Temperament VI, Players: Challenges and Opportunities

This is the sixth in a series of blogs on “temperament,” which is the primary way we understand personality differences in people. Previous blogs have summarized the four temperaments as we seen them: player, analyst, lover, and caretakers. The primary ingredient of a player is his or her desire for experience. You might want to review the player blog (Temperament II) for more information on how players feel, think and operate in life.

Players are loved or hated. They will be entertain you or offend you. They bring much joy and fun to the world, which is their special gift but they get into more difficulties in life than all the other temperaments combined. The difficulties are sometimes of their own making and sometimes from the negative reaction that they so often get from people who simply may not want to play all the time. Our North American culture has long neglected players, and the play they bring to the world. Worse yet, players have been truly despised because of the offense they bring to people, always unintentional. Their cavalier nature leads them to their being judged as irresponsible, disrespectful, or dangerous. Male players are seen as playboys who just want to get all they can from people, while female players are seen as wild women who abandon respectability and responsibility. This judgmental attitude toward players has not helped players mature. It has made them defensive. Worse yet, the offense that players so often give has prevented them from successfully giving to the world what it so desperately needs: fun and joy.

It would be wonderful if players were able to bring to the culture the element of play so as to enhance society and improve society, just as it would be equally wonderful for the world to profit from the gifts that analysts, caretakers, and analysts have for the world. The key for players to succeed in life is for them to understand themselves, value themselves, and successfully communicate themselves. Understanding, valuing, and communicating is a challenge for anyone, but it is hardest for players because they don’t put much effort in communicating. They just engage, experience and excite assuming that their audience will understand their intention to bring fun to the world. For players, fun and the joy that comes with it is what life is about. It is only through painful maturity that players are able to be themselves and find ways to use their gifts, a maturity that many players fail to find. But when players find ways to be themselves while also understanding people of different temperaments, they can be at their best.

Challenges for players

  1. The Boredom Challenge.

Because of their strong inclination towards excitement, players are very inclined to become bored. They are especially bored with anything that is repetitive, largely because something that is repeated is not new. Since so much of normal life requires people to do things repetitively, it can be difficult for players to simply do much of what we consider to be normal and necessary. Players are at their worst when there is nothing new to a procedure, nothing new to a day, or nothing new to an hour. A player’s mantra is something like, “If I have seen it before, heard it before, or done it before, it is boring to see it, hear it, or do it again.” While players can’t tolerate most things that are truly repetitive, they can repeat things that offer some opportunity for change.

When players have not had enough of the new, exciting, and different, they can fall in a boredom so severe that they are depressed. Because their basic nature is so excitement-oriented and based on something new or temporarily different, they are psychologically depleted when they are forced to do the routine and repetitive. They can even become disoriented in life and become quite self-critical thinking that they should be able to do what everyone else seems to be able to do. When players have been in situations that are intrinsically boring to them, they can say or do things that are quite inappropriate or even harmful because they are desperate to get out of their boredom.

  1. The Academic Challenge

Players generally find school to be boring. At least traditional school. The academic challenge is huge for players. School, as we typically know it, is not designed for players. The very nature of sitting in a class for an hour with a teacher lecturing is unnatural for players because it is not experiential and certainly not exciting and adventuresome. Fortunately, alternative schools and online classes have begun to remedy some of this difficulty giving players and other nontraditional students a way to learn. Even so, very nature of the traditional American learning environment does not serve players. Players are usually right brained. We also know that there are many ways of learning, specifically by hearing, seeing, and doing. These ways of learning are usually called auditory (words), visual (seeing), and kinesthetic (hands-on). Most of traditional classrooms focus on hearing and its cognates: writing, reading, and speaking. Ninety percent of school has to do with words, whether spoken, written, or read despite the fact that most people learn by doing (kinesthetic) or watching (visual). Players tend to be in this group.

