A Quantitative Evaluation of Shame Resilience Theory
IN THIS ARTICLE
Shame is an adaptive emotion. Yet, it is associated with poor mental and behavioral health as well as lower wellbeing and negative relational strategies. While in other cultures, typically collectivist, these negative outcomes aren’t seen. The shame resilience theory proposes a method to avoid the negative outcomes seen in our culture. However, there is no research validating the effectiveness of the theory. We hypothesized that shame resilience would have a positive correlation with wellbeing and that collectivist would also have a positive correlation with collectivism. The current study used a correlational design to assess the associations between wellbeing, shame resilience, and collectivism. Participants completed four measures looking at wellbeing, shame, shame resilience, and collectivism. We analyzed the data using Pearson correlations and simple and multiple linear regressions. We found a significant correlation between shame resilience and subjective wellbeing. We did not find any significant interaction between collectivism and shame resilience. We concluded that there is an interaction between shame resilience and subjective wellbeing. Shame resilience could be an important tool in treating a variety of conditions and improving general wellbeing. While we were unable to determine a causal direction, this study establishes a basis for continuing research into shame resilience.
Shame is an emotion that has a daily effect on each of our lives, yet most people are unaware of the impact shame has on their behavior and cognition. This disconnect is likely due to the limited body of shame research. Briefly shame is a universal emotion that can be understood within an evolutionary context as a social threat system (Al-Ansari, 2000; Fessler, 2004; Fontaine et al., 2002; Matsumoto, 2000; Scherer, 1997). As an adaptive function, shame alerts a person when they are engaging in behaviors that would alienate them from a social group and as an alert when there is a discrepancy between aspects of the self (Gilbert, 2003; Hartley et al., 2004). Additionally, shame has been strongly linked to maladaptive relational strategies (Brown, 2012) and lower subjective wellbeing (Lundberg et al., 2009). From this point in the literature, Brené Brown (2012), developed the Shame Resilience Theory. This theory outlines a strategy for coping with and understanding shame to combat the negative effects of shame. However, there is little research on the actual application of the Shame Resilience Theory.
Shame is often mistaken for other emotions. Usually seen as humiliation, guilt, or embarrassment (Brown, 2012). Most commonly, shame and guilt are viewed as fulfilling the same function, when in reality they are largely separate systems (Gilbert, 2003). Guilt elicits a negative emotional response of ‘I feel bad about the harm I caused’ after behaving in a way which has harmed another person. Whereas shame is an emotional response of ‘I am a bad person’ (Brown, 2012, Gilbert, 2003). While both arise from evolutionary systems, they are distinct. Guilt arises from systems of care-giving and harm avoidance, alerting someone that they are engaging in behaviors that would cause harm to someone else and prompting people to engage in more prosocial behaviors. In contrast, shame is based in an evolutionary social threat system that can break down into two categories: external and internal shame (Gilbert, 2003).
First, there is external shame which is shame caused by members of a social group. One type of external shame is shame of deficit; which is when a person is shamed by a group for lacking qualities desired by that group. For instance, if someone is not fulfilling their responsibilities in a group project, shame may be used to highlight and correct that behavior. A second kind of external shame is shame of proximity. This is when someone with a higher social status who is close to another person forces an unwanted definition of self upon them. For example, if a boss makes a derogatory remark to an employee shaming their work ethic, because of the proximity between the two, the employee may change that behavior to avoid future remarks. Overall, external shame is a mechanism for deciding group inclusion or exclusion (Gilbert, 2003).
Second is internal shame, which is caused by a discrepancy between selves. People have a real self and an ideal self. The ideal self is how we would like to be, and the real self is how we are in the present (Higgins, 1987). Additionally, there is an undesired self. Internal shame most often comes from perceiving oneself as close to the undesired self. The undesired self is not inherent but learned, much like the ideal self. A person’s concept of the undesired self is learned during childhood from interactions with parents. For example, if a child approaches a parent with a drawing and the parent responds negatively, the child learns that behavior is bad, and that they are not good because of that behavior (Gilbert, 2003). So, through a series of positive and negative interactions, the child develops a concept of self which is undesired by others. This creates a discrepancy between the real self and ideal self. As a person engages in behaviors that are similar to the undesired self, the discrepancy between the real and ideal self becomes apparent (Higgins, 1987). Which elicits a shame response indicating that the behaviors need to be changed in order to realign with the ideal self (Gilbert, 2003). For instance, someone who perceives themselves to be honest and has a belief that lying is bad, if they tell a lie they would feel internal shame.
