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I had a terrible undergraduate academic record. I have worked in the industry for past many years, and grown a lot since then, intellectually and skill-wise. However, whenever telling someone about my undergraduate GPA, I "look" a little ashamed. I am planning to resume my academic career, nonetheless, I do not want to look ashamed if my prospective advisor asks about my UG record.

So, to put the problem in more general context. There are actions from our past life, which are shameful. Over the years, we compensate for them, but not fully. In my case, I've compensated but not yet fully (i.e. not demonstrated that I am capable of excellent research work). Hence, we feel a little ashamed of the past, for we fear being judged.

But "looking" ashamed can have negative impression on the opposite person. So, how does one disclose their past, but not "show" that they are still conscious about it?

UPDATE: Shame vs Guilt

A comment very correctly mentions that displaying shame is actually good, as it shows that you solmenly accept your wrong-doing and have worked (or willing to work) for correcting it. However, I think this "good" display is a display of "guilt", but not of "shame". As discussed in the talk "Shame and Guilt: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" or this Scientific American article, shame is very different from guilt. While guilt leads to positive changes in an individual and display of guilt is considered good, shame does not bring any positive changes.

So, I wish to ask this now: "How to display guilt but not shame?" What I betray currently non-verbally is clearly shame and not guilt.

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Signs of shame

Not showing 'shame' is easier if you first understand how shame, and feeling ashamed, is usually communicated. This image shows a typical (but maybe somewhat exaggerated for educational purposes) example of body language usually associated with shame. Wikipedia says about the identification of shame:

Nineteenth-century scientist Charles Darwin described shame affect in the physical form of blushing, confusion of mind, downward cast eyes, slack posture, and lowered head;

I found another study, titled 'The Shame Code'1, that states that shame doesn't really have an single facial expression that's always guaranteed to express shame, but the article lists some of the same expressions as above:

Shame does not have a canonical facial expression (Lewis, 1995), however, some facial and behavioral expressions that may be indicative of the experience of shame have been identified. First, shame can be identified by a shrunken or compressed posture that includes body tension, dropped shoulders, or lowered head in a manner akin to a “hang-dog” look.

It goes on to mention other signs of shame:

  • Facial expressions such as turning down the corners of your mouth, tucking your lower lip between your teeth, pursed lips, and frowning
  • a fake, embarrassed smile (most easily recognized because the person smiling at you isn't looking at you)
  • Verbal uncertainty such as stammering or long pauses
  • Falling silent, halting your behavior, and withdrawing
  • Fidgeting, which is the engagement in “manipulations of one’s own body parts or objects, such actions being peripheral or non-central to ongoing events or tasks.

After all this, the paper comes to the conclusion that there are 8 candidate behaviours that may indicate shame, and goes on to examine how much each of them does:

In summary, while there is no established measurement tool of the behavioral manifestations of shame, there is evidence of at least eight candidate behaviors associated with shame. These include body tension, facial tension, non-genuine positive affect, gaze aversion or hiding, verbal uncertainty, silence, stillness, and fidgeting.


Showing guilt and acting confident

I can't really say which of the above behaviours you personally should avoid to come across as less ashamed, without first having seen you. But just leaving those out isn't going to work: You'll need to replace one form of body language with another to not come across as some feelingless automaton. So let's look at some options, like, the opposite of shame perhaps? This is considered to be pride:

Research has shown that the prototypical expression of pride happens with the head held high and slightly back (about 20 degrees), a small smile, body erect, shoulders back with an expanded upright posture, whilst making the body appear as large as possibly, often by placing the hands on the hips and puffing out or by placing the hands in the air (such as while celebrating).2

I'd personally recommend not doing this. Acting like you're proud of something that's generally considered shameful by society will give the people you're interacting with a mixed signal. They know too that this is something that people are usually ashamed of, and will probably not understand why you're proud. Having seen someone do this in real life, the best analogy I can give you is that of a toddler that knows it has done something wrong, but proudly tells you they did so anyways.

emotiontypology.com3 talks a bit about the difference between displaying shame and guilt:

Shame is associated with a tendency to hide the shameful truth, or to get away from the people who know about it (‘trying to cover it up’). Guilty people, on the other hand, have a tendency to confess their wrongdoing (‘getting it off their chest’) and to atone for it (‘coming clean’).

I'm going to recommend acting confident in combination with taking blame to achieve this. Wikihow states the following about confident body language:4

  • Stand up with your back and shoulders straight.
  • Make eye contact when you’re talking with someone.
  • Don’t fidget.
  • Relax tension in your muscles.

As you can see, this is already quite the opposite of a lot of body language associated with shame. You can still lower your voice (talk a little less loud) to express some discomfort, but it should help you not look like you're ready to crawl back under a rock.

As described above, one of the 'symptoms' of shame is 'falling silent and withdrawing'. Trying to avoid talking about a subject falls under that too, so instead, try to talk about it as confidently and openly as you can. Own up to your problems, so people will no longer think you're too ashamed to talk about them. For that, I would combine it with some of the steps on Wikihow's 'how to accept blame' page if you want to express feeling 'guilty':5

  • Admit that you were wrong.
  • Propose a solution.
  • Accept consequences.
  • Reflect on your behavior.
  • Move on from the situation.

Show people that you've taken responsibility by either accepting consequences or proposing solutions. It shows that you've reflected on your behaviour that led to you doing the shameful thing in the first place, and having solutions in place shows that you've moved on from the situation.


References:

1: De France, K., Lanteigne, D., Glozman, J. & Hollenstain, T. (2017). A New Measure of the Expression of Shame: The Shame Code. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 26(3), 769-780.

2: http://bodylanguageproject.com/articles/significant-nonverbal-expression-pride-shame-body-language-detailed-examination-origin-function/

3: https://emotiontypology.com/typology/list/shame

4: https://www.wikihow.com/Act-Confident

5: https://www.wikihow.com/Accept-Blame-when-You-Deserve-It

  • Wow @Tinkeringbell. That is a comprehensive answer. I think I will keep coming back to it. – Rakt Nov 9 at 15:10
  • Further, as I was reading your answer, I was visualizing one more addition to your "confidence+guilt" solution: "humor". I was imagining telling it in a slightly laughing manner. Consider it the kind of laugh one would have remembering their childhood mischiefs or when adults laugh at kids thinking "kids these days!". In this manner, I would accept my wrong-doing, but also display that I have a "distance" from it. What is your perspective on it? – Rakt Nov 9 at 15:11
  • @Rakt I can look into it a bit more, but my initial feeling says that if you want to show guilt, don't laugh. It'll come across as dismissive of the seriousness of the situation (that's why ideally people laugh about childhood mischief, but not the more serious behavioral trouble kids can display, like theft or murder). The Wikihow link to taking blame also doesn't suggest laughing or dismissing the problem. – Tinkeringbell Nov 9 at 21:01

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