In your opinion, which emotion is worse, fear or shame? (From my post.)

NOTE: This is an edited reprint from a post I made on in response to a question.  I  am reprinting it here because I believe it enhances my last post on emotions.

The issue for me is that emotions are highly misunderstood.

My 3-cents on the question.

To start, your question reflects the misconception that you can compare one emotion (or feeling) to another along a given dimension. This dimension might be better/worse, good/bad, or positive/negative.

I say misconception because all of these dimensions are false dichotomies.

All emotions are tools which provide us with information about how we perceive our surroundings. In addition to providing us with this information, our emotions also prepare our bodies to deal with the situation our attention has been directed to by those emotions.

To ask whether fear is worse than shame or vice versa would be like asking “Which is worse, a sewing machine or a TV remote?” Both are just tools which serve a specific function and which have a specific learning curve for mastering that function. To put it another way, each tool serves a specific purpose in a specific sphere of influence. This specificity makes the question of comparing them irrelevant.

If we wish to master the tool and get the most out of the function it provides, we need to understand the tool and apply it. This is called “mastery”.

So, while both of these emotions are just tools, they apply to different situations and, therefore, are unique. And, given this uniqueness, they cannot be rated along the dichotomous scales listed above.

Now, you can compare different intensities and manifestations of a given emotion. Examples include being upset verses appropriate anger and rage. This might be like comparing a home appliance with other brands or with an industrial appliance.

Bringing you up to speed.

In my first Amazon bestselling book Emotions as Tools: Control Your Life not Your Feelings,

I discuss the emotional cycle, the primary emotions, and several other topics.

The emotional cycle describes how the emotions “work”.

The quick version is that you are hardwired to scan your surroundings for “threats” and other meaningful situations which have significance to you. When a significant event is perceived, an unconscious message goes to your Amygdala which puts your body on alert. In other words, you REACT. A second message goes to the thinking part of your brain which gives you an opportunity to assess your situation and choose a RESPONSE.

The initial reaction to the situation as reflected in the emotion you experience is called the message of the emotion.

There are 6 primary emotions. These emotions (mad, sad, glad, fear, disgust, and surprise) appear sometimes at birth and are found in many subhuman species. The primary emotions have survival value. One writer incorrectly referred to these emotions as the only real emotions and attempted to exclude shame which, as another writer correctly noted, is a self-conscious emotion which develops later as the cognitive ability of the growing child increases.

Shame and Fear.

I am not sure what led you to compare these two feelings as they are very different. Perhaps, both of these feelings are problematic for you and you were wondering if you could eliminate one and keep the other.

Shame, as one respondent pointed out is a self-conscious emotion, the focus of which is yourself and the message of which is that there is something wrong with you. Shame implies that you are forever tainted because of something you have done (or not done). The sister emotion of Guilt tells you that DID something wrong. Shame says that you ARE something wrong.

Shame is a very powerful emotion that parents sometimes misuse as a means to control or correct their child’s behavior. Instead of saying “You did (something) wrong.” and creating a teaching moment, they say “You’re a bad boy.” Now, as parents, this sometimes slips out in all of us and no harm is done. But, if overused, it sends a very destructive message to the child.

The message of fear is that there is a threat that will “kill” you if you don’t escape. Fear is the sensation in the pit of the stomach and the hair standing up on the back of the neck which says “Get away, now!”.

Shame is not a type of fear.

Fear is a here-and-now emotion that is often substituted for anxiety as in “I’m afraid I screwed up.” Anxiety is a future based emotion the message of which is that there MAY be a threat and that threat MAY “kill” me.

While different from each other, anxiety and fear are feelings which need to be mastered.

The bottom line is that you need to understand and master all your feelings. If you can get past shame (through therapy if needed) and thereby eliminate it, great. Do so.

If there is a threat which elicits real fear, get away from it.

If what you are experiencing is anxiety, use it as a motivator to deal with the threat and neutralize it. I discuss how to do this on my blog.

Note: You can access all of my 100+ posts directly by going to my site and clicking on the Index tab in the upper right hand corner of the home. This will take you to a PDF which will list all my posts by title and month. Go to the Archives you need, click on it, and scroll down to the post you seek.