Players actually learn quite well if they are given a chance to learn the way they learn. Simply put, they need to see things and to touch things. If we would allow for these ways of learning, players would fare much better. But it is no easy challenge for teachers and school administrators to find ways to help player children learn, and ultimately get excited about learning, if learning is going to be primarily words-based. The typical player kid enters a classroom ready to experience something, either personally by engaging physically in the activity or vicariously by seeing someone else engaged in the activity. Consider how hard it would be to teach Shakespeare to a player child who doesn’t necessarily want to learn Shakespearian words, but might be able to really grasp Shakespeare if she could be on the stage. Puck comes to mind again.

My wife, now a PhD psychologist, barely passed classes until late in her High School years when she took a psychology class and got her first academic A. Some of her difficulty in learning was due to the trauma associated with an abusive home life, but much of it was because of her player nature that made traditional learning difficult. Not until college did she learn that she could read well if she read out loud, read while walking, or read while she was signing (American Sign Language). She was liberated by simply having the privilege to roam hallways and city blocks with text books in hand. Player kids need to read a paragraph, get up and do a jig, and then read two paragraphs before looking at the leaves falling outside. If they are allowed this privilege of multi-focusing and multi-tasking, they can read the whole chapter and then the whole book, something Deb does routinely these days. The challenge is for parents and teachers to give players an environment that enhances their ways of learning without indulging their whims and wishes. We will discuss these positive possibilities later in this chapter. In the mean time we want to avoid diagnosing players with one or more commonly used diagnoses.

  1. The ADD challenge

We are all quite familiar with the phenomenon known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and its subcategory ADD (without the hyperactivity component). The principal symptoms of ADHD are impulsivity, distractibility, and hyperactivity. More specifically, ADHD individuals may also “fail to give close attention to details,” “fail to listen when spoken to directly,” “reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort,” and many other behaviors. I think most of the people, both children and adults, who have been diagnosed with one form or another ADHD are players. I would suggest that instead of identifying these people as “inattentive” and unable to focus, we might consider that they might be “multiply-focused” and very attentive…to everything around them. Instead of being “impulsive” and disorderly, we might consider that they are simply seeking experience and excitement.

Deb and I were at a Dane Dance last night, one of the many wonderful opportunities in Madison for summer play. There was a little girl, probably around 10 or 12 who wore a shirt that simply said “This is my summer shirt.” The clincher was that the phase was written upside down! I thought, “yup, a player kid!” Maybe Mom was the player in the family and had the idea of an upside-down writing. Regardless, someone wanted to play with words. Mozart once played the piano while facing outward from the instrument, just to see if he could do it. Players might just learn better upside down or backwards because it is different…not wrong.

  1. The Discipline Challenge

Most people think of discipline as a means of punishment, but etymological root of the word discipline is learning. We get the words disciple (student) discipleship (learning) from the same Latin root. It is helpful to think of discipline as purposeful and active learning done with a certain effort and commitment. Successful professional players, like dancers, athletes, and musicians have disciplined themselves to work at their professional play. Yet discipline is a challenge for young players, and often for players of all ages, because of the requirement for work and purposeful effort. Free players, as we have defined them in the last chapter, have a particularly difficult time disciplining themselves in some purposeful activity because they are more interested in the play of the moment rather than in some kind of professional play. Free players, who are the bulk of players in the world, need to find ways to find discipline enjoyable, exciting, and ultimately rewarding. The key word here is ultimately, something that is not naturally a part of free players’ view of the world and of play. They want to play now, play easy, and play all the time with little effort into finding a way to play more successfully and purposefully. Their need for immediate stimulation makes discipline very challenging.

Whether in business, school, or relationships, players need discipline, the discipline to do what you don’t want to do now so you can do what you do want to do later. This kind of discipline has to start in childhood or it will be very difficult to find it later in life. If player children are indulged with too much free play, or restricted too much from any play, they will not find the balance of work and play that is essential to success in life. People with a caretaker temperament can work all the time, but this is absolutely not true of players. They may actually be able to accomplish just as much alternating between playing and working, but it can’t be work all the time. And it can’t be work first, play second. Play has to come first…but it can’t end with play. This is the challenge for players: they want to play all the time.

