self-consciousness), which are unavoidable aspects of everyday life and not always toxic. You will learn to recognize the ways we typically speak of shame without ever using the word itself. When we say that we feel bad about some aspect of ourselves, for example—our bodies, our behavior, or our failures—we’re usually alluding to some member of the shame family of emotions…

However we respond to it, each and every one of us deals with the shame family of emotions on a daily basis… As psychoanalyst and shame expert Donald Nathanson has described it, shame in all its varieties “is the hidden power behind much of what occupies us in everyday life.”

To help you enter more fully into this perspective, I invite you to consider and eventually shed a few preconceptions about shame that most of us share. Or perhaps you might reserve those preconceived views for SHAME and make room for a new concept: everyday, ordinary, and inevitable shame.

Copyright Watkins Publishing 2019

This extract was featured in the Spring 2019 Cygnus Review. Shame by Dr Joseph Burgo is available for purchase from Cygnus Books.

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