As a clinical psychologist I collaborate with people facing problems that are sometimes practical but also of an emotional nature. Emotions evolved to motivate us, to “motion” us into action — and sometimes those emotions are involuntary, that is to say, not chosen. Some, are unwanted. Take shame, for example, one of many social emotions that allow us to navigate relationships.
The emotion of shame doesn’t garner as much research attention as do other painful emotions, but clinically, it undergirds many instances of depression and anxiety. My mentor, Albert Ellis saw shame as a driver of much emotional pain and devised “shame-attacking” exercises to rid us of all shame. He saw shame as a bug, not a feature of our cognitive software. The approach yielded mixed results, but today we have a better understanding of shame.1
A clue that shame has evolutionary roots is that it feels involuntary.2 Morality and a sense of shame served the needs of our place among kin and group. The inclusive tent for conscientiousness raised the possibility of falling short of our tribe’s expectations.
Understanding evolution helps us gain an “ancestral awareness,” to contrast the modern challenges that face us — mismatches between those natural mechanisms and the novel current environment. As a cognitive behavioral therapy practitioner for many years, this perspective fits into best practices because it aids us in understanding dysfunctional emotions and how to augment our thinking.
For example, many of us avoid potentially embarrassing adventures (to our long-term detriment), because of the risk of incurring scorn. Clinging to an “appropriate” facade feels natural but can also activate anxiety, “What if I look foolish? That would be horrible.” That’s a common premise entertained (sometimes semi-consciously) by anxious people. I’ve often seen versions of this phenomenon in a clinical setting, with consequent anxiety and depression.
Self-recrimination and depression can follow a self-described “shameful” performance. Anxiety often occurs in anticipation of one. In both cases, shame is at the root. A possible shameful event is looming in the future and we feel anxiety. Shameful event in the past and we feel depression.
We want to survive, mate, contribute to our group, offer resources, and command positive attention. Here, shame may be a trade-off between goals as a signal to oneself and as a signal to others, that we are trustworthy and well-meaning. An evolutionary perspective can help us keep conscientiousness while challenging crippling shame. 4
Shame may have helped us to maintain conscientious behavior, but our current self-messages such as, “I absolutely must be approved and loved by important allies” may trigger unwanted modern effects such as avoidance and isolation.
Shame seems to have two separate components. One, the corrective feedback for us by which to monitor social behavior. The other, the more troublesome one, is putting oneself down as an incompetent person. Huge difference! My job is to help clients keep the first, while changing the second of those. And evolutionary thinking helps us do that.
Today, the entire world seems like our village. Social media can fool us into taking our reputations not just seriously, which is good, but too seriously, which is harmful. You see, for most of human history our reputations would stratify us in the entirety of our social options. Our minds still read it that way. But a few screwups today do not have to sully our relationships to any hardened degree. Our long lives and multiple opportunities to connect with new people has never been greater.
Our ancestors did not have electronic social media, iPhones, police, air travel, cities, Tinder, vodka, running water, Starbucks or delis. These may seem obvious, but its profundity gets clearer with a few thought experiments. Mismatch insights are revelatory in reframing our modern experiences. Not a cure — a perspective helping to distinguish emotional features from emotional bugs, and how the experience of shame can reflect both. Evolutionary context and purposes matter — and understanding ancestral mismatch can provide a ready rosetta stone.
An ancestral awareness can provide some perspective on our propensity to feel overly ashamed about our errors, either the ones we’ve made, or the ones we’re endlessly committing—in our imaginings only.
- Gilbert, P. (2003). Evolution, social roles, and differences in shame and guilt. Social Research: An International Quarterly of the Social Sciences 70, 1205-1230
- Gilbert, P., & McGuire, M. T. (1998). Shame, status, and social roles: Psychobiology and evolution. In P. Gilbert & B. Andrews (Eds.), Series in affective science. Shame: Interpersonal behavior, psychopathology, and culture (pp. 99-125). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.
- Gilbert, P. (2006). Compassionate mind training for people with high shame and self-criticism: overview and pilot study of a group therapy approach. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 353-379.
- Pelusi, N. (2008) No shame on you. Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200801/neanderthink-no-shame-you