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.

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Do You Want to Be a ‘Good’ Person?

Many years ago, I was discussing religious beliefs with my friend Phil, a thoughtful man who believes in the God of his faith (Judaism).  When I told him that I was agnostic, that I didn’t really know what to believe about the existence of a supreme being, he asked how I could be a moral person.  I insisted that my lack of belief in the Judeo-Christian God didn’t mean I had no moral values, but he continued to wonder what force those morals could have without religion to back them up.

It’s an interesting question.  Phil’s position implies that morality has to come from the outside, from a greater authority or system of values to which we submit; without such a source of authority, he believes we would behave in an amoral fashion.  And yet I don’t behave that way.  By most people’s standards, I am a “good” person:  I’m a law-abiding citizen, an involved father, considerate friend and a psychotherapist who has helped many people in his career; I care about the welfare of my friends and family and do what I can to help them; I remember birthdays and write thank you notes.  In my financial dealings, I never take advantage of people.  If no God or religion is urging me to behave in these ways, then why do I do so?

You could argue that I’m nonetheless subject to authority in the form of values internalized from my parents and society at large.  This has to be true to a large degree.  It’s part of what Freud meant when he developed his theory of the superego.  That internal agency embodies attitudes and values we absorb from our parents, teachers and the people we’ve chosen as role models.  The superego is a kind of internal God, enforcing standards and punishing us with guilt when we fail to meet expectations.  Fear of internal punishment and guilt may, in part, keep me in line.

Beyond that, I believe two other factors lead to “moral” behavior:  empathy and enlightened self-interest.  First of all, I believe that the capacity to feel what others are feeling, to put yourself in their shoes and emotionally identify with them, is the basis of much behavior sanctioned by moral codes.  For me, and I suspect for a great many people, it’s more than a capacity; it’s an inclination, something that happens automatically, whether or not I intend to empathize.   Since humans are a social species and function best in groups rather than in isolation, it makes sense that we can empathize:  it improves communication and promotes social cohesion.  To be “moral” in this light is to behave in ways that benefit the family/group/tribe/species as a whole, rather than simply gratifying individual desires without regard to the feelings or needs of anyone else.

I confess that I feel a great deal of empathy only for those who are close to me and the strength of my empathic response diminishes with distance.  When I’m listening to a client in my office, sobbing over a major loss, my body will literally ache in sympathy.   When I see videos of the current suffering in Japan, I feel something, but it’s faint compared to what I feel for the suffering of my loved ones.  In other words, empathy (for me) has its limits for promoting moral behavior.   That’s where enlightened self-interest comes in.

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Can’t or Won’t?

Does each of us always do the very best he or she can?

Over the weekend, my good friend Sue J. and I got into one of our regular “debates”, this one about whether people always do their emotional best — that is, do they always try as hard as they are able, at any given moment, to master their impulses and behave in the most constructive way possible?  Sue insists that “We’re all doing the best we can … and we could always do better.”  I disagree, not only because the statement is logically problematic but because it flies in the face of my personal experience.

Let’s begin with the logic.  If one can always do better, then how can one be making the best possible effort right now?  Unless we entirely dismiss this statement as illogical, we have to assume it implies a process of growth where each step of the way always represents one’s personal best, with expectation for improvement rising exactly as much as one’s growing capacity to meet it.  As a logical proposition, however, it still leaves something to be desired.    From my point of view, it sounds sentimental, like saying that human nature is inherently good (and never mind the atrocities occurring every minute of every day around the world).  If someone were to argue instead that people are usually trying to do their best, I wouldn’t put up much of a fight; but insisting on always makes it impossible to evaluate anyone’s behavior or render judgment about it.  This was your best effort, but that was not.