Both types of shame can be understood in a broader context. External shame is largely caused by failing to meet or conform to social and group roles, while internal shame is caused by internal processing of negative interactions and behaviors. Events which can trigger shame, occur throughout 12 broad areas of human life (Table 1) (Brown, 2012). Across these domains it is expected for shame to function adaptively. However, we do not see this adaptive function when we look cross-culturally.
Cultures that foster an individualistic self-construal prioritize the needs, wishes, desires, and values of the self over those of a group (Matsumoto, 2000). In these cultures, shame is rarely recognized as its own emotion and is largely misattributed by the public. Shame is rarely talked about on a day to day basis is and seemingly associated with negative outcomes (Fessler, 2004). Most often these negative outcomes are negative relational patterns and a lower sense of wellbeing. These negative relational patterns, called alternative relational strategies of disconnection (Hartling et al., 2004 & Horney, 1950), have been strongly associated with shame in individualistic cultures, when people experience shame they tend to engage in one of these relational patterns. These patterns are moving against, moving towards, and moving away. Moving against occurs when someone experiencing shame becomes aggressive and seeks to gain power over others by shaming them. Moving towards is when a person seeks to appease and please the person who shamed them. Moving away is when a person withdraws and retreats from the people in their social network to avoid the cause of shame (Brown, 2012).
Shame is also associated with lower subjective wellbeing, with shaming experiences being a primary producer of poor mental wellbeing; including evidence implicating shame in mental health problems such as depression, suicide, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, addictions, eating disorders, and violent behavior (Lundberg et al., 2009). Additionally, these mental health issues that are produced in part by shame, can lead to negative relational patterns, as the resulting sensations associated with shame, often lead to an overwhelming impulse to hide or withdraw, pattern of moving away (Van Vliet, 2008). There is some evidence to suggest that a difficulty in regulating shame, managing the sensations and negative outcomes associated with shame, may be one of the primary causes that bring individuals into psychotherapy (H.B. Lewis, 1987; O’Connor et al., 1999). Across negative relational strategies and the effects shame has on wellbeing, we observe few adaptive shame outcomes within cultures that foster an individualistic self-construal.
However, when we look cross-culturally, we see very different response patterns to shame. In cultures which foster a collectivist self-construal; where the needs, wishes, desires and values of a group are facilitated more than those of an individual (Matsumoto, 2000), shame is normalized. People will openly discuss their shame and it is consistently listed as one of the top three most frequent emotion words in collectivist cultures, suggesting it is an emotion people regularly experience (Fessler, 2004). Additionally, shame experiences are reported to be shorter in duration in as well as often accompanied with smiling and laughter (Matsumoto 2000). Suggesting that shame is common and widely understood by the general population. Overall, we see a lack of maladaptive shame responses, including both lower subjective wellbeing and negative relational strategies.
Yet the research suggests that shame is a universal experience that is triggered by the same mechanisms in all cultures (Al-Ansari, 2000; Fessler, 2004; Fontaine et al., 2002; Matsumoto, 2000; Scherer, 1997). So why then do we see such a contrast between cultures which differ via an individualistic or collectivist self-construal? When we look at reports of collectivist cultures, it seems that elements of shame resilience are at play. Shame is much more normalized; people are open about it and frequently discuss their experiences of shame with people in their social group. People tend to understand what situations and behaviors elicit shame (Cosmides, 2000; Fessler, 2004; Matsumoto, 2000). While in individualistic cultures, it seems the current cultural defense against shame is one of linguistics, not resilience. A strategy that does not address or manage shame, but instead disguises shame (McDermott et al., 2008). People in individualistic cultures, especially those that speak English, consistently rate shame as one of the least frequent emotion words (Fessler, 2004). This suggests that shame is not being discussed or recognized in individualistic cultures, despite shame being a common emotion. So, the language use does not reflect the actual prevalence of shame. Which in turn leads to the lack of understanding and negative shame responses that are present in individualistic cultures.
