Can shame make you a better person?

<span>Composite: The Guardian/Getty Images</span>
Composite: The Guardian/Getty Images

What was the last thing that you felt shame about? Perhaps you couldn’t afford a new outfit for your friend’s wedding, and felt chagrined around those in more chic attire. Maybe you hid your homemade lunch while your co-workers ate takeout, or you didn’t call your mom on her birthday and felt bad to have missed it.

Shame can emerge in everyday situations like these, or can be a more pervasive emotion that darkens your view of who you are. The British clinical psychologist Peter Fonagy called shame the “feeling that destroys the self”. It’s unsurprising, then, that when a person is more shame-prone, they can be at higher risk for anxiety or depression. “One thing that shame often does is prompt people to want to hide, to escape, to essentially want to sink into the floor and disappear,” said shame researcher June Price Tangney, in an interview with the American Psychological Association.

If you find that shame frequently haunts you, it could be helpful to reframe how you view shame, what it’s for and its source. While many people experience shame in response to the perceived judgements of others, the ancient philosophical tradition of Confucianism characterized shame differently. In Confucianism, shame is a crucial tool that leads you toward your best self, and you have more power over it than you know.

These Confucian perspectives might change the way you think about shame.

Shame can help us become better people

Confucianism was a philosophy from the 6th to the 5th century BCE in China, centered around social and ethical values. We know about its principles thanks to collections of dialogues and stories about the philosopher Confucius, and his followers Mencius and Xunzi.

All three mentioned shame, but not as a wholly bad thing.

The four most important virtues were benevolence, righteousness, wisdom and propriety, according to Mencius. Each was grounded in a kind of emotion or attitude, said Bryan W Van Norden, a philosopher at Vassar College. Benevolence is grounded in compassion for the suffering of others, for example.

Righteousness is connected to our sense of shame. Shame could guide a person to righteousness. It was not something that happened to you or cast upon you by someone else, but an emotion you cultivated, said Jing Iris Hu, a philosopher at Concordia University.


Shame arises when we recognize a defect in our character. We might feel shame when we sell out in some way, Van Norden said, or when there’s a discrepancy between our moral standards and our actions. Other examples of shameful qualities mentioned in Confucian texts include saying what you don’t mean, being overly flattering without sincerity or trying to be someone’s friend “while harboring ill will towards them”.

We have more control over shame than we think

Shame helps refine your sense of what’s right and wrong, but that doesn’t mean you should feel it all the time. Confucian texts pushed for people to cultivate their own sense of shame by determining for yourself what you do and don’t feel shameful about.

Mencius told a story of a beggar who refuses to accept food from someone shaming him for his ragged clothes. This illustrates the idea that even when someone decides an aspect of you is shameful, you don’t need to feel that shame.

The Confucians argued that what people were conventionally ashamed of, such as low wealth or status, weren’t actually flaws. Xunzi distinguished between two kinds of shame: shame about superficial matters, like wealth or clothing, and a more genuine shame that comes from within you if you go against your own values. The beggar might feel shame, but it’s not a true shame that reveals a character defect.

“I find that to be very encouraging and liberating: knowing that it’s okay to feel that, but also knowing that it’s not a genuine type of shame,” Hu said.

Having more control over when we feel shame can help us push back against unreasonable or suppressive standards. This is key when there are times that our moral opinions might differ from social norms, like if a woman is shamed for how she is dressed or a person is shamed for their sexuality. This is easier said than done, Hu acknowledged. If you are constantly facing an oppressive standard, it’s hard, and sometimes impossible, not to feel shame.

Shame performs a complex dance between the individual and society. It is part of our individual moral landscape, but forms through our reactions to and participation in social norms and values. But the Confucians insisted that you have some autonomy over shame.

Shame can’t be easily categorized as positive or negative

Shame doesn’t feel amazing in the moment, but in the long term, it can prompt you to behave in ways that you’re proud of in the future. “It allows you to make moral progress,” said Jingyi Jenny Zhao, a philosopher at Needham Research Institute in Cambridge, and author of Aristotle and Xunzi on Shame, Moral Education, and the Good Life. “It’s one of the core features of being a human being.”

The Confucians wouldn’t advise us to wallow in shame; they would suggest using it to become a better person. “We might compare shame with pain,” Hu said. “It always feels bad, but sometimes it’s very useful.”

When you’re trying to decide what to do, shame can be a useful moral compass. “Ask yourself, would I be ashamed to be this kind of person?” Van Norden said. “Would I be ashamed to do this? That can prevent you from doing the wrong thing.”

Shame is necessary for growth

A life without shame is impossible, and not desirable. If shame is lasting a long time, it’s either because there’s a socially maligned aspect of yourself that you can’t change, and therefore it might not be worth feeling shame about it, or you’re continuing to do something that goes against your moral values and “you haven’t made a genuine effort to reform the part of you that you find shameful,” Van Norden said.

Still, the Confucians recognized that people made mistakes. Shame isn’t there to punish you for not being perfect – it signals that it’s time to course correct. The Confucians thought that deciding what you do and don’t feel shame about is part of your development as a person.

This process wasn’t supposed to happen overnight. There’s a fable about a farmer who wasn’t very smart. The farmer was concerned his plants weren’t growing fast enough, so he pulled on the plants to help them get taller. He bragged to his son, who found all the crops dead in the field – pulled out by their roots.

It’s “a metaphor for moral development”, Van Norden said. “You want to ethically, but you can’t force yourself to grow faster than you’re able to.”

This is also an optimistic takeaway from the Confucians: we are all capable of betterment. “Don’t think of yourself as this fixed thing that never changes,” Zhao said. “Rather, shame helps you review what’s gone wrong – preserving the good, and getting rid of the bad.”