The Private Shame of Social Media Users

A modern paradox is the fact that most people would answer yes to the following two questions: (1) are social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter awash in anger, misinformation, aggression and shaming?, and (2) are you a regular user of these platforms?

There are obviously sufficient benefits to using social media that outweigh the perils, leaving users attracted, and in some cases addicted, to something that will at least occasionally produce some emotional harm. Understanding the emotional landscape would help manage these negative experiences, and while some emotions are fairly straightforward, others are more complex and subtle. While most readers would recognize public shame — when someone (usually a public profile individual, like a celebrity or politician) has flaws and mistakes revealed via social media, the private experience of shame receives less attention despite its greater ubiquity — everyone experiences online shame at least occasionally, and the majority are likely unaware of its occurrence.

Shame hasn’t received the empirical and theoretical attention of depression and anxiety among psychologists, and it’s less understood by the public. Ask someone if they’ve heard of the fight or flight response and many will offer a pretty accurate description of the phenomenon and its association with anxiety.

Yet how many people would associate shame with a fight or flight response?

Whereas the anxious person becomes physiologically and mentally prepared to run or fight a threat, which can manifest in a variety of ways, shame is temporally on the other side of a threat — the damage is done and the emotional pain is pressuring a response. Observe someone (or yourself) experiencing shame and you’ll likely witness escape behaviour (ex: isolating; averting eye contact) and/or attack behaviour (ex: criticizing self and others).

But what is shame exactly?

Standard definitions of shame will usually include the two main components — first, there’s an error/mistake made, and then the emotional pain of being conscious of this mistake. Shame can be public and tends to be thought of as a public experience, but it’s not limited to this realm. One can be ashamed of actions and experiences of which no one else has knowledge.

It’s common to draw some equivalence between embarrassment and shame with the link being the imagined judgment of others knowing your misdeed. And how does it differ from guilt, which is also a painful emotion we experience following a mistake? I believe John Bradshaw captured the distinction best when he noted that guilt is attached to behaviour, while shame clings to character (you are the mistake).

This is vital to understanding where shame gains its strength — it can feel like the mistake reveals something fundamentally negative about you as a person, or at least that others might think it reveals something about you. For those who tend to view themselves as smart and good people, acting in a way that calls these beliefs into question can be jarring. And like most strong emotions, knowing that it’s logically untrue means little to the feeling that it’s true (emotional reasoning).

Which brings us to the internet — the place where the anxiety of being judged, the shame of being wrong and the embarrassment of having it all viewed by others creates a potential perfect storm of emotional pain.

In the year 2021, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are where most debate and interaction occur, especially during the COVID pandemic. It’s a giant marketplace where you allow most of the world to view your ideas and more. There is great reward to be found standing on this stage even if 99.9% of interactions will likely never be read by an audience of more than several people. For those who are not famous or well followed, having even 10 to 20 people applaud your online actions can leave one feeling very self-satisfied.

For those who strongly believe in the power of a marketplace of ideas, social media should be a place where impressive progress on a range of societal problems is made. It is not. To be fair to those marketplace believers, ideas are not the primary commodity in this marketplace. Tribalism, shame, anger and moral righteousness are trafficked more than an honest exchange of ideas.

There are a number of theories why people behave more aggressively online than in person. Like most social science concepts, the answer likely involves multiple interacting variables, and in typical internet fashion, I’ll oversimplify a complex issue by pointing to three factors. First, you don’t have to look anyone in the eye while on Twitter. Most people wouldn’t say most of the things they write online if they had to do so while making eye contact in person.

Second, moral righteousness is pleasurable and addictive, and like pornography, it’s free and easy to get online.

Third, people get caught in shame-anger cycles. For my money, this is one of the main drivers of unhealthy internet behaviour, and a significant and underappreciated cause of mental health distress.

The shame-anger cycle is fairly straightforward — you post a comment or idea online, which is criticized or outright attacked to some degree by one or more people. The experience produces a feeling of shame, followed almost immediately by anger. Most people don’t notice the shame, they only notice their anger, which psychologists call a secondary emotion (it is secondary to, or a consequence of a primary emotional response, which in this case is shame).

Anger is not a guaranteed response to shame. The pain and distress may lead to a fleeing response, like a pause or break from posting online. However, as noted earlier, people are more aggressive when they don’t have to look their target in the eye, so fight responses seem to be the more common consequence (a guess on my part). The most common fight response is an attempt to shame the person who attacked you, or at least a member of their supposed group.

A reasonable question to pose for this analysis is the following — why would someone feel shame for being criticized or disagreed with? Isn’t that an extreme response one would expect of a relatively small segment of the population?

Yes, it’s an outsized response that I suspect has several key causes. First, there is a tendency to make criticism personal. A sizeable portion of people online wield facts, information and ideas as weapons more than tools of communication, often in an effort to appear smart and/or virtuous. Anyone who’s ever watched the movie Goof Will Hunting remembers the shaming of the grad student with the ponytail.

