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.