Self-Conscious Emotions

Shame,  guilt,  pride,  and  embarrassment  are  considered  self-conscious  emotions  that  are  evoked by  self-reflection  and  self-evaluation.  They  are founded  in  social  relationships  whereby  people interact,  evaluate,  and  judge  themselves  and  others.  As  such,  it  not  surprising  that  self-conscious emotional  experiences  are  prevalent  in  sport  and exercise  settings.  In  fact,  it  has  been  argued  that self-conscious  emotions  are  central  to  motivating and regulating most of people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Self-Conscious Emotions Versus Basic Emotions

Basic  or  primary  emotions  (e.g.,  happiness,  sadness,  anger,  fear,  disgust,  surprise)  have  been studied more frequently in sport and exercise psychology (SEP) research compared to self-conscious emotions.  This  imbalance  of  research  focus  may be due to the difficulty of assessing self-conscious emotions,  the  complexity  of  understanding  these emotions, or the limited understanding of the distinction  between  basic  and  self-conscious  emotions.   The   primary   distinguishing   feature   of self-conscious  emotions  from  basic  emotions  is that  their  elicitation  requires  self-awareness  and self-representations. A second distinctive feature of self-conscious emotions is that they emerge later in childhood  than  basic  emotions  since  they  require the  formation  of  stable  representations  and  an awareness  of  socially  appropriate  standards  that are used for evaluation. A third distinction between basic  and  self-conscious  emotions  is  that  the  former is believed to promote survival goals (e.g., fear may  cause  an  individual  to  avoid  a  large,  angry opponent after a competitive match), whereas self-conscious emotions are thought to promote behaviors that increase the stability of social hierarchies and  affirm  status  roles  (e.g.,  team  sport  cooperation,   dominance).   Additionally,   self-conscious emotions guide behaviors that are socially valued and acceptable and foster avoidance of behaviors that may lead to disapproval. A fourth distinguishing feature of self-conscious emotions is that they do  not  have  unique,  universally  recognized  facial expressions.  Nonetheless,  a  growing  body  of  evidence  suggests  that  a  few  of  the  self-conscious emotions can be identified when specific body postures  and  head  movements  accompany  the  facial features  of  each  expression  (e.g.,  one  look  at  the opponent’s  downcast,  blushing  facial  expression and slouched body posture after missing the open net would likely portray embarrassment). Finally, self-conscious emotions are more cognitively complex  compared  with  basic  emotions.  Although basic emotions involve relatively simple appraisals, the  elicitation  of  self-conscious  emotions  requires individuals  to  form  stable  representations  about who they are and to direct attention toward those representations. These capacities allow individuals to  engage  in  various  complex  self-evaluative  processes that elicit self-conscious emotions.

Given that the sport environment tends to exemplify conditions for the experience of self-conscious emotions  (i.e.,  socially  constructed,  evaluative, public  forum  where  the  body  and  performances are on display and may be judged by oneself and others), it is likely that self-conscious emotions of shame, guilt, embarrassment, and pride are tied to sport participation experiences that foster sustainability or dropping out in sport.


Shame is an acutely painful emotion that individuals experience when they fail to meet internalized social  standards.  Shame  implies  the  perceived  or feared  loss  of  social  status  and  a  failure  to  live up  to  one’s  own  standards  of  excellence,  with  a focus  on  deeply  rooted  global  causes  (e.g.,  I  am not  good  at  sports).  Thus,  shame  involves  negative feelings about the self. The phenomenological experiences that accompany shame include a sense of worthlessness, humility, and shrinking, and the desire to hide, or disappear. Generalized forms of this highly painful state are consistently linked to a host of maladaptive psychological, physical, and behavioral  outcomes  including  increased  depressive  symptoms,  anxiety,  anger,  cortisol  dysregulation,  cardiovascular  reactivity,  substance  abuse, self-injurious behavior, decreased self-esteem, and adaptive personality characteristics like agreeableness  and  conscientiousness.  Researchers  targeting body-related  shame  also  report  unique  correlates compared with generalized forms of shame including increased body monitoring, weight rumination, body concern, body image importance, internalization of the thin ideal, social physique anxiety (SPA) and also decreased global self-worth, physical self-perceptions, body self-acceptance, self-determined regulations, and physical activity (PA).


