I hold a rather controversial opinion. I think shame is good.
Seriously. I like shame. I mean, I don’t enjoy –like shame, but I appreciate-like shame. I like what it does when working rightly. And I believe it can work rightly.
This is not a popular opinion. Shame is mostly seen as a negative emotion, as an essentially harmful emotion. I truly do understand this position, and even agree with many parts of, these arguments. When shame operates wrongly, it absolutely leads to a multitude of harms, pains, and unnecessary suffering.
However, I think it’s worth picking shame apart a little, to identify what elements are actually working in our general definition of shame, to see where it actually fails us and where it can be useful, productive, even healthy.
First of all, it’s important to distinguish shame from its oft-correlate: guilt. As I see it, guilt is the bad feeling over something we’ve done. Its object (what we feel about) is the act we performed. We feel guilty about having done, said, or thought something. The emotion of guilt is pointed towards an act we are (or feel) responsible for.
By contrast, shame is the bad feeling over who we are. Its object (what we feel about) is the person who did something harmful. In other words, the object of shame is us. In shame, we don’t just feel bad about what we did; we feel bad about who we are.
Traditionally, the Western conception of shame is that it is the bad feeling that accompanies the belief that who we are deep down is unworthy of love and belonging.
I think this conception wrongly conflates two things and as such, in an otherwise good effort to excise the harmful bits, threatens to throw the baby out with the bath water.
The harmful part of shame isn’t that it is a negative estimation of ourselves. The wrong, harmful part of shame is something not necessary to it: the oft-accompanying fear that because of who we are, we are unworthy or unlovable. Shame is bad when our clear-eyed self-assessment of who we are is accompanied by the fear that we are worthless.
When not accompanied by that pernicious fear, shame is good! I think shame is an important tool in our introspection, self-assessment, and self-improvement. Sometimes our acts are not one-off “out of character” events. Sometimes our actions are very real expressions of who we are. When we acknowledge that who we are is not wholly lovable, that who we are is not perfect, that we are imperfect, hurting, limited creatures who need to work on improving ourselves (not just our actions), I think shame has a useful, healthy place. A right shame is simply that which acknowledges that part of who I am, some aspect of my stable character, is harmful and needs correcting.
I worry that a too-complete rejection of shame will lead us to fail to take our faulty selves and our character flaws seriously. Just relying on guilt, or our bad acts, could lead us simply to commit to doing something differently. Sometimes the solution requires us being something different. Shame, I think, is an important part of our perfecting, in its right place, time, and application.
I 100% agree with those who say shame, if it involves the fearful belief that we are unworthy and unlovable, is harmful. That is a belief and a fear that we can confidently reject, and that we can try to help our lived ones reject. No one is wholly unlovable. No one is wholly unworthy. Some actions deserve more serious personal or social consequences than others, but that is not an indictment against anyone’s humanity or essential deservingness of compassion and humane treatment. I truly believe everyone deserves love and compassion, no matter what they’ve done or who they are.
And yet, no one is perfect. No one is all virtue and no vice. Thus shame, if separated from fear, has a place.
So that’s my small defense of shame. My attempt to rehabilitate shame, if you will. (For the Western consciousness, that is. Other much smarter people than me have pointed out that shame operates and is perceived differently in collectivist cultures.) Fear is the real pernicious beast in our general conception of the damage of shame, and it is that fear that we should target and reject. An appropriate acknowledgement of the person we are and the parts of our self and character that need correcting? That is part and parcel of a healthy self-assessment and something we should work to foster in ourselves and in others.