  1. The Offensive Challenge.

The biggest social problem players face is that they offend people by their intrusions, albeit without intending to do so. Both adult players and child players offend, but because children are not usually developed in self-awareness, much less self-governance, player children offend easily and often. They intrude on teachers and fellow students in class. They intrude on their parents and siblings. They even intrude on fellow players in group play or free play. The hardest social task for players who are truly seeking to mature in life is to remember that everyone doesn’t want to play all the time, and that players’ tendency to engage people in some kind of play is experienced as an uninvited intrusion. Players are misinterpreted as being purposefully intrusive and are pushed away, often with great offense. Players simply want to bring fun to other people. It is very hard on them when they disappoint other people, harder when they hurt other people, and hardest yet when they are criticized for playing. They think something like, “All I want to do is to have fun and bring fun to other people. Why does this offend people?”

The essence of the offense that players bring to people is that of emotional hurt. They hurt people when they violate other people’s boundaries, whether those boundaries are physical (usually caretakers), relational (usually lovers), or ethical (usually analysts). The teacher’s boundaries may simply be to finish his lesson plan, and she is hurt when she is not able to get the lesson done because of the player’s interruptions. Friends and partners are hurt by players’ seeming lack of concern about their property, time commitments, and predictability. Players hurt bosses and supervisors who may simply have a desire to get work done compared to the player’s desire to play at work. Player children offend their parents, siblings, and extended family members with frivolous statements or actions meant to be playful and enticing. First, players are unaware of the hurt they bring to other people, and secondly, they do not understand it because their honest desire is to bring joy and laughter to everyone.

  1. The Addictions Challenge.

The danger of addiction for players is neurological, or more accurately neurochemical. Excitement is much related to endorphins, which might be simply understood as “happy hormones.” Endorphins are secreted by the pituitary gland to reduce pain, but they are also secreted as a result of some activities, like running, dancing, eating, listening to music, and even laughing. Importantly, the secretion of endorphins is strongly related to all addictions. An addiction is an activity or a chemical that causes the secretion of endorphins. You can see how players could seek activities that induce the secretion of endorphins, and thereby be inclined to become addicted to some chemical substance or some activity. If something is potentially addictive, players have experimented with it. They usually are addicted to several activities and substances.

The charge of endorphins into their blood system is much of the cause of players’ becoming addicted to certain chemicals. Players usually have experimented with one or more addictive substances, usually settling on one of these substances as a drug of choice. Their tendency is to become addicted to substances that are stimulants, like nicotine, caffeine, and cocaine although alcohol can be a kind of stimulant in large doses. It is not by accident that the pharmacological drugs of choice for ADHD/players are stimulants, like Adderall, Vivance, and Ritalin. Much more rarely are players addicted to the prescribed sedatives and marijuana, but opiates can also raise the level of endorphins in the system. Many drugs find their way into players’ lives because they are in some daily activity, whether work or relationships, that are less than stimulating. They can even look forward to coming home and having “a bowl” (of pot) after tolerating a day on the (factory) line, while not particularly liking the sedating experience of pot. The quick fix nature of drugs gives players an easy way out of their life dilemma of how to survive in a non-playing world. I think that most alcoholics have at least have a large player element in them.

While players often become addicted to chemical substances, they are much more inclined to become addicted to some activity. Activities that are addictive are called behavioral addictions. Most typical among these activities is screen time: TV, Internet, Facebook, Facetime, Texting, and video-game playing. The addictive nature of screen time is the instantaneous nature of these activities. Screen time, which is benign in itself, is only one of the behavioral addictions that players are inclined to. People, whether players or not, become addicted to self-harmful behaviors like gambling, pornography, promiscuity, and fast driving. They also become addicted to essentially good activities that are taken to a fault, like overeating, undereating, shopping, running, working out, playing games, reading, and working. Sometimes addictions can lead to genuine deviance, criminality, or physical harm to others, but this is rare, at least for most players.