Guilt  is  a  negative  emotion  that  involves  a  sense of  tension,  remorse,  and  regret  over  a  “bad thing”  done  with  a  focus  on  a  specific  behavior that  caused  the  experience  (e.g.,  I  didn’t  practice enough and missed the winning goal). Feelings of guilt are also frequently accompanied by a preoccupation with the transgression, rumination about the behavior, and thoughts of changing the current situation. As such, guilt motivates an act to repair the transgression instead of avoiding the situation in an attempt to protect the self. For example, an individual who feels guilty about eating junk food  might engage in PA in an attempt to alleviate the transgression of eating poorly.

There  is  some  question  in  the  literature  as  to whether guilt is an adaptive or maladaptive emotion. The traditional view is that guilt plays a significant role in psychological and physical pathology. Frequent  references  are  made  to  the  maladaptive nature of guilt characterized by chronic self-blame and obsessive rumination over the transgressions. Feelings of guilt are also consistently and positively linked  to  depressive  symptoms,  anxiety,  and  low self-esteem. Body-related guilt is further associated with  increased  body  monitoring,  weight  rumination, body concern, body image importance, internalization of the thin ideal, SPA, negative affect and decreased  self-esteem,  physical  self-perceptions, positive affect, and body self-acceptance. However, more  recent  research  has  stressed  the  adaptive functions of guilt, particularly for prosocial behaviors such as motivation and PA. For example, an athlete who feels guilty for missing a practice may do extra training on his own time to make up for the lost practice.

While  often  confounded  conceptually  and  statistically, recognizing that shame and guilt are distinct emotions may help clarify issues regarding the adaptability of guilt. Such a distinction is necessary given that shame and guilt emotional experiences often overlap, and the co-occurrence of guilt and shame may mask the adaptive functions. That is, an individual may start with off with a guilt experience (e.g., I can’t believe I didn’t exercise today) but then intensify and generalize the failure to the self (e.g., . . . I’m such a bad person). This sequence of appraisals may lead to a loss of the advantages associated with guilt. In cases like this, not only is the exerciser presented with regret over a specific behavior that needs to be fixed but she is also burdened with feelings of disgrace for being an inadequate person. Thus, it is guilt accompanied with shame that most likely leads to the more negative outcomes  (obsessive  rumination  and  self-blame) often  associated  with  guilt  experiences.  One  way to address this issue in SEP is to use measures that appropriately distinguish between shame and guilt and/or use statistical corrections to develop guilt-free shame and shame-free guilt scores.


Embarrassment is a negative emotion that requires attributions  to  internal  causes  yet  the  experience of  this  emotion  does  not  depend  on  cognitive appraisals  (i.e.,  stability,  globality,  and  controllability).  That  is,  embarrassment  can  occur  from events caused by stable, uncontrollable, and global aspects (e.g., being publicly exposed as an incompetent  athlete)  or  by  events  caused  by  unstable, controllable,  and  specific  attributions  (e.g.,  tripping during a soccer game in front of spectators). Moreover, embarrassment occurs only when focus is placed on the public self (the self as perceived by real or imagined others) and activates corresponding public self-representations.

The phenomenological experiences that accompany  embarrassment  include  a  sense  of  blushing and wanting to hide. Embarrassment is also associated with several physiological reactions including steady increases in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure (BP), heart rate (HR), cortisol, and reddening  of  the  face.  When  embarrassment  is proportional to the eliciting event, it is a productive  emotion  that  stimulates  appeasing  behavior, elicits favorable evaluations from others, and usually  resolves  social  situations.  On  the  contrary, excessive  or  unnecessary  feelings  of  embarrassment  over  extended  periods  of  time  can  lead  to maladaptive  behaviors  including  timidity,  passivity, and antisociality.