If you misuse anger as a primary motivator, there are better alternatives.

Some people use their anger to motivate them to take action.

If you are in a situation where someone or something is theatening you, then using the power of your anger is very appropriate.

In fact, this is reason that you have your anger.

Let me explain.

There are five basic emotions that all human beings and some nonhuman species have.

The five basic emotions are mad (anger), sad, glad (happy), fear, and disgust.

Without going into a lot of detail (as I have talked about the basis of emotions in other posts on this blog), each emotion communicates to us how we see our environment and give us the opportunity to react, or respond, to our environment.

NOTE: If you have not done so already, I encourage you to click on the Index Tab above and access the PDF which lists all of my posts by category, title and date.  You can then access any post you want in the Archives.

Anger, as an emotion, communicates to us that we perceive a “threat” that we believe we can eliminate if we throw enough power at it. When angry, adrenaline flows through our body and motivates us to take action against the threat. This is the power that you feel when angry.

Anger prepares you to go to war.  In other words, you are energized and ready to attack the perceived threat and eliminate it.

The challenge in using anger as a primary motivator is that you may overreact and do something inappropriate.

The issue here is two-fold..

  1. What if you have misperceived the nature of the the threat and your attack is inappropriate?
  2. What if the “threat” is a  person (like a boss) who has more power than you and your “attack” would end up “hurting” you?

Issue number 1 involves anyone who uses anger as a “shield” (or secondary emotion) to protect them from other feelings such as inadequacy, shame, anxiety, hurt, and so forth.

The most conspicuous example of this is when a man abuses his wife and later attempts to blame his anger for his actions.

The issue here is  there the perceived threat is psychological. The reaction implies that the threat is survival based, which it is not. In other words, there is an ego threat and emotions, other than anger need to be addressed.

Issue number 2 involves an interaction where someone who has more power or status takes advantage of you because they believe they are immune to anything you might choose to do.

This could be a boss or a supervisor.

It could involve a situation where a male superior takes advantage of a  female subordinate.  There are numerous examples in the news highlighting this situation.

But, it could also involve a superior taking advantage of a subordinate (same gender) by undercutting them  or stealing their work without giving the necessary credit.

In this case, a direct “attack” may not be possible.

You can, however, still use the energy anger of your anger as a motivator.  You just have to develop and implement an indirect “attack”.

But, what if you misuse your anger as a motivator and “manufacture” some sort of threat so you can use the anger energy.  Let’s say that you get angry at a project so you can complete it.

Well, there may be a better way.

Barbara Fredrickson looks at “positive” emotions.

While I do not believe that emotions should be labeled as “positive” or “negative” for reasons I’ve written about elsewhere, I will talk about positive emotions here for the sake of discussion.

Fredrickson writes that the purpose of positive emotions is to keep us engaged or motivated with our environment.

The emotion of glad, or happy, motivates us to become involved in whatever we find “pleasurable”.

I suggest that you use the emotion of “glad” to motivate you to engage yourself in tasks at work or in relationships which will help you achieve your goals or improve your relationships.

To be more specific, think of how achieving a specific task, improving a relationship, reaching your goals, or becoming a better person will be advantageous to you and experience “pleasure” at the gains you will experience.

When you do this, you experience the motivation you are looking for without having to worry about overreacting. In other words, you can still “attack” the situation with adaptive energy and feel good about what you’re doing.

This is what we all do when we are preparing to go on vacation and we zip through projects, clear our desk, and clean our e-mail boxes before leaving.

If you are skeptical about finding tasks at work “pleasurable”, then you can access a different emotion. While Fredrickson doesn’t discuss it, other writers do. The emotion is “pride”. This is a self-conscious emotion that can become maladaptive if it becomes narcissistic. If used as a motivator to complete a task that is “important” to you and reflects your “sense of competence”, self-worth, and desire to “do put your best foot forward”, pride will function as a “positive” emotion and give you the energy/motivation you seek.

This is adaptively and appropriately using your emotions as tools. It is matching the emotion to the situation.