Contentment as a player

  1. Understand yourself, accept yourself, and enjoy yourself
  2. Be prepared to be sad often.
  3. Understand that most people will not understand you, accept you, and like you.
  4. Know that you will unintentionally hurt people.
  5. Add to your nature by developing the characteristics of other temperaments.

 Further Reading

Temperament II: The Player

Previously noted reading

The Cure for Anxiety

Sadness. That is the cure for anxiety. But let me explain. Or you can read our book that devotes a whole chapter to the “cure for anxiety.” In this brief blog I will attempt to do several things:

  • Explain what anxiety is along with its cousins: worry, fretting, fear, and outright terror
  • Explain why anxiety is without a doubt one of the most resistant of all psychological difficulties people have, like depression, relationship problems, vocational problems, and general living problems.
  • Explain some of the underlying neurological functions that cause, create, and maintain anxiety once it gets into one’s psychological system

The neuropsychology

I distinguish the mind and the brain as I have explained in Mind over Matter blogs before. I use the term “mind” to describe our thinking, feeling, and acting. The brain is the machine the mind uses to do such things. There is great debate about this matter, however, with some very good neuropsychologists suggesting that the mind is the brain, while others, like myself, believe that there is an as yet undefined element in the human condition that we consider to be the operator of the brain. I’m afraid you’ll have to be content with the fact that we are all theorizing about how things work in the brain. But let me defer this discussion to previous blogs and other psychologists’ writings.

Aside from whether there is a real mind/brain difference, some things are quite well known. The brain (in my understanding) engages in only two operations that keep things going in the body: safety and pleasure. We discussed the pleasure side of the brain when we discussed “liking and wanting” as different operations of the brain, both related to pleasure. So this function of the brain seeks pleasure, mostly through chemicals, such as dopamine, and sometimes through electrical operations. The more important of the two things that the brain does, however, is safety. In other words, your brain works most diligently and constantly on keeping you alive. Central to this keeping you alive is the brain’s fantastic operation of keeping blood flowing in the body, originating in the heart and then to the rest of the body. Blood oxygenizes the body’s cells with blood and simultaneously cleanses these cells from material that needs to be dispenses. While the brain looks to pleasure when possible, something like 99% of the brain looks for safety. Our wonderful brain is doing this protection all the time, every second of our lives.

The brain is wonderful in protecting you and finding pleasure for you, these 100 neurons (brain cells) operating sometimes with trillions of connections to one another. But the brain is sort of stupid in anything else than pleasure and safety. For instance, the brain (again, not the mind) does not know what the mind knows, like love, trust, honesty, work, play, and the many other elements of character, relationships, and daily living. Importantly, the brain does not have an understanding of time. The brain does not know any difference between past, present, and future. In the brain, these three elements of time are all conceived as present. So when the brain senses that something might happen in the future, that future is right now or at best, a second or two in the future. This fact, namely that the brain doesn’t distinguish future from present is very important in the cause, maintenance, and ultimate cure for anxiety.

The brain’s resistance to threat

If you keep in mind that the brain is spending most of its time taking care of the body and protecting the body from harm, you get the picture as to why the brain needs to do this and how it does this. The brain (not the mind) has a startle reflex, for instance, that overrides anything else on your mind when you are started in some way, usually with a loud noise, but also sometimes by something visually that startles you, or perhaps even something that startles you in one of the other three senses (smell, taste, and touch). You don’t have to think, much less feel, when you touch a hot pan by accident while you’re cooking. You don’t have to think or feel when you see fire in that same kitchen. Your startle reaction operates in your olfactory lobe (smell) if you smell something odd in the kitchen. Startle reaction is just one of the ways the brain takes care of you by taking immediate action when the brain perceives something that is dangerous or could be dangerous because it is not within the norm of daily living.

