When Is It Appropriate to Feel Shame?

In many of my earlier posts, I’ve written about the role shame plays in psychological and emotional difficulties.  I’ve discussed the fantasy flight into an idealized self in order to escape an unbearable sense of toxic shame; I’ve also tried to describe typical defenses against shame and frequently connect shame and narcissism, as I did in my post about Charlie Sheen .  In each instance, I’ve been discussing shame when it becomes toxic and thereby linked to different forms of mental illness; but is there a different type of shame, one that is non-toxic and in some sense “normal”?  Isn’t it appropriate, sometimes, to feel shame?

It seems that every culture (including less developed and non-Western cultures) includes ideas and codes of behavior related to shame.  According to Rochelle Gurstein in her book The Repeal of Reticence (1996), shame is always connected to physical exposure and vulnerability; it also “threatens to engulf us at moments when our biological reality — our ‘animal’ nature, as it is commonly called — overwhelms our ‘civilized’ self; that is, when we are too directly confronted with the body in its most physical aspects.”  She quotes Norbert Elias (1939), who held that “people, in the course of the civilizing process, seek to suppress in themselves every characteristic that they feel to be ‘animal.'”  The origins of the word shame — not only in English but French and German as well — are linked to the idea of covering up.  You may recall that, in the Bible, shame was born when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, realized that they were naked and covered themselves to hide their nakedness.

So (putting it baldly) if a stranger were to walk in while you were on the toilet or having intercourse, you’d want to cover up; the feeling that motivates you is shame.  (This does not imply that we feel those activities are “dirty” or “bad” — a religious overlay — but that they should not be witnessed by other people; they are private.)  Apparently this sort of feeling in connection with the activities of our “animal nature” is to be found in virtually all civilized cultures, even primitive ones.  As they become “civilized”, human beings everywhere want to distinguish themselves from other animals on the planet, to believe we are on a different plane; when we have an experience that confronts us with the fact that we are not so different — that we, too, are animals despite all the trappings of civilization — we experience shame.

On the other hand — and I may be anthropomorphizing here — it seems to me that our dog Maddy on occasion feels shame, too.  Usually, she sleeps through the night without waking us and waits to relieve herself until morning.  But on several occasions when she was suffering some kind of digestive problem and couldn’t wake us up to let us know, she peed on the floor.  In the morning when we awoke and saw what had happened, she hung her head and slunk off to the closet — to me, the very picture of someone filled with shame.  This occurred without our saying a word to her, or attempting to humiliate her for losing control.  I’ve seen this with other dogs and heard similar stories from other dog-owners.  My theory is that Maddy feels shamed not of her animal nature but when she is unable to control her bodily functions.  Most human beings would also feel shame under those conditions.  Can you imagine how you’d feel if you lost control of your bowels in a public place?  This doesn’t mean that you should feel ashamed but that you inevitably would.

As Gurstein notes in her book, ours has become a society where this type of shame scarcely exists any longer.  If you suggest that some behaviors actually are shameful (that is, should be kept private), you will be called “uptight” or labeled a “prude”.  During graduate school, Gurstein studied with the historian Christopher Lasch, who famously wrote about The Culture of Narcissism (1979) and how individuals in modern American society, with a fragile sense of self, become obsessed with fame and celebrity.  Her own book shows how the “repeal” of social standards that used to preserve a realm of privacy around the transactions of our animal nature, particularly sex, has led to a debased public realm in which virtually nothing is held to be sacred and private.  She does not link the two themes — shame and narcissism — but I will do so now, expanding one of my central themes into the social realm.