How many of you watched the protagonist genius verbally dissect that person, who was in need of a good shaming, and then later daydreamed of how it would feel to do the same (demonstrating a combination of intellectual and moral superiority)?

One of my favourite writers was the late Christopher Hitchens, whose combination of logic and communication — both oral and written — earned him many admirers. Unfortunately, his reputation among many online seems largely based in what’s known as the Hitchslap — a video clip showing him render a debating opponent speechless with an argument delivered with both force and an eloquent British accent. Sadly, admiring Hitchens for the Hitchslap is like admiring Michael Jordan for his dunks — they’re fun to watch, but miss the point of what made that person great.

Likewise, there seems to be a tendency for online posters to attempt Hitchslaps in an effort to look intelligent — a mike-drop moment meant to elicit admiration as opposed to mutual discussion of an idea. This is one of the reasons for so many shame responses — the person who criticized you wasn’t interested in changing your mind or exchanging ideas; rather, they wanted to shame you. Popular comedy shows like the Daily Show and This Week with John Oliver reliably practice a shaming comedy style, where they attack certain ideas or people in ways that go beyond criticism and can be considered acts of attempted humiliation.

This leads to a second reason for low shame thresholds — online culture is so replete with shame, aggression and tribalism that one expects (or should expect) to be attacked at some point. This leaves everyone anticipating an attack and seeing Hitchslaps and shaming where regular criticism and disagreement exist. Like a placebo/nocebo effect, you ultimately experience what you expect to experience, regardless of the nature of the source. And those who’ve experienced the burn of shame in the past are likely to be sensitized and hypervigilant in the future.

Finally, there are undoubtedly personality characteristics that make someone more prone to experience shame via online interactions. Growing up in an environment where you were regularly and perhaps heavily criticized, such as having a perfectionistic parent(s). Perfectionism refers to having rigid and excessive standards, which by nature will yield more perceived mistakes and therefore more opportunities to feel shame. Perfectionists will often feel more shame than their less perfectionist counterparts.

Being naturally aggressive or narcissistic can make one prone to shaming experiences via the increased likelihood of retribution in response to attacks from others. Hence, the shame-anger cycle lends itself to replication across time — shame-anger-shame-anger, etc.

Data for the above analysis is evident in innumerable Twitter threads.

The solution? I’ll offer several.

First, setting proper expectations seems pretty obvious, yet knowing what social media will bring is often not enough. As such, the second option is to address and reframe shame experiences. This cannot be done without first being capable of recognizing that you are in fact feeling shame. As noted earlier, you will tend to simply notice the anger and you’re already in attack mode. Step back to notice that you’re actually hurt on some level by the experience. Noticing shame and labelling it for what it is — either healthy or unhealthy shame– can go a long way.

In this case, healthy shame occurs when it acts as a red flag and helps in the recognition of actual errors. When people habitually move to anger and attacking in response to criticism it produces self-confirmation bias, tribalistic thinking and hubris. Being honest about when you’re off the mark is hard and demands humility. Humility can be especially difficult when the people you’re interacting with are in attack mode — it feels like a wolf bearing its neck to a predator.

Yet, online culture will never change unless more people are willing to model this seemingly rare ability. How many people have you seen online concede points and acknowledge errors. Whataboutism and strawmanning opponents’ arguments are much more common reactions. It can seem like too many people online have no shame at all, which is false — you should assume it’s almost always present, yet invisible.

You also have to recognize false alarms, which occur when you feel shame, but haven’t committed an error. It can be tempting in these situations to attack another or work harder to prove your point. The latter option is worthwhile even if you may never get feedback on your efforts. People can be influenced by your ideas, yet never acknowledge them. If you’re someone who needs reassurance, social media exchanges are not for you. Ultimately, your goals need to be examined — if you’re trying to change many people’s minds and have them acknowledge your efforts, you’re likely to suffer. If you want to communicate your opinion with facts and act in good faith, knowing that you’ll likely never know the success of your endeavour, that’s a more reasonable goal.

Finally, I just want to quickly comment on shame from interactions from people you know. Having debates and exchanges via Twitter, Facebook and group texts with people you personally know has the potential for much stronger emotions and shame-anger cycles. Indeed, relationships can and are regularly harmed and altered through such exchanges. There’s a lot that could be written here, but I’ll again oversimplify the issue by offering this piece of advice — ask yourself if you want to be right or happy? Killing a good relationship in the name of trying to change someone’s mind is often not worth it. Allowing people hold what you consider to be the wrong ideas and thoughts is not only necessary, but critical to most relationships. Ultimately, if having a particular discussion or debate is critically important, then at least have it face to face.

Shame is not something can be avoided in life or online, so managing its effects must be the main goal.

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I am a clinical psychologist working in a private practice in Ottawa, Canada. I am also the author of The Need to be Liked and various peer-reviewed articles.

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Dr. Roger Covin, C.Psych

I am a clinical psychologist working in a private practice in Ottawa, Canada. I am also the author of The Need to be Liked and various peer-reviewed articles.