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Shame and Contempt, Part 1: What are they?

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

Shame and Contempt.  These are feelings we have a hard time making sense of.   Both are loaded words, powerful concepts to consider.  As internal feelings, they are more common than we realize, and often shape our worlds more than we know.

Shame (v. Guilt)  (see this blog for a more long-winded examination of this distinction)

Shame is a feeling of being defective.  This is different than guilt.  Guilt is the knowledge of having done wrong.  Shame is the sense that “I am wrong,” or that “Something is wrong with me.”

The clue to distinguishing these two feelings from each other is the verb.  

Guilt uses action verbs: did/didn’t, acted, failed to act, etc.  Shame uses State-of-Being verbs: am, is, was, were, can/can’t, etc.  Guilt says “I did [a thing that was wrong].  I crossed a line, I lied, I acted in this way or that”.  Shame says, “What was I thinking?  What is the matter with me?  Why can’t I …?”.

Distinguishing between shame and guilt is important for two reasons:

  1. Guilt is a healthy emotion that leads us to learning to do better things and resist doing harmful things.  We appropriately don’t like how guilt feels, and because we don’t want to feel that way, we make different choices.
  2. Shame is always a lie.  Shame never results in real change or learning, it only self-reinforces.  “What did I expect?  This is what I get.  I am such a screw up.”  Most often when we evaluate ourselves in this way, we are evaluating our whole being on the basis of our bloopers reel.  It is to feel worthless, pointless, and without value to the world at large.

Contempt (vs. Judgment) (see this blog for a more long-winded examination of this distinction)

Contempt is at its core the shaming of another.  In similar fashion to Shame, Contempt uses being verbs, whereas (like Guilt) Judgment uses action verbs.

It is to measure the person or thing as inherently defective.

Judgment is objectively or subjectively describing something.  “I like/don’t like this thing/person”, or “You hurt me when you said…”, or “I like/don’t like how you talked to me.”    Contempt makes the evaluation about the being of the person or thing itself.  “You are such a fool.”, or, “What is wrong with you?”, or “What were you thinking?”

Again, this distinction is important for two reasons:

  1. Judgment itself is not a bad or hurtful thing.  Contempt is the sentiment most folks are referring to when they say “don’t judge”.  We all make judgments every day, and these are healthy and needful assessments of our world.
  2. Like shame, Contempt is always a lie.  It is to speak as though we are authorized or have the capacity to determine the worth of another human’s existence.  To express contempt is to say that the person or thing is worthless, without value, and that destroying them would be a non-issue.

So What?

Shame and contempt shape our worlds more than we know.  My next blog in this series will look at how we use shame and contempt in our daily lives to describe ourselves and others.