I believe that our society in an important sense has become “shameless”, at least on the surface.  Tune into Jerry Springer or even Dr. Phil and you will see that there is no longer anything that you can’t discuss in public.  People reveal the most painful and embarrassing (to me, as a spectator) aspects of their personal and sexual lives on national television and apparently feel no shame about doing so.  In fact, they want to expose themselves in this way; everybody wants to be on television, to be a “celebrity” even if it’s only for those 15 minutes.  Along with the cult of romantic love, achieving celebrity is one of the few remaining sources of meaning in the modern world.  Gurstein holds that shrouding the more intimate aspects of our physical nature in privacy and ritual, enforced by ordinary shame, once preserved a sense of their meaning for us; I would argue that the decline of shame and privacy has therefore made our lives seem less meaningful.  Narcissism fills that void and reflects a desperate wish to feel that one’s life has significance.  Perhaps it’s a defensive move:  even if our society appears to be shameless, maybe shame is nonetheless pervasive on an unconscious level, call it a “collective unconscious” level; the culture of narcissism that you see might be a massive defense against it.

I don’t want to go back to Victorian mores and values.  As a therapist and a blogger, I obviously believe there is great value in bringing hidden ideas and emotions to light.  On the other hand, I feel that, as a society, we have lost something important in exposing so many intimate details of our personal, private lives to the light.  Surely there’s a middle ground.

Finding Your Own Way:

How much detail do you reveal about your “animal” self in conversations with other people?  Although it’s men who have the reputation for locker room indiscretions, I’ve often been surprised by the level of detail women go into with their friends when discussing sexual partners:  genital size, positions favored, sounds during orgasm — everything necessary to visualize the act in full.  This has always struck me as an incredible violation of privacy, to begin with — unfair to the sexual partner whose intimate  physical life is being exposed without his or her consent, often for the purpose of gossip and entertainment.  Is there some middle-ground between prudishness and being indiscreet?

How do you draw the line between unconsidered exposure on the one hand and the kind of secrecy enforced by toxic (rather than “normal”) shame?  Surely people shouldn’t be forced to suffer in shame-ridden silence if they have difficulties, even sexual difficulties; we all understand the benefit of giving voice to our pain and sharing it with others.  But what are the limits?  My therapist often told me that what he and I discussed in our sessions had to be kept private.  He wouldn’t take it home and discuss it with his wife, nor should I discuss it over dinner with friends as if having a session were no different from a social evening.  What are the conditions of privacy and secrecy necessary to ensure that your private life doesn’t feel debased by over-exposure?

Looking back, have you behaved in ways or made indiscreet revelations where it was appropriate to feel shame?

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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22 comments

    I feel ambivalent about those people that expose themselves on these trashy TV shows. On the one hand, I feel embarrassed and uneasy when I see them talk about very private topics without any inhibitions. On the other hand, it is exactly that which is fascinating to me. Those people don’t care AT ALL what anyone thinks about them or if anyone judges them or laughs at them. I know that their attitude might not come from confidence but rather from deep insecurities, but I believe it would be a good attitude to have when it comes from a place of confidence. Like, if someone enters the room while you’re having intercourse, why should you feel shame? This shame most definitely comes from body issues or moral issues about sex or fear about what that person will think of you. So basically issues with self-esteem.

    I think it really helps to view these “shameful situations” as normal. Everybody in the world sweats and makes weird noises while having sex, everybody has to use the bathroom regularly, and almost every old person has experienced not being able to hold back their bowel movement in public. So if you accept those situations as normal, and if you understand that it doesn’t have any influence on you and your self-worth what someone else thinks about you, I don’t see a reason to feel shame about these particular situations.

    Kay, I don’t think this kind of shame is about low self-esteem, and while all those bodily functions are “normal”, as you say, it’s also “normal” to feel shame when they are exposed. I don’t have a problem with that. In general, I think shame keeps us from transgressing civilized norms of behavior — that is, I think it’s a good thing. How would you feel if somebody out taking a walk, a little too far from home to make it back in time, decided to have a bowel movement on your front lawn? After all, if bodily functions are normal, what’s the big deal? It’s fertilizer, too — good for your lawn.

    Also, I don’t for a second believe those people who expose themselves on TV have high self-esteem or self-confidence and are indifferent to what others think about them. I think they are desperate for people to watch and see them because their own lives feel meaningless to them. Shamelessness can look like self-confidence but it’s not at all the same thing.

