Your character’s relationship to shame is the most important psychological relationship to understand. Shame dictates more of our actions than any other emotion—more than rage, more than grief. As Dr. Brené Brown, who’s been researching shame and vulnerability for over a decade, found, “[w]hat makes shame so powerful is its ability to make us feel trapped, powerless and isolated. What makes it so dangerous is its ability to make us feel like we are the only one— different—on the outside of the group. Shame demands that we hide our ‘shamed selves’ from others in order to avoid additional shame.” It explains the inexplicable actions people take every day and, when we understand that and understand the source of it, we can harness that to craft powerful, meaningful characters and explain otherwise inexplicable character growth arcs.
So what is it, and what do we need to understand to wield this powerful tool?
Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt registers when we feel we’ve done something bad—we’ve taken an action and it goes against our moral code, or the code of our community. Shame is the feeling that we are bad—our deepest secret is that we’re unlovable, and if anyone ever really gets to know us, they’ll uncover that awful secret, too. Or, as Dr. Brown puts it, “Guilt says: ‘you’ve done something bad’ or ‘you’ve made a bad choice.’ Shame says: ‘you are bad.’ There is a big difference between ‘you made a mistake’ and ‘you are a mistake.’ Guilt can often inspire us to change a behavior, make amends, apologize or rethink our priorities. When we feel shame, our self-worth is so low that there is little possibility for change.”
When shame is triggered, it influences everything we do, everything we say, the way we move our hands, our heads, the way we smile, what we react to, how we act in crowds or with people we don’t know…you begin to see how it seeps into every single area of our lives.
The only people who don’t feel shame, says Dr. Brown, is psychopaths. “[M]ost of us, if not all, have built significant parts of our lives around shame.” It can be stronger or weaker in people, but there is almost no one it does not affect.
What does it look like when a character is coming from a shame reaction? “Even now I talk too much and too loud, claiming ground….I sometimes meet women and recognize in them an instinct to run, to be gone before harm can come again, mixed with a ferocious recklessness because nothing else can be taken. I wonder what they could have done to be paying such a price. [Shame] makes me feel wildly vulnerable. I struggle still to claim a permanent space, an immutable relationship to those around me. It negates forever the ability to have a real friend. To speak in a room with confidence. To walk anyplace without believing that I have no right to be there and that I am in danger.”  “The moment when you just want to crawl into a hole and never be seen by the world again[.] You might find yourself defensive like a cornered animal. [I]t triggers a familiar wave of self-doubt. You might be overwhelmed by feelings of self-hatred or even self-harm.” These behaviors are characteristic outer manifestations of shame.
But shame also has an inner voice, and this is a powerful storytelling tool. “‘I knew it—you are just a fraud. You don’t deserve to be here. Nobody likes you—they are just pretending.’ Other shame voices might harp on how lazy or slow or stupid you are. When the shame voice gets going, it can seem awfully loud.” A character’s inner voice reveals to a reader the truth of what a character is dealing with, even, and especially, if the character is lying.
And that’s the most powerful piece of information for mining this character trait and using it well: when in a shame reaction, characters will do inexplicable things which continue to do them harm. How can we use shame to explain the inexplicable? Here’s Dave Barry: “Your brain cherishes embarrassing memories. It likes to take them out and fondle them. This probably explains a lot of unexplained suicides. A successful man with a nice family and a good career will be out on his patio, cooking hamburgers, seemingly without a care in the world, when his brain, rummaging through its humiliating-incident collection, selects an old favorite, which it replays for a zillionth time, and the man is suddenly so overcome by feelings of shame that he stabs himself in the skull with his barbecue fork.” We, as writers, provide the backstory necessary so if your happy, well-adjusted-seeming character goes for the barbeque fork, the reader nods their head instead of throwing your book across the room and vowing never to read you again. Shame adds weight; it adds depth.
Shame has the power to drag people down like nothing else but depression (which has been described as an offshoot of shame). This phenomenon is so common it has a name: the shame spiral. Here’s one in action: “She messed up a presentation at work; didn’t get an award she was up for; went out and drank too much, ate even more, called her toxic ex and cried on the phone until he agreed that she could come over. The next morning, she woke up sweating, her heart racing. She wanted to throw up, purge herself of the booze and junk food she’d consumed during her nocturnal binge when she was feeling powerless and feral. I keep screwing up, she thought. She wanted to scratch the skin from her body, remove the stench left by her ex, an illogical choice of people to turn to when she was feeling isolated and alone as he had a history of making her feel worse and, right on cue, as they were in the throes of passion, all she kept thinking was: I am such a loser.”
Each decision this woman made led to a further destructive decision and that’s the definition of a shame spiral. It makes no logical sense—there’s no logic to losing control of yourself and continuing to do things that make you feel worthless. The Urban Dictionary says a shame spiral “characterizes the loss of self-control over something that makes one feel worthless and pathetic. Due to these feelings of low self-worth and guilt, the action that triggered the shame spiral is repeated and the degradation of one’s self continues. Example triggers for shame spirals could be excesses of junk food, alcohol, meaningless sex, buying unnecessary gifts for oneself and the like.” A shame spiral could incorporate some or all these actions and more.
Other ways a character can act when in a shame spiral: “‘[S]hame [is] highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, violence, bullying and aggression,’ which can all serve as masks or so-called armor we don to keep ourselves from dealing with, simply put, the reality of ourselves.” Perfectionism is another way shame spirals can manifest. In a shame spiral, a character will do a destructive behavior, then continue to behave in this way more and more, unable to stop. For instance, if a character is addicted to sweets, he will binge on chocolates, then feel awful and use it as proof he’s a terrible person, then binge on donuts. This will happen again and again, as his mindset spirals down into darker and darker places and his self-talk becomes more and more hateful.
What triggers shame? “There are no universal triggers. There are no events or situations that make all of us feel or experience shame.” So you can use anything in a character’s past about which they’ve been shamed by others to explain their present shame reactions.
In Part 2 of this article, I’ll explore how to use shame to chart character growth and regression.
And by the way, this is a tough article. Unlike most writing on our craft, this has the potential for you to recognize much of what I’ve written about in yourself, as well. I know it was hard for me to research and write. Please know that, wherever you are in relation to this subject, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. As Dr. Brown says, if you are able, grab those people you trust the most and “reach out and tell your story. You’ve got to speak your shame.” If you are struggling, please—help is both available and necessary. Take good care of yourself.
 Meredith Hall, “Shunned,” Creative Nonfiction, Issue #20, 2003.
 Dave Barry, “The Embarrassing Truth,” Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits: Ballantine, 1988: p.140-141.
 Jill Di Donato, author, Beautiful Garbage, in “The Shame Spiral,” Huffington Post, 4/21/2014.
 Jill Di Donato, author, Beautiful Garbage, in “The Shame Spiral,” Huffington Post, 4/21/2014. Internal quote from Dr. Brené Brown.