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Is shame an emotion or feeling?

Shame is a complex experience that involves both emotional and physical components. Determining whether shame should be classified primarily as an emotion or a feeling has been debated by psychologists and neuroscientists. There are good arguments on both sides of this issue.

What are emotions and feelings?

Before examining where shame fits in, it’s helpful to understand how emotions and feelings are defined:

  • Emotions – Emotions are typically described as brief, intense responses to internal or external events. They involve physiological changes, expressive behaviors, and conscious experiences. Emotions prepare the body for action.
  • Feelings – Feelings are the subjective, conscious experience of emotions. Feelings are the mental portrayal of what happens when emotions are triggered. While emotions represent the physical manifestation, feelings represent the mental component.

So in summary, emotions are more physical, feelings are more mental. Emotions happen to us, feelings are experienced by us. Many researchers argue that emotions must involve physiological arousal to be considered true emotions.

Evidence that shame is an emotion

Here is some of the evidence suggesting shame is primarily an emotional reaction:

  • Shame produces strong physical sensations – Shame often manifests physically through blushing, sweating, racing heart, upset stomach, and a desire to hide. These physical symptoms align with emotional reactions.
  • Shame is instinctual and universal – Shame is experienced by all humans regardless of culture. Like other emotions, shame appears to be innate rather than learned.
  • Shame serves an evolutionary purpose – Evolutionary psychologists argue that shame evolved to promote social cohesion. The discomfort of shame deters behaviors that could undermine social status or acceptance.
  • Shame activates specific brain regions – Neuroimaging studies show shame lights up areas like the anterior cingulate cortex and amygdala that are associated with processing emotions.

Overall, the strong physical component, universal nature, evolutionary purpose, and brain patterns suggest shame is very similar to primary emotions like fear, anger, and disgust.

Evidence that shame is a feeling

On the other hand, some evidence indicates shame may be more akin to a subjective feeling or perception rather than a reflexive emotion:

  • Shame requires self-evaluation – For shame to occur, some level of self-reflection and evaluation of one’s actions against social standards must take place. This cognitive process makes shame more complex than a quick emotional reflex.
  • Shame can involve rational thought – People often think through reasons they are feeling shame and make cognitive appraisals that perpetuate the shame. This suggests a feeling rather than pure emotion.
  • Shame is linked to sense of self – Proneness to shame is connected to having a poorly defined sense of self and lack of self-compassion. Emotions like fear and anger are not so closely tied to identity.
  • Shame motivates concealment – Whereas many emotions motivate expressive displays for communication purposes, shame provokes a desire to hide and cover up one’s defects.

In these ways, shame differs from prototypical emotions and seems to be a more intrapsychic experience of negatively evaluating oneself against standards that does not require a physiological response.

How shame fits into emotion models

To better understand whether shame is an emotion or feeling, it’s helpful to see how different psychology theories categorize it:

1. Basic emotion theory

Theories of basic emotions argue there are six or so primary, innate emotions – things like anger, fear, and disgust. These emotions have dedicated neural circuits and universal facial expressions.

In these models, shame is sometimes classified as a secondary, self-conscious emotion that involves cognitive appraisal rather than a rapid, hardwired reaction. So shame is separate from the primary emotion category.

2. Dimensional models of emotion

Dimensional models view emotions as unfolding on various spectrums, like valence (positive-negative) and arousal (low-high). In dimensional models, shame would likely be categorized as high in negative valence and high in arousal, similar to fear or anger.

This dimensional categorization groups shame closer to primary emotions compared to basic emotion theories.

3. Social constructivist perspective

Social constructivists see emotions as learned and mediated by language, culture, and morality systems rather than biologically hardwired reactions. From this view, shame is not considered a universal emotion but rather a context-dependent feeling shaped by social norms.

Overall, these different frameworks demonstrate there are varied ways shame can be conceptualized in relation to emotions versus feelings.


In summary, there are compelling arguments for why shame could be classified as either an emotion or feeling:

Evidence shame is an emotion Evidence shame is a feeling
  • Produces physical sensations
  • Automatic, universal response
  • Serves an evolutionary purpose
  • Activates emotional brain regions
  • Requires self-evaluation
  • Can involve rational thought
  • Linked to sense of self
  • Motivates concealment

Ultimately, shame is a complex psycho-social-emotional experience that includes both biological and cognitive elements. The intensity of the physical response varies by individual as does the degree of cognitive processing involved. Shame exists on a spectrum between pure emotion and pure feeling, which makes definitively classifying it as one or the other difficult. The evidence suggests shame should be considered both an emotion and feeling rather than strictly one or the other.