The Corrosive Power of Shame

Shame makes it difficult to know yourself

Posted Jun 06, 2014

This is a continuation of my last post on self-trust. In that post, I made reference to the notion of “privileged access” that each person has to her own mental and emotional states. I can probe the recesses of my mind and see myself in ways that others from the outside cannot. I see myself from the inside while others only from the outside.

There is obviously something right about the fact that I can “see” or apprehend things about myself that others simply cannot. I can be grief stricken and yet still have a smile on my face. I may look supremely interested in what a colleague at work is saying all the while imagining my dog frolicking in the dog park.  We can all wear poker faces, and some of us do it more effectively than others. Examples like these shore up the notion of privileged access.

A problem arises for me when a cousin of privileged access enters and then swamps the scene.  That cousin is “epistemic authority.” This is a philosophical expression for “authority that is rooted in knowledge.” A physicist has epistemic authority on relativity, a tax attorney on the tax code, an oncologist on cancer. Epistemic authority is rooted in knowledge and expertise in a particular area or subject matter.

Privileged access together with epistemic authority entails that each person is an expert on herself. She knows herself more accurately and better than anyone else can know her. In a sense, each person has “insider knowledge” of herself.

Here, too, there is something right about this conclusion. I know my history, likes and dislikes, beliefs, values, commitments, and nonnegotiables.

A dangerous extension happens when someone believes that a horrible set of truths resides in her and that she is the only one who really knows them. That’s the privileged access piece of the puzzle. She may claim to know that she is a rotten miserable person because only a rotten miserable person would have done the things she’s done or thought and felt. She may even claim that this is her true self. She really knows herself to be _____ while others may see her in a nearly opposite way. That’s the epistemic authority piece.

Here’s where shame enters the picture. It is important to differentiate shame from guilt. Both are moral emotions but shame and guilt have different objects and different scopes. Guilt usually attaches to a particular act, thought, or belief. Its scope is limited to that particular act or that class of acts. For example, I may feel guilt that I chose to attend a friend’s party rather than visit an elderly relative. That act may belong to a class of acts in which I prioritize my pleasure over obligation. My guilt is often a function of incongruence between what I want to do and what I have an obligation to do.

Shame doesn’t attach to particular acts, thoughts, or feelings of a person but rather to the whole person. Under the right conditions, guilt transforms into shame. Guilt busts out of the particulars and morphs into something amorphous that attaches to more and more. Shame is corrosive and spreads widely and deeply. A person will see everything about herself through the lens of shame. In many ways, she is governed by shame.

Shame makes it far more difficult for a person to have anything like an adequate perspective on herself. So, how well can a person rooted in shame know herself?

This is an admittedly loaded question to ask. On the one hand, it is important to acknowledge the authority each person can have about herself and her experiences. We live in a world in which some groups of people historically have been seen as not having any epistemic authority on anything, including themselves. History is replete with examples of things being done to people in the name of their best interests or “for their own good.” To deny epistemic authority may be insulting, oppressive, and even dehumanizing.

But on the other hand, shame is a form of self-deception; it is one of the greatest hindrances to self-knowledge. Everything she claims to know about herself has been strained through a thick layer of shame. Privileged access tells the person she’s got the best perspective, so what anyone else has to offer is wrong or worthless.

This is a dilemma with very pointy horns; it is a dilemma with which many addicts wrestle. How can I come to know myself differently if I think I already know my terrible ugly self fully? My shame will motivate me to keep those ugly truths hidden from others. Shame perpetuates a very destructive and closed feedback cycle that reinforces the shame.

I think one reason so many addicts tell their stories—whether in the context of a 12-step program, group therapy, friends and family--is that one learns about herself by telling her story and by hearing other people’s stories. This breaks open that closed feedback cycle.

For example, hearing someone tell a story that has some significant similarity to mine can help me to reframe my own understanding. What I have always seen as abject failure owing to my complete stupidity is, in another person, a combination of bad luck and circumstances well beyond anyone’s control. Where one person may have felt she deserves everything bad that happens to her, another may respond with more empathy and compassion for herself.

Self-knowledge, it turns out, is deeply social. Introspection—looking inward--is a necessary but not sufficient condition for self-knowledge. How I see myself is certainly important, but I need to concede that others can see me and know me in ways that I cannot. I can learn about myself from others. This is true for all people, but especially for those mired in shame.