    Joseph, I’m afraid you’re mixing different things together. Of course, if someone defecated on my lawn I would be angry and embarrassed, but this has nothing to do with the shame that person might feel in that moment. And your example is different from the ones I talked about because 1. it is in no way normal to have a bowel movement on someone else’s lawn and 2. it is a crime. Having sex in your bedroom is neither. So my argument still stands that one shouldn’t feel shame when someone walks in on them while they’re having sex.

    And as for your statement that it is normal to feel shame in these situations, that’s true, but normal doesn’t mean beneficial. Just look at the effects of that normalcy. People beat themselves up for months and years for some situation for which they still feel ashamed and embarrassed. It could help those people to consider whether that action was in fact not a transgression of “civilized norms of behavior” but completely normal, and whether they thus shouldn’t feel so ashamed anymore.

    As for those people on TV, I didn’t say they were self-confident. I said the opposite (deep insecurities). But I still don’t think they care what other people think about them in detail; they just want someone’s attention. And that’s an important distinction.

    Good points all around, Kay. These terms get confusing. Defecating on someone’s lawn is certainly not “normal”, since it is outside the norms of socially acceptable behavior, but it would certainly be natural. If you need to go and are experiencing discomfort, what could be more natural than going when you have to go? But it is unacceptable by society’s norms; shame has evolved to keep those norms in place. Also, while sex is an entirely natural act, it is not normal to have it with spectators (unless you’re a porn star). For all sorts of reasons, developing societies have found it beneficial to shield the sex act and keep it private. Shame evolved to preserve that privacy. It’s not about whether one “should” feel ashamed, and it’s not about sex being “bad” or “dirty” — that’s a religious overlay. Shame has evolved a socially-useful feeling that protects the sanctity of the sex act from exposure, and people all over the world feel very much the same way.

    I think you’re right about the distinction between wanting attention and caring what other people think, but I have a hard time seeing any value in the way those people feel. It doesn’t strike me as helpful, in that way at least, to be indifferent to judgment.

    I don’t know that society has become shameless exactly; I think the precise things we are to be ashamed of have changed around. We still have societal shame, just over different things.

    For example, if I were to be the subject of a controversy where I had used the word “niggardly” in a public meeting (which you may recall actually happened in the news a few years ago), I would, in today’s world, most likely feel shame at what people were thinking of me, even though I would know for a fact that I had done nothing wrong (except perhaps to be unwise in triggering people’s ignorance).

    An american authoress once had one of her novel characters utter these words: “Don`t be too hard on humanity, Howard, remember that you are part of it.”

    An italian proverb says that bed is the poor man`s opera, and I am inclined to think that some have little but their sexuality to flaunt. A James Michener , a John Grisham or a Joseph Burgo are, in my view, also out to nurture their ego.; although in a far more worth while manner.

    I guess I am no exception, even though I am so ashamed of myself that I am hiding under a fictitious name.

    You voice my own thoughts. I’ve been thinking all week about he narcissism involves in writing this site and will be writing a post about it tomorrow.

    In a way the credit belongs to George Orwell (Eric Blair) who back in 1946 wrote an interesting article titled ” Why I write “, where he voiced that thought.
    Chance had it that I stumbed on that article a couple of hours before I
    clicked on afterpsycotheraphy.com

    Isn’t there a danger of getting into an infinite regress when weighing the narcissism involved in publishing something? Is it narcissistic to publish something which is the result of one’s professional expertise and is providing help and illumination? Surely, it’s only narcissitic if one thinks one has published the definitive words on the topic and then suffers from rage when one’s opinion is challenged?

    I agree. I tend to use the word “omnipotence” to describe that type of behavior but it’s also narcissistic.

    When does self-esteem shade over into narcissism? My own intuition is when I feel that a challenge to an opinion of mine is some sort of threat and avoid responding to it in terms of its own merits.