The brain’s protective mechanism operates wonderfully all the time and keeps us alive. Unfortunately, this same protective mechanism also operates when there may not be any immediate or actual threat because the brain doesn’t distinguish a current threat from a future threat. When your brain senses some kind of threat, it goes into hyper drive in order to protect you from danger. This hyper drive comes in the forms of increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, increased breathing, and increased sensual awareness. Increased sensual awareness is in all five senses: sound, sight, smell, taste, and touch. In other words, when the brain senses some threat, it garners all the defenses: chemical, electrical, and sensual to protect you from this perceived threat. These increases are much like what it may have been like for primitive humankind to be faced with the sight of a lion coming over the hill: the brain sees the lion and immediately does the chemical and electrical changes in your body so that you can run. Hopefully, the brain churned up these defenses in time for you to protect yourself. If a lion were chasing you in the Serengeti, for instance, you would be experiencing a pretty high level of anxiety, like life-and-death anxiety. Thank you brain for keeping you aware of possible escape routes from the charging lion.

The cause of anxiety

Anxiety is devastating. It is a well-known fact that that many, if not most, visits to the ER have at least some anxiety driving these visits. Millions of people have thought they were having heart attacks, raced to the ER, and had all kinds of expensive tests, only to find out that there “was nothing wrong with them,” often to their great disappointment. Anxiety has many forms, including the rather popular current diagnoses of PTSD and OCD, but more often anxiety is what is called “free-floating.” In other words, people “just feel anxious for no apparent reason.” Well, there is a reason but it is not that they are having heart attacks or making this stuff up to get attention. Nor is it true that “nothing is wrong with them.” Something is “wrong,” but it has nothing to do with their bodies or minds. What is wrong is that their brains have somehow concluded that the lion is coming over the hill, or something equally dangerous. Why would the brain think such a thing? Most of us don’t roam the Serengeti and few of us have to contend with lions around. The brain should know that, so it seems. The brain does not know that. The brain thinks something very much like “the lion is coming over the hill, so you have to be hypervigilant.

How does this happen. How does the brain think something crazy like the lion is coming after you when there is no lion? It does so because the brain has heard a message from the mind that there is some immediate danger. So, the brain goes into its normal operation of increasing heartrate, blood flow, breathing, and hypervigilance to keep you hyperaware of your surroundings. Anxiety is essentially hyperawareness. Why?

The brain creates what we call anxiety for you to be hyperaware of your surroundings and “protect you from the lion coming over the hill.” The brain does not distinguish different kinds of dangers. The brain does not distinguish dangers: danger is danger, whether it is the spider or the lion. So anything that the brain determines is some kind of threat will start the chain reaction in the brain of upping the various elements of the body to protect you, primarily by making you hypervigilant.

Not only does not brain fail to distinguish kinds of threats, the brain does not distinguish the present from the future. And this the crux of the problem with anxiety. When you think of something aversive that might happen in the future, it is your mind that is doing this thinking, not your brain. Let’s say your boss has called a meeting with you on Monday morning but she didn’t tell you what she wanted to talk to you about. This kind of situation can cause “anxiety,” namely worrying about what your boss might say to you, or God forbid, that you might get demoted or fired. So it seems natural that you would worry about this future meeting. Unfortunately, your brain does not know any of this: it does not know that you work, it does not know you have a boss, it does not know about the meeting, and it does not know about the future. So, when you brain hears from your mind that you have a potential meeting that could be deleterious for you, your brain assumes “the lion is coming over hill,” and wants to send you into hyper drive.

Then, to make matters worse, your brain sort of “talks” back to your mind about this potential danger because the brain can’t think. It is the mind that thinks. The message from the mind to the brain started this cycle moving by telling the brain that there is some danger. You brain assumed this danger was immediate and started the hypervigilance, but it didn’t stop there. The brain then sent the mind the message that the mind needed to figure out what to do. Now we have this ongoing cycle with the mind telling the brain that there is danger and the brain talking back to the mind asking the mind to figure it out. So the mind tries to figure it out. How does the mind do that? By worrying about worst case scenarios like, “If he fires me, where will I get another job?” or “if he criticizes me for my performance, how can I defend myself” and the like. Of course this fretting does no good but, all the while the brain is sort of insisting that the mind come up with a solution to the problem it perceives as “the lion coming over the hill.”

