Shame is one of those emotions that a lot of people label “negative,” and talk about simply wanting to banish or let go of. I will argue that all emotions are useful, and only take on a positive or negative connotation in the way you’ve learned to relate to them.
What are emotions?
An emotion is an experience that puts a person in motion. It comes up in response to a situation that calls for action, and gives an intuitive sense for what type of action to take — a motive. The label given to an emotion is literally just a name for the feelings and thoughts associated with the action tendency which comes up in the body under particular circumstances.
For example, if something unfair is happening that I think I might reasonably be able to address, I’ll feel anger, which is my motivation to confront the source of the injustice, to use my strength and power to stick up for myself. If I repress all of my anger, I’ll be a doormat and let others take advantage of me. On the other hand, if I fixate on sources of rage over which I have no legitimate power, I’ll end up misapplying my strength in ways that may harm myself or others.
Each emotion is like this. An action tendency that is useful insofar as:
- Your appraisal of the situation is accurate, and
- You are able to tolerate the feeling of it.
In other words, emotions are healthy and useful when we’re able to relate to them in healthy, balanced ways.
What is shame?
Shame is the feeling that comes up when you realize that there is a gap between what’s expected of you and what you’ve been doing. It motivates you to close that gap, to do better, to live up to the expectations you hold for yourself and those that your community holds for you.
We say a person “has no shame” when they don’t seem to adhere to any community norms or values. This is not usually thought of as a positive trait, although the ability to subvert cultural norms and expectations can allow a person to show a great sense of humor (provided they’re not inclined to do so in a way that others find hurtful.)
When I notice that my house has gotten dirty, certain feelings come up automatically. I feel a sense of displeasure, because it’s not nice to be in a place that’s dirty. I also get a small feeling of shame because it’s up to me to keep up my own house and I can see that I haven’t kept up on that responsibility. So that small feeling of shame, along with a desire to be satisfied with my home and with myself, helps to motivate me to take action. My house gets cleaned.
What do poor relationships with shame look like?
On the other hand, what if I’m overly afraid of feeling ashamed? If I avoid the feeling of shame, rather than allow it, then I also block the motivation to clean. I end up in a vicious cycle, in which my house keeps getting dirtier, and so the shame feeling keeps getting stronger. I’ll exhaust myself more and more with the effort it takes to avoid the shame feeling, instead of honoring it by taking the action it is calling for. This is a phobic, or repressive, response to shame.
Shame can also go too far, if my expectations for myself are unrealistic. If I believe a good person keeps a house so clean that you can eat off the floor at all times, then I will feel the emotion of shame coming up anytime that’s not true. As a result, in order to satisfy the shameful feeling, I will either have to stop walking on my floor, or to keep washing the floor constantly. This is an obsessive-compulsive response to shame.
A balanced and healthy position toward shame is a recognition of the usefulness of this feeling in motivating you to meet your own expectations for yourself. If you feel overwhelmed by shame, then you either need to adjust your expectations, or else increase your tolerance for the feeling.