One  of  the  least  studied  self-conscious  emotions in  SEP  is  pride,  which  is  a  positive  emotion  that results  from  an  individual  engaging  in  valued behaviors  or  presenting  with  positive  characteristics  (e.g.,  exercising,  being  physically  fit,  participating  in  sport).  Two  facets  of  pride  have  been consistently  identified  in  the  literature:  hubristic (or alpha) and authentic (or beta) pride. Hubristic pride  is  experienced  as  uncontrollable  and  global aspects of the self (e.g., I have a great body) typically involving feelings of personal grandiosity and superiority  to  others,  whereas  authentic  pride  is focused on specific, controllable achievements and behaviors  (e.g.,  I  finished  the  marathon  I  trained for).  Thus,  hubristic  pride  is  more  closely  linked to stable attributions, abilities, and global positive traits such as inherent muscularity or athletic skill, whereas  authentic  pride  is  more  closely  linked to  attributions  of  effort  and  specific  goal  attainment  and  accomplishments  like  successfully  losing weight after following an exercise program, or performing well at an athletic event. Furthermore, hubristic pride is associated with phenomenological  descriptions  such  as  arrogant,  snobbish,  egotistical,  and  conceited,  whereas  authentic  pride  is associated with phenomenological ratings of being accomplished,  achieving,  confident,  and  successful.  Thus,  authentic  pride  is  related  to  adaptive, prosocial,  and  achievement-motivated  personality  profiles  (e.g.,  high  self-esteem,  who  are  extraverted, agreeable, and conscientious) compared to the  maladaptive  personality  profiles  (e.g.,  narcissistic, self-aggrandizing, disagreeable, and non-conscientious) related to hubristic pride.

Although hubristic pride is highly positive and emotionally  rewarding,  it  is  difficult  to  sustain since  it  is  focused  on  the  self  and  not  a  specific behavior.  Furthermore,  those  high  in  hubristic pride may have problems with interpersonal relations, since placing focus on themselves is likely to interfere with the needs and goals of other people. This may be problematic in team sports where collective  goals  are  necessary  for  long-term  success. In  sport  and  exercise  contexts,  authentic  pride  is associated with feelings of achievement and motivation to engage in goal-directed behaviors such as PA and the accomplishment of sport-specific goals.

Sex Differences

Researchers  have  found  that  there  are  sex  (and likely gender) differences in both the establishment of  standards,  rules,  and  goals  and  the  evaluation process  that  is  required  for  the  elicitation  self-conscious emotions. Women are more likely than men to make a global appraisal following failure, which leads to the elicitation of shame. Contrarily, men  tend  to  endorse  hubristic  pride  more  than women  do.  Equivocal  responses  for  men  and women  have  been  reported  for  authentic  pride, guilt,  and  embarrassment.  Differences  in  appraisals  are  most  likely  due  to  early  socialization  (in the  classroom,  home,  on  the  field  or  court),  yet additional  research  is  needed  to  explore  the  reasons fostering the sex differences in the experience of self-conscious emotions and to explore such differences in various sport and PA participants.

Cultural Differences

Culture has an impact on the way individuals conceptualize  the  self.  Individuals  from  collectivistic cultures (e.g., East Asian cultures) typically conceptualize  the  self  as  being  interdependent  with  others  in  a  larger  social  context.  On  the  other  hand, individuals  from  individualistic  cultures  (Western cultures)  typically  view  the  self  as  separate  from others.  Researchers  indicate  that  self-conscious emotions that focus on the public self and others, such as shame and embarrassment, are more commonly experienced in individuals from collectivistic cultures. Such emotions tend to be valued and even viewed  as  an  appropriate  emotion  in  collectivist cultures because they reaffirm the individual’s place and  sense  of  belonging  within  the  social  group. However, since individuals do not view themselves as  separate  from  their  relationships  with  others, shame and guilt may be less distinct in collectivistic cultures. In contrast, those in individualistic cultures more commonly experience authentic pride. To date, cultural  samples  have  been  primarily  restricted  to North America and East Asia with a focus on generalized  shame,  guilt,  and  pride,  limiting  cross-cultural   comparisons   across   a   wide   range   of self-conscious  emotions  and  within  various  sport and PA contexts.


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  2. Sabiston, C. M., Brunet, J., Kowalski, K. C., Wilson, P., Mack, D. E., & Crocker, P. R. E. (2010). The role of body-related self-conscious emotions in motivating physical activity among women. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 32, 417–437.
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