Unless there is some way to stop this cycle of considering danger (the mind), reacting to danger (the brain), and then fretting (the mind again), anxiety will stay present and very possibly increase. If the brain determines that there is no immediate solution to what it perceives as the lion coming, it will do what it does: create more hypervigilance. How do we break this cycle?

The cure of anxiety

Read the first word again in this blog: sadness. The cure for anxiety is sadness, however odd that sounds. This is what I mean: you have to face the potential loss, feel this potential loss by feeling sad, and resolve this sadness. Easily said, not easily done. Anxiety in all its forms (fear, worry, fretting) keeps therapists busy trying to calm people down and physicians busy prescribing anxiolytics to treat the symptoms of anxiety. But neither really works to cure anxiety. There is no “settling down” someone who is in a state of anxiety because the brain perceives “the lion is coming over the hill.” You can’t talk to the brain about jobs, meetings, and the like, and you certainly can’t talk to the brain about the future because the brain, this wonderful machine, has no capacity to understand such things. You have to get the mind involved. You have to get the mind and the brain to work together the way these two elements work together 99% of the time. How do you do that?

You cure anxiety by considering the loss you might have, feeling sad about this potential loss, and allow this sadness to end. This is what you need to do: truly consider the worst case scenario. In our theoretical case, you need to consider that you would be fired. Then you have to feel sad about possibly being fired. This is what we call anticipatory sadness because you are anticipating some important loss in the future and allowing yourself to feel the sadness about this possible loss. It sounds crazy, I know, but this is the only way to cure anxiety, namely feeling sad in the present about something that might happen in the future. Note the tenses here: feeling sad in the present for something that might happen in the future. You can learn to do this with a little practice, but let me warn you, you don’t want to do it. You don’t want to feel sad about losing a job that is important to you; you don’t want to consider that your daughter with cancer might die; you don’t want to consider that your house will be robbed. And you don’t want to feel sad about these things because they haven’t happened. You know that they haven’t happened. But this “you” is your mind, not your brain. Your brain thinks that something really dangerous is happening and needs to be fixed. The only way out of the cycle of anxiety is to feel this anticipatory sadness. The sadness will end.

The interesting thing about sadness is that it always ends. Anxiety does not end. It can go on for years or a lifetime and get worse in the process. But if you lose something you love, you will feel sad for a period and eventually finish feeling sad. An even more devastating phenomenon that occurs with people is depression. Depression is the collections of many losses that have not been felt and finished, and have collected to such a degree that your brain shuts down interest in life in order to cope with the fact of these many losses.

So try it out. When you feel anxious about something, ask yourself the question, “What might I lose?” Then you will discover that you might lose something that is important to you, something that you love. Then allow yourself to feel the sadness you would feel if you would actually lose this something. Dare to feel this sadness now about what you might lose in the future. You will feel sad for a moment or two, maybe longer, but eventually, your anticipatory sadness will end.

Further Reading

Previous blogs on feelings

Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2017). The Positive Power of Sadness. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger

LeDoux, J. (2015). Anxious: using the brain to understand and treat fear and anxiety. New York: Viking Press.

Guilt and Shame

Guilt is good for you. Shame is bad for you. Guilt makes you a better person. Shame makes you a scared person. Guilt is good. Shame is bad. Period. Allow me to explain. I intend to describe these two very important experiences, which are quite different but are often conflated together.