The shame resilience theory is a proposed solution to the negative shame outcomes we see in conjunction with individualistic self-construal’s. The theory is based on the idea that shame, as a daily human emotion, is a part of life and we can never be rid of it; but we can learn to be resilient in the face of it. There are four elements to this theory that can be incorporated into people’s lives to cultivate resilience to shame. First, the ability to recognize shame, which includes understanding when you are experiencing shame and being able to differentiate shame from other negative emotion states as well as understanding what triggers shame in you. The second element is practicing critical awareness, that is, being able to evaluate and reality check the messages and expectations driving shame, analyzing whether these messages and expectations are reflective of a true state and if they are attainable. The third element is reaching out, being able to connect with the people in your social group and receive empathy. The final element is speaking shame or opening up about your shame and discussing it with people in your social group, effectively engaging instead of withdrawing (Brown, 2012).
The four elements of shame resilience act on continuums of vulnerability and critical awareness. It requires vulnerability to accept and understand our own shame, as well as speak our shame and ask for support and empathy. Additionally, the more critical awareness we have of the social/cultural forces that are shaping our shame experiences the more we effectively we are able to respond (Brown, 2006). These two continuums encompass the four elements of shame resilience and by incorporating these four elements into one’s life, the theory suggests a person’s engagement with shame should become more positive; potentially leading to improvements in wellbeing.
The present study seeks to evaluate the Shame Resilience Theory by assessing whether shame resilience has an effect on wellbeing across both individualistic and collectivist relational styles. Specifically, this study addresses the questions A) whether the elements in shame resilience provide an effective way to engage with and be resilient to shame, and B) if shame resilience is the mechanism by which people in collectivist cultures avoid negative response patterns to shame. We know there is a difference in shame responses across cultures (Matsumoto, 2000) but we do not know what mechanisms drive this difference or if shame resilience can minimize these differences. On the basis of previous findings in the literature, my two critical hypotheses for this study are 1) That shame resilience is an adaptive strategy for engaging with and managing shame; and 2) that collectivist cultures are more conducive to shame resilience than individualistic cultures.
From these two hypotheses several predictions follow: 1) People who engage in shame resilience will have higher subjective wellbeing across the individualistic-collectivist continuum and 2) Collectivism as a personality trait will predict shame resilience. To test these predictions, we developed a correlational design and surveyed a sample of college students about their shame experiences and wellbeing.
Materials and Methods
The study was conducted between December 2018 and March 2019. Participants (N = 86) were recruited from psychology classes at the University of New Mexico (UNM). The inclusion criteria were that participants must be 18 years of age and attending UNM. Participants were excluded if they were under age 18 or if they failed to complete any of the surveys. Prior to data collection we conducted a power analysis. In order to achieve a power of 80 we would need 64 participants. Individuals ineligible (n = 22) for analysis were excluded due to failing to complete one or more surveys for a total sample of 64 participants. This met the threshold for our power analysis, ensuring our study was appropriately powered. We recruited until we had 64 complete participant responses. These criteria were fixed prior to data analysis and the protocol was approved by UNM’s Institutional Review Board (IRB).
After completing a short demographic questionnaire, participants filled out four surveys: 1) Individualism vs. Collectivism, 2) Subjective Wellbeing, 3) Shame Inventory, and 4) Shame Resilience. The surveys were hosted and completed by participants online through the survey hosting site Opinio. Full versions of the materials used can be viewed at 10.5281/zenodo.3604382.
Informed consent was obtained from all participants before any measures were taken, by means of marking ‘OK’. A waiver of documentation of consent was approved by UNM’s IRB as the consent document would be the only identifying link. Next participants first filled out a short demographic questionnaire which included questions about age, gender, and ethnicity. Participants then moved on to the rest of the measures. They were presented with a brief written explanation of each survey prior to completion. Additionally, a brief written explanation of the difference between individualism and collectivism was given as well as a brief text explanation of subjective wellbeing. A lengthier explanation of shame was given in addition to a short list of examples of situations that shame can occur in, with the aim of giving participants a clear understanding of shame as well as all the different events in their lives that could cause shame.
Data was analyzed using SPSS version 25. The data is set is public and can be viewed at 10.5281/zenodo.3406708. The relationship between variables of subjective wellbeing and shame resilience was analyzed using the Pearson correlational method. A Pearson correlation was also used to analyze the variables of shame and subjective wellbeing. Additionally, a simple linear regression was used to analyze interdependence as a predictor of shame-resilience. Finally, we reported confidence intervals and effect sizes for each of our analyses. The primary interaction of interest was the correlation between shame resilience and subjective wellbeing.
