Toward authentic self-esteem

When Is It Appropriate to Feel Shame?

Shame may prevent human life from becoming merely "animal" and without meaning

Here on Psychology Today as well as on my personal website, After Psychotherapy, I often write 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 do in my new eSingle, The Hero as Narcissist: How Lance Armstrong and Greg Mortenson Conned a Willing Public. In each instance, I’ve been discussing shame when it becomes unbearable and thereby linked to different forms of mental illness; but is there a different type of shame, one that is in some sense “normal”? Isn’t it appropriate, sometimes, to feel shame?

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 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 in 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 relatively 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 last dog Maddy on occasion used to feel shame, too. Usually, she would sleep through the night without waking us and waited 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 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 fellow dog-owners. My theory is that Maddy felt ashamed not of her animal nature but when she was 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, used to preserve a sense of their meaning for us; 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've lost something important in exposing so many intimate details of our personal, private lives to the light. Surely there’s a middle ground.

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?


Joseph Burgo, Ph.D., is a Clinical Psychologist, Psychoanalyst and Author of the Popular Blog "After Psychotherapy."


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