Guilt and shame “feelings”. Readers of this blog may have seen my previous blogs on Feelings in which I have noted that all feelings are a central ingredient of human existence and even more central in human relationships. That having been said we must also note that while feelings are central to life, feelings are undefinable. We can understand them, talk about them, and attempt to communicate them, but we can never define them. Feelings are just too important to be simply defined, just like the three elements of the universe, time, distance, and mass, which are undefined.  Allow me to review a couple things we have noted in previous Feelings blogs. We discussed emotions as a part of feelings:

Emotions

There are four basic emotions, all of which have to do with love in some way:

  • Two emotions that have to do with having or losing something that I love:
    • Joy when I have something I love (in the present)
    • Sadness when I lose something that I love (in the present)
  • Two emotions that have to do with losing something that I love:
    • Anger when I have lost something that I love (in the past)
    • Fear when I might lose something that I love (in the future)

Various psychologists have described as many as 50 basic emotions (or feelings as they are sometimes called), but we will not debate this subject here. Important for this discussion is the experience of these four emotions in shame and guilt, our main discussion in this blog.

Shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment are often used interchangeably. We hear people say that we “need to get rid of shame and guilt” as if they were the same thing, or they might say that they are embarrassed when they actually feel shame. So let me parse out these feelings and how they can be harmful…and interestingly…helpful. In all these feelings (guilt, shame, humiliation, and embarrassment) the emotions we feel are not completely expressed. Rather, they are hidden or partially hidden while we go through these feelings.

Guilt, shame, humiliation, and embarrassment

Consider the basic emotions and other matters associated with shame, guilt, humiliation and embarrassment:

  • Basic emotions associated with these four feelings:
    • Guilt: sadness
    • Shame: fear
    • Humiliation: anger
    • Embarrassment: joy
  • The person causing these feelings
    • Guilt: yourself
    • Shame: an imaginary other person
    • Humiliation: a real other person
    • Embarrassment: yourself
  • The element causing these feelings
    • Guilt: activity (something you have said or done)
    • Shame: yourself (you fear that something is wrong with you)
    • Humiliation: yourself (you believe that something is wrong with you)
    • Embarrassment: activity (something you have said or done)
  • The result of these feelings:
    • Guilt: personal improvement
    • Shame: hiding
    • Humiliation: hiding
    • Embarrassment: personal improvement
  • The effects of these feelings:
    • Guilt: ends
    • Shame: continues
    • Humiliation: continues
    • Embarrassment: ends

What is guilt?

Guilt is the feeling of sadness that I have when I have hurt or harmed someone by something I have said or done, or something that I have not said or not done. Note that the key in guilt is the feeling of sadness. I feel sad when I feel genuinely guilty because I have caused some hurt or harm to someone as I look back at my behavior. Simply put I think, “I should have said (or done)” or “I shouldn’t have said (or done)” something. When I feel sadness, I can then correct my mistake, offer an apology, and/or make amends for my misdeeds. The important factor here is that I judge myself. The even more important factor is that I then have the opportunity to improve myself in the future.

So, to the surprise of many people, guilt is good for me…if we understand guilt in the way I have described. Not so with shame.

What is shame?

Shame is essentially the fear of someone else’s disapproval. I feel shame when I think that someone will judge me harshly for something that I have said or done (or again, not said or not done). The key factor in shame is that I imagine that I will be judged, not what I have done. Simply put, I think, “Person A or B might think that I am somehow a bad person or a stupid person for what I have done.” In shame I imagine that I am judged as somehow inadequate, not that I have done something inadequate. As a result of shame, I hide: I hide what I have done from others, and I may hide it from myself.

So, while guilt makes me a better person, shame prevents me from becoming a better person. Shame is bad for me…always. It is always harmful to think there is something wrong with me instead of examining my behavior and seeing that I have actually done something that is wrong. Shame is much like humiliation as noted above.

What is humiliation?

As you can read in the abbreviated the paradigm I have laid out above, shame and humiliation are nearly the same except in shame there is often an imaginary person, whereas in humiliation there is a real person. When I am humiliated, a real person has humiliated me. Humiliating experiences occur when I am unable or unwilling to exercise the anger I feel when someone has assaulted my character. The result of humiliation is just the same as it is with shame: I hide. And when I hide, I do not improve as a person.