Analyses focused on participants scores in subjective wellbeing and how other measures, particularly shame inventory and shame resilience, interacted with wellbeing. Additional analyses looked at the interaction between shame resilience and participant scores on the Individualism-Collectivism Interpersonal Assessment Inventory (ICIAI). Descriptive statistics were also calculated for participant data and each measure. Participants had an average age of 22.17; 43 were female, 19 were male, 1 was gender-nonconforming, and 1 declined to answer. Descriptive statistics for individual measures showed that our participants, on average, had fairly low subjective wellbeing and shame resilience, while scores in ICIAI and shame inventory were neither high nor low (Table 2).
Pearson correlations were used to analyze the relationships between the various measures surveyed (Table 3), with the primary interest being the correlation between subjective wellbeing and shame resilience. Shame resilience and subjective wellbeing had a positive correlation of r = .305 and was significant (p = .014), with a medium effect size and was within a 95 % confidence interval of .063 – .547. This interaction suggests that there is a relationship between shame resilience and wellbeing that points to a broader effect due to the medium effect size. Other measures also had significant correlations with subjective wellbeing. Shame Inventory and subjective wellbeing had a correlation of r = -.267 and was significant (p = .033) with a small effect size that was approaching a medium effect size, while falling within a 95% confidence interval of -.512 – -.022. This falls in line with previous findings that there is a negative interaction between shame and wellbeing. In an exploratory analysis the ICIAI was significantly correlated (p = .002) with subjective wellbeing at a correlation of r = .383 at a medium effect size and falling within a 95% confidence interval of .149 – .618.
There was no significant correlation between another statistic of interest, the effect between the ICIAI and shame resilience. This effect was non-significant (p = .971) and the measures had a correlation of r = .005. A linear regression was also used to analyze this interaction (Table 4). Similarly, there was no significant interaction (p = .971) between the two variables. Less than 1% of the variance in the dependent variable, shame resilience, was explained by the independent variable ICIAI and for every unit of change in the ICIAI there were only .002 units of change in shame resilience. Suggesting that there is no relationship between a collectivist self-construal and shame resilience. Furthermore, it suggests that collectivism is not a predictor of shame resilience.
However, the ICIAI scale produces an overall score for individualism and collectivism with higher scores being more collectivist, but it also produces 8-subscores for individualism and collectivism for values and behaviors in regard to family, close friends, co-workers, and strangers. Given this, an exploratory analysis was done using a linear regression with the eight sub-scores comprising the independent variable and shame resilience as the dependent variable (Table 5). Again, there was no significant interaction between any of the variables, with behavior in regard to coworkers being the only predictor variable to approach significance (p = .072). Only .7% of the variance in the dependent variable shame resilience was explained by the independent variables, ICIAI sub-scores. Across all subscales, most effect sizes were close to 0 with the largest having an effect size of 2.58. Overall, The ICIAI failed to reach criteria to be a significant predictor of shame resilience, both with the overall score and the subscale scores.
Discussion & Conclusions
While not the first study to investigate the link between shame resilience and subjective wellbeing, to our knowledge this is the first study to gather quantitative data in regard to shame resilience. The work done by Brené Brown suggested through interviews that shame resilience indeed had an effect on subjective wellbeing. The results of our study confirm this find with quantitative data. A significant correlation between the two variables in conjunction with the previous finding suggests a causal relationship. While the results of our study are not enough to determine if shame resilience causes better subjective wellbeing, we know there is an interaction between the variables with a moderate effect. Importantly, this supports that shame resilience is associated with subjective wellbeing and could potentially have an effect on how people manage their shame. Overall this study supports the idea that most people would benefit from discussing shame more openly, and that applying this theory could have a range of benefits. From potentially improving quality of life and wellbeing to addressing mental and behavioral issues such as depression and addiction. This research sets a baseline for the effectiveness of the shame resilience theory and gives cause for further investigation.
