When does shame become problematic for well-being? An examination of the factors that may influence perceived reparability

Author: Mikaela Cibich

Cibich, Mikaela, 2019 When does shame become problematic for well-being? An examination of the factors that may influence perceived reparability, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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Shame research is divided. On one hand, shame is commonly conceptualised as an “ugly” emotion that motivates an avoidance response and is detrimental to well-being. On the other, shame has been championed as an adaptive emotion that alerts us to when we have acted in a way that threatens our social belongingness and motivates us to repair social bonds. In response to this seemingly contradictory literature, shame is commonly redefined to fit a position within this debate. For example, some have defined and operationalised shame as a maladaptive withdrawal response while others suggest that once shame is differentiated from a felt sense of inferiority and rejection it motivates an approach and repair response. Rather than continue to redefine shame, it is reasonable to suggest that shame — like other emotions — evolved to serve a functional purpose but can become problematic under certain circumstances. Rather than continue to attempt to respond to the question of, “is shame functional or problematic?” this thesis will seek to instead integrate these perspectives, and understand “when does shame, a functional emotion, become problematic?”

A recent meta-analysis showed that approach responses to shame are more likely when a repair option is available compared to when it is not (Leach & Cidam, 2015). I extend on this by investigating three factors that may influence the reparability of shame in daily life: the perceived malleability of the self (i.e., self-theories), the presence of identities with conflicting normative standards (i.e., identity conflict), and the stigmatising responses of others. Furthermore, I investigate whether these factors also influence shame’s relationship with psychological distress. Adjunct to these investigations I also test whether the intensity of shame influences responses to shame, drawing on Yerkes Dodson Law and Emotional Intensity Theory (Brehm, 1999; Yerkes & Dodson, 1908).

Chapter 1 provides an overview of the current shame literature in relation to shame’s seemingly contradictory outcomes and how this literature can be integrated. Chapter 2 investigates the possibility that self-theories influence the perceived reparability of shame and in turn shame’s outcomes. Chapter 3 then tests whether identity conflict is associated with shame that is perceived as difficult to repair and in turn likely to motivate an avoidance response and result in psychological distress. Chapter 4 extends this research on identity conflict, considering also the influence of others’ stigmatising responses. Finally, Chapter 5 provides a General Discussion of the current findings.

Overall, the findings of this thesis affirm that shame can motivate both avoidance and approach tendencies. Interestingly, these avoidance and approach tendencies are not mutually exclusive as presumed, providing an important consideration for future shame research. The thesis also suggests that a person’s perceived reparability of their self and social-image influences the relationship between shame and a motivation to change the self. However, the influence of this perceived reparability on shame’s relationship with psychological distress is questionable. While results suggest that self-theories do not influence shame’s motivational and psychological consequences, and that the influences of social factors (i.e., the experience of identity conflict and stigma) are inconsistent, it highlights promising avenues for future research.

Keywords: shame, approach, avoidance, reparability, social emotions

Subject: Psychology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2019
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Dr Lydia Woodyatt