Most humiliation occurs in childhood. The most common perpetrators of humiliation are siblings, sometimes with intention to humiliate, sometimes with unintentional humor or teasing that has the same effect: something is wrong with me and I need to hide from everyone. Humiliation occurs with girls in school often in regards to some kind of body image or presentation, and occasionally with “drama” that asserts some girl is somehow inadequate or unacceptable. Humiliation occurs with boys usually from other boys, often with some failure in competition, perhaps academic or athletic.

So, like shame, humiliation is never helpful…never because it always leads to hiding from rather than self-examination and improvement. Furthermore, humiliation can bleed into shame experiences in adulthood because the essence is the same: there is something is wrong with me.

You will note that shame and humiliation are quite similar, the difference being that true shame is the feeling I have about possibly being criticized while humiliation is the feeling that results from by actually being criticized. When some “shames you,” this is actually humiliation because this is a real person who has assaulted you. So when you are shamed (by some real person), you feel humiliation. You hide, just like you do in shame.

What is embarrassment?

It must seem odd that I suggest that the basic emotion in embarrassment is joy. This is because most people equate embarrassment with shame or humiliation. But true embarrassment is a time when you laugh at yourself for some blunder, whether something you said, didn’t say, did wrong, or didn’t do right. So, true embarrassment can occur when you can’t remember the name of your favorite tool or the name of your grandchild. I remember Grandma Ostlund calling out to me with a stream of names like, “Billy, Margaret, Lloyd…I mean Ronny.” We would all laugh as Grandma would have cited my brother, my mother, and my uncle before she finally got around to me. This simple failure to remember a name occurred to me a couple days ago in therapy when I lost track of what I was saying, and then in the same hour when my patient forgot the name of something. In both cases we laughed. I also might laugh at myself) when I choose to have that second piece of pie, but so enjoy the indulgence.

Like guilt, embarrassment is good for me. In both cases I am dealing with something that I love. In guilt I am dealing with having lost something that I value: I did something or said something that brought harm to something or someone I value. In embarrassment I did something or said something that was simply wrong but not very important. But with true embarrassment I can recognize my action, chuckle at it and even be teased about it without feeling shame or humiliation. Whereas guilt is often felt privately, and ultimately leads to personal improvement, embarrassment is often felt publicly, and can also lead to personal improvement. In embarrassment I am humbled but not humiliated.

Aren’t these feelings mixed up?

Yes, they get mixed up. I mentioned that childhood humiliation can bleed into shame; in other words the fact that I have been attacked in character can lead to the feeling of fear that I might be attacked in character.

Furthermore, people use these terms in the ways that they have learned them, so they may say they are “guilty” when they actually feel shame as I have defined it. They may use embarrassment when they feel humiliation. The words for these four feelings are not particularly important, but the concepts are dreadfully important.

We can, indeed, feel two of these feelings at the same time, like humiliation and shame. Importantly, we can also feel guilt, which is good for me, and shame, which is bad for me, at the same time. Unfortunately, if I feel the sadness that is implicit guilt for what I have said or done, but I also am afraid that someone will challenge me, shame will unfortunately override guilt, and I will probably hide.

See if you can distinguish these feelings and the emotions that occur with each of them. You will begin to see the value of guilt and embarrassment and find ways to feel these things more and feel shame and humiliation less.

Further reading

Johnson, R. (2018). Feelings I and Feelings II blogs

Lewis, H. (1971). Shame and guilt in neurosis. New York: International Universities Press

Narramore, B. (1984). No condemnation: rethinking guilt motivation in counseling, preaching, and parenting. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan

Nathanson, D.L. (1992). Shame and pride: affect, sex, and the birth of the self. New York: Norton

Tangney, P. (2002). Shame and guilt. New York: Guilford

Tournier, P. (1958). Guilt and grace. New York: Harper and Row