Last week, two shocking events occurred: the Norwegian killing rampage undertaken by Anders Breivik, and the death of singer Amy Winehouse. As it is online, many people, armed only with unexamined opinions and a keyboard, lined up to diagnose Anders as mentally ill. Others are certain that Amy died of an overdose, though no evidence of that has been found (her toxicology inquest will resume in October).
There is also a lot of shame being thrown around. Amy and Anders are of course being publicly shamed, but so are fans who suggest that Amy was not merely an addict, but also a brilliant musical talent. The shame-throwers’ position is that if we admire Amy for her talent, we are therefore glorifying her substance abuse — which they assert is not a disease, but a choice. The shamers want us to know that Amy had choices, but made terrible, unforgivable decisions and should be publicly mocked and demeaned — so that others (mostly children, I think) won’t get the idea that drug abuse is a romantic and artistic activity.
Public shaming, mockery, and denigration are being touted as cures (or aversive therapies) for addiction — as if the reason Amy Winehouse was (or anyone is) an addict is that she didn’t have enough shame thrown at her by total strangers. People have also been heaping shame upon Amy’s friends, managers, family, and parents — again, as if the problem was that none of these people tried to help Amy, and as if the solution is for total strangers to publicly shame them (this eulogy from Amy’s friend and fellow addict, Russell Brand, speaks instead to the tremendous devastation addiction wreaks on everyone).
Shame is also being heaped upon people who focused on Amy’s death (rather than the Norwegian deaths), as if there is a rulebook about how to mourn — as if being aggrieved about the tragic life and death of Amy Winehouse somehow makes us less horrified and aggrieved about Norway’s victims and their murderer’s long descent into the hell of radical hate speech, political extremism, and violent xenophobia.
I can understand the shamers’ point about the relative scale of these two tragedies, but I can’t join in with the shaming, because it’s easy to understand what’s going on. In many ways, it’s less overwhelming to think about Amy, because we have a connection with her. Even if we hadn’t heard her songs, we all know musicians, many of us know people struggling with substance abuse, and most of us saw at least one of the wrenching photos that the predatory jackals of tabloid journalism continually posted of her. She was someone we knew about, and her addiction was known to us.
But I’d say that the Norwegian situation was a shock not just because it was a devastating catastrophe, but because Norway seemed to be a functional and mellow place, or so we thought. Violent fundamentalist Christians? Isn’t Norway rather calm and secular? Violent right-wing political groups? Aren’t Scandinavian countries more politically advanced than that? Violent anti-Muslim hysteria? What? Youth camps for the children of a political party, what? The Norwegian tragedy was so much to take in, and the early hysteria about Islamic extremists being responsible really spun the story. So it’s easy to understand why some people focused on Amy Winehouse at first. There’s no shame in it; it’s just what happened.
But what is a shame is that shame itself is being used so inexpertly, and with such complete disregard for the actual purpose and value of shame. Shame is the emotion that helps us moderate our own behavior, but this moderation has to be an inside job. Being shamed by others is not the same as feeling ashamed of yourself. In fact, public shaming, if inexpertly applied, may lead to deep trouble with shame — and to shamelessness.
Too much externally applied shame may seriously interfere with your internal capacity to regulate and moderate your own behavior. Shame is indispensable, but as it is with all of the emotions, shame has to be balanced properly so that you can access its gifts.
The Gifts of Shame
Most of us were not taught to welcome or work with our authentic shame and remorse (which all of us feel naturally, especially when we’ve hurt someone); instead, most of us were taught about shame by being shamed. Authority figures such as parents, teachers, peers, and the media often attempt to teach and control us by applying shame from the outside, instead of trusting our natural ability empathize with others, understand our misdeeds, and moderate our own behaviors.
As a result, many of us can’t identify our own authentic shame, which is often sensible, momentary, and empowering: Your hand goes out for a cookie, you realize you don’t need it, and you walk away. That’s authentic, free-flowing shame working properly. Afterward, you feel strong and aware, and you simply live by a moral code. You floss because you like clean teeth, you avoid drugs, adultery, and crime because they’re uninteresting, and you treat people well because it feels right. That’s what your free-flowing shame feels like.
As we delve into shame, let’s make sure we have a working vocabulary for differing levels of this emotion. Here is the shame section from our Emotional Vocabulary List (you can download this list here):
Lite (free-flowing) Shame
Hesitant ~ Flushed ~ Self-conscious ~ Speechless ~