Self-Conscious Emotions

Lesson objective:

This lesson explains what self-conscious emotions are, the times when we experience them, and why we experience them. What are signs and examples of self-conscious emotions and how do they impact us?

Across various lessons we have discussed how chronic stress and trauma affect the content of our thoughts, including thoughts about ourselves. 

Trauma often leads to inward focus, changing the narrative you tell yourself about yourself. 

After trauma, it is common to experience many self-conscious emotions, or feelings related to our sense of self and other people’s reactions to us.

As humans, we feel self-conscious emotions when we attribute the event that sparked the emotion to internal causes, as opposed to external causes.  

In other words, we may feel self-conscious emotions when we interpret our behavior or ourselves as the cause of the emotion. 

If something good happens to us, we might feel happy; if something bad happens to us we might feel sad or angry. If we believe we are responsible for making the good thing happen, we might then feel proud. On the other hand, if we believe we are responsible for making the bad thing happen, we might then feel guilty or ashamed. 

Simply, when we experience self-conscious emotions, our reactions are not a response to an outside situation but rather a reaction to how we feel about our role in the situation.

Self-conscious emotions come with many questions.  

Was I the cause? 

Could I have done something? 

Could I have changed the outcome?

What does my inaction mean about me? 

Questions like these are indicators of self-conscious emotions–including guilt and shame.

In the experience of self-conscious emotions, we compare ourselves and our behaviors to a standard that we have acquired and learned from society, culture, and family. 

With or without our conscious awareness, we use the standards we have learned to issue a judgment about the alignment between our behavior and ideal behavior. We may feel positive if we meet the standard, or negative if we fail to meet it.

Self-conscious emotions have an important role in determining and motivating our thoughts and feelings, our decision-making, and our mental and physical health

Here we focus on two of these emotions, guilt and shame, which are common feelings that may arise during times of stress, and in the context of traumatic experiences.