NOTE: This is an edited reprint from a post I made on Quora.com 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.