There’s a lot of bad publicity out there these days for one of nature’s most important emotions. “Don’t shame me!” is a frequent conversation-ender that people seem to be using more and more to get out of a sticky confrontation with a friend or family member. When we hear someone say, “I felt so shamed by him,” we’re apparently supposed to ‘tsk’ and shake our heads in tacit agreement that to be shamed by that person was a terrible violation of social propriety. “Slut-shaming” is the new cardinal sin of adolescence.
But wait. Shame, like anger, love, guilt, joy, fear, and rage, is a natural emotion. Why have we decided that it is an emotion that not only shouldn’t ever be felt, but also is the result of someone else’s dark motives to make us feel bad about ourselves?
I teach the families that I work with to think of each natural emotion as a set of chemical instructions that the body is supposed to follow. Feeling afraid? Seek safety. Feeling angry? Stand up for yourself. Feeling love? Stay close to that person. It’s admittedly reductionist, but it seems to help my clients understand how important it is to know yourself and know, very specifically, what emotion you’re feeling at a given moment. Emotions are our wilderness guide. We need them so we know what to do next.
So where does shame fit into all of this? What set of instructions are chemically encoded in the experience of shame?
Whether we like to admit it or not, we live in a society that has constructed “norms.” Norms can be understood as the rules that govern social behavior—rules that dictate how we present ourselves socially, how we engage with one another, how we communicate without offending, and how we balance our own needs with the greater needs of the group. Once we have an understanding of these social norms (around age 5), we begin to experience shame when we become aware that we have violated one of them. Shame is a chemical message that makes us blush, hide, and frantically right whatever has gone wrong as soon as possible.
Now, certainly too much shame (like too much coffee, sugar, fat, or anything else) is harmful. John Bradshaw does an excellent job distinguishing “toxic shame” from regular, important, day-to-day shame in his book Healing the Shame that Binds You. But the good kind of shame serves a crucial purpose:
It helps us stay in line with the morals and values to which we subscribe.
You can think of shame as an alert: When you feel embarrassed, when you’re blushing, or when you unconsciously hang your head, ask yourself whether you’ve stepped off the life path you’re trying to stick to. Ask yourself whether you’ve done something that’s outside of the person you’re trying to be. Shame can be very helpful—don’t assume that just because you’re feeling it means that someone has harmed you. Take a closer look.
Is your shame actually appropriate to the circumstance?
-Angela Kahn is the Founder and Director of KISI