We were also interested in different shame experiences across cultures. We hypothesized that individuals who were more collectivist would be more likely to be shame resilient and that collectivism would be predictive of shame resilience. When we look at shame within collectivist cultures, we do not see the same negative outcomes with shame within individualistic cultures. Our findings did not confirm this, and our hypothesis was null. People who tend towards collectivism seem to understand and recognize their shame, which is an element of shame resilience. Furthermore, shame resilience requires reaching out to a support network and being able to communicate their shame. Data suggests that people in collectivist cultures more naturally do this, yet our findings did not provide confirmation.
Ultimately, we were unable to connect shame resilience theory to the trait of collectivism. This suggests that the cultural factors examined in this study are not sufficient to explain differences in shame responses between cultures. Furthermore, it remains unclear if shame resilience is indeed a primary factor in cultures where we do not see reduced subjective wellbeing as a result of shame. There is a lack of research in regard to whether the factors of shame resilience are what individuals in collectivist cultures are engaging in. If the factors were the same between shame resilience and how people in collectivist cultures engage with shame, we hypothesized that collectivism should predict shame resilience. Our null results suggest that collectivism itself is not a distinct factor in the difference of negative shame responses between cultures. Likely there are other cultural factors which we did not account for in this study.
There are several potential limitations to this study. First, data was collected using a college population, a convenience sample which tends to limit the generalizability of these results. However, shame experiences seem to be consistent regardless of the shame trigger. For instance, what triggers shame in a college student will be much different than what triggers shame in a parent. Which indicates a better generalization of our results.
The next limitation may be the measure used for surveying individualism and collectivism. First, there could be a self-reporting issue with the scale, as this was the longest measurement used with 152 questions, and there were several suspicious data sets. For example, one participant selected 3 for every answer. Test fatigue was the biggest issue we anticipated for data collection and it would be understandable if the length of this measurement deterred students from providing accurate responses. In future studies a more concise measure of individualism versus collectivism might be used. A second limitation may be a lack of cultural diversity in the sample. While there are people who are more collectivist present in cultures that foster individualism and vice versa, the majority of our subjects scored more towards individualism than collectivism. Our sample might not have included enough people who scored towards collectivism to detect an effect. The results of this analysis might change in samples with more participants scoring towards collectivism. Finally, there may be no interaction between shame resilience and collectivism. The study was not underpowered, so theoretically there were enough participants in the sample to detect an effect.
Going forward we recommend a randomized controlled experiment to further determine the causal link between shame resilience and subjective wellbeing. A baseline measure of shame and subjective wellbeing should be taken, and the experimental group should be trained in shame resilience while the control group be given treatment as usual. At the end of the experiment another measure of subjective wellbeing should be taken and compared to baseline. Determining a causal link is important because shame resilience theory has the potential to provide an improvement to wellbeing to a great number of people. Furthermore, future research should examine shame in a clinical context. A particular point of interest is the prevalence of shame amongst other mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety, and bi-polar disorder, and behavioral health issues, such as addiction and reproductive health. The consequences of shame as they occur in western cultures, could be complicit in compounding the effects of mental illness. If shame resilience does cause better subjective wellbeing, treatment of mental illnesses and behavioral health issues could be strengthened by addressing shame.
There is also the interest in pursuing why we see these differences in shame experiences across cultures. While this study did not point to any one cultural factor involved in shame reactions and experiences, more research that should be done to examine individualism and collectivism as factors for the difference in shame experiences, using better measures and more representative samples. We also recommend looking into cultures which emphasize socially engaged over socially disengaged emotions. Shame is a socially engaged emotion and cultures such as United States emphasize socially disengaged emotions over socially engaged emotions.
Previous research into shame has focused on understanding the mechanisms of shame but little work has been done to understand and counteract the negative effects of shame. The results of our study add to a body of work which seeks to provide greater evidence and applicability of the shame resilience theory. The theory is based on strong ideological bases but until this study had no quantitative data backing. While our study design lacked the ability to determine a causal relationship, we were able to gather data on the relationship between shame resilience and subjective wellbeing, suggesting there is a significant interaction. Additionally, our data suggested that this is not a trivial effect. Overall, this study adds to the growing body of shame research. We hope this study adds clarity to an area of research characterized by uncertainty and supports future studies expanding our understanding and management of shame. Shame resilience is a fascinating theory, which holds an exciting place in the shame literature, offering a direct response to negative shame outcomes. Finally, this theory deserves a greater empirical base to stand on, which we hope will be further investigated.
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