Guilt, Shame and Pride - Self-Conscious Emotions

09 December, 2019
Guilt, shame, and pride are emotions related to one's sense of self and arise from a series of internal assessments and attributions.

Who hasn’t experienced shame after expressing an opinion and guilt after something they did and pride after an achievement? Any of these examples correspond to a series of emotions in which there’s an evaluation that’s relative to the self and that we know in psychology as “self-conscious emotions“.

These emotions are actually emotional states that have a series of common characteristics. But they also have specific characteristics depending on how someone evaluates a certain behavior and what attribution they make. Let’s delve deeper into it.

Guilt, shame, and pride – self-conscious emotions

A woman closing her eyes.

In recent years, people are all about emotions and we no longer ignore them; quite the opposite, in fact. However, there’s still much to discover about them.

While it’s true that there are quite a few studies on basic emotions and emotional intelligence, there aren’t any for those of greater variability and complexity. This is the case with self-conscious emotions.

Nevertheless, there was a progressive increase in interest in these kinds of emotions. And, there are some theoretical models about them out there by now.

Thus, according to these various studies, self-conscious emotions share many meaningful characteristics:

  • Secondary emotions. This means they arise from the transformation of more basic ones.
  • Complex emotions. These are necessary for the previous development of certain cognitive abilities, such as a notion of self or self-awareness. That is, there’s a need for a difference between the self and others.
  • Social emotions. They manifest in interpersonal contexts.
  • Moral emotions. These types of emotions are the result of the internalization of cultural values, norms, and criteria from which someone established what’s correct and what isn’t. In terms of behavior, that is. In addition, these are fundamental as motivating and controlling elements of moral behavior, along with empathy.

For example, guilt and shame can inhibit behaviors that some consider immoral. Or they might facilitate those listed as moral, because if you don’t follow them, then you’ll feel shame and guilt. In addition, one can associate pride with good actions and with the reinforcement resulting from doing similar actions in the future.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that, despite the fact that these types of emotions are considered self-conscious, the various authors who have investigated them state that the self-assessment carried out doesn’t have to be conscious or explicit.

Differential aspects of guilt, shame, and pride

Despite the characteristics self-conscious emotions share, certain things differentiate them. Each of them arises before a given event and has a particular subjective experience. Also, they all bring along a series of different types of behavior.

Michael Lewis developed a model that explains self-conscious emotions from two variables:

  • The positive or negative evaluation of one’s behavior.
  • The internal attribution (global or specific) one can make regarding such behavior.

According to the author, we evaluate our thoughts, feelings, and actions as successes or failures, according to both cultural and personal rules, standards, and goals. And, we carry out internal attributions through them. That is, we reflect on where they come from.

If you consider that success or failure is due to yourself as a whole, then the internal attribution would be global. And if you consider that it’s all due to a particular thought, action, or feeling, then it would be specific. And from there, one emotion or another arises.

In addition, this whole process depends on both cultural influences and personal variables. For this reason, one person would consider the same action as a failure while another may consider it a success. The same goes for attributions, which can be global or specific depending on the person.

Below, we’ll explain the main characteristics of these types of emotions according to Lewis’ perspective.

Guilt and shame, emotions with negative self-assessments

When most of us experience shame, we perform a negative evaluation of our global self. We want to hide or disappear when we perceive we might’ve made a fool of ourselves. Thus, all we want at that moment is to run away from that discomfort. In fact, we experience some mental confusion, but getting rid of that emotional state isn’t as easy as repairing a specific action. Therefore, we resort to mechanisms such as forgetting or reinterpreting what happened.

Likewise, guilt arises from a negative self-evaluation, but at a specific level. That is, by concrete action. We feel guilty for something we did, thought, or felt because we hurt someone. However, in this case, we can’t reverse the action, and guilt requires that we repair the action in order to be able to get rid of the emotional state we’re experiencing. It also involves a reflection of how we’ll act in the future.

Lewis considers guilt less destructive and more useful than shame, due to the implication of corrective measures.

Pride and hubris, emotions with positive self-assessments

A woman showing off her nails.

Pride arises from a positive evaluation of a specific character. When we experience pride, we do it because we feel satisfied with our own actions. Due to the fact that it’s such a pleasant emotional state, we’ll most likely want to reproduce it in the future.

Michael Lewis also referred to the disposition of personality in his explanatory model on self-conscious emotions. To it rather than to an emotional reaction to refer to hubris or excessive pride. This emotion isn’t yet lexicalized in English and it originates from a positive global assessment associated with narcissism in extreme cases.

When a person experiences hubris, it means they’re very satisfied with themselves. Thus, they’ll try to maintain that state, even if it isn’t easy. In addition, it’s also usually associated with a feeling of superiority, and this leads to rejection from others.

Conclusion

What do you think when you feel guilt, shame, and pride? To what do you attribute said pride? And why do you experience guilt? Have you recognized the state of hubris in yourself at some point in your life? As you can see, if there’s something that differentiates self-conscious emotions, it’s the process of development related to the evaluation of the self that characterizes them. This is something you can check daily when you experience them.

However, there’s still a lot to investigate when it comes to these kinds of emotions, both personally and socially. For instance, to what extent are pride and hubris usually positive emotions? And when do they become emotional states that bring about negative consequences?

Although the emotional universe is exciting it’s also complicated and even mysterious. This is because it’s subject with a large number of variables and characteristics. Nevertheless, it’s important to study it because it facilitates the understanding of our essence. Because it’s another contribution to help complete the answer to one of the big questions: how do humans work?

Etxebarria, I. (2003). Las emociones autoconscientes: culpa, vergüenza y orgullo. En E. G. Fernández-Abascal, M. P. Jiménez y M. D. Martín (Coor.). Motivación y emoción. La adaptación humana (pp. 369-393). Madrid: Centro de Estudios Ramón Areces.

Lewis, M. (2000). Self-conscious emotions: Embarrassment, pride, shame, and guilt. En M. Lewis y J. M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (pp. 623-636). Nueva York: The Guilford Press.