Judgment, of course, is the problem with the original question.  If I state (which I do) that people aren’t always doing the best they can, it implies that I’m making a judgment about them and their psychological efforts (which I am).   In the course of our debate, Sue accused me of being “judgmental”; I felt, for possibly the thousandth time, that our culture has lost the distinction between exercising judgment and being judgmental.  The very act of “passing judgment” will bring denunciation down upon your head.  People will accuse you of being “holier than thou,” or arrogant for presuming to judge other people.  It seems that for most of us, any kind of judgment is the equivalent of being judgmental.  The problem also seems to be with the word itself:  most of us can’t hear “judgment” without investing it with harshness.  My friend Marla Estes suggests I use a less charged word, such as “discernment”, to describe the process of making distinctions.

In my earlier post on narcissism vs. authentic self-esteem, I mentioned an incident where I felt badly about myself because of poor choices I’d made in a social situation, knowing I could have done better.  I’ve had this experience repeatedly in my life, and in those instances, I don’t necessarily feel harsh or judgmental; I often feel disappointed in myself because I haven’t lived up to my own expectations.  Usually, it’s because I didn’t want to exert the necessary effort.  I took the easier route, by doing what felt better in the moment, instead of restraining myself and earning my self-respect in the long run.  To me, saying that everyone is always doing their best implies a kind of relativism without authentic standards, since it has been decided in advance, by definition, that the standard has been met.  The standard = the behavior.

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The Art of the Apology

Over the holidays, I said something hurtful to someone I care about.  It got me thinking about how to make a genuine apology, and the emotional obstacles that stand in the way of saying “I’m sorry.”

Nobody likes to admit he or she is wrong, for starters.  Most of us want to believe we’re sensitive and that it’s other people who are the problem.  Also, the guilty feelings that come with recognizing you’ve hurt someone else, along with the blow to your self-esteem when you see yourself behaving badly, are not easy to tolerate.  Typically we’ll try to defend against those painful feelings by justifying ourselves.

In my own case, I noticed I kept telling myself that the hurtful thing I’d said was actually true.  I would focus on the other person’s irritating behavior; although I never told myself so in these exact words, the implication was that he deserved to be told.  Repeated self-justification in the form of mental “arguments” in which you keep trying to convince yourself or somebody else that you’re in the right usually mean just the opposite.  Eventually I recognized my fault.

So how to apologize?  Here is my cardinal rule for how to frame an apology:  genuine apologies never contain the words “if” or “but”.  For example, never say, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings,” or “I apologize for being insensitive, but such-and-such happened earlier …”  Those words have the effect of watering down the apology by either calling the injury into doubt or assigning true responsibility elsewhere.  I’ve often heard people tell me, “I’m sorry if I came across too strong in what I said to you,” or something similar; those apologies always felt half-hearted.  I notice that once I decide I’ve done something wrong and begin to frame an apology, “if” or “but” always appears in the first draft.

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Further Thoughts on the Lost Art of Conversation

In my last post, and in my post on narcissistic behavior, I was complaining about conversations that too often involve other people dumping their problems, or new acquaintances who want only to talk about themselves.  I had an experience earlier this week that helped me appreciate a different kind of social interaction.  Nothing compares with a truly intimate and reciprocal exchange between close friends, but here on Christmas Eve, I want to write about some very satisfying interactions I’ve had with strangers.

For the first time, we’re here in Colorado for the holidays; in our local town, there’s a big sledding hill, and earlier this week, we took our new sleds for an inaugural run.  There were other families on the hill, people we’d never met before; I was struck with how easily we fell into conversation.  We talked about the merits of the different sleds we all owned and laughed as the children went over bumps and tumbled onto the snow.  One family offered to let us try their Flexible Flyer, an aged piece of equipment the father had owned since he was a little boy.  Other than this last personal bit of information, nobody talked about themselves or trotted out a favorite story; nobody asked us any questions.  It was a completely satisfying social experience and, in its way, intimate.

It made me think about the conversations we often have with other hikers, met by chance on the trails in Rocky Mountain National Park.  The “camaraderie of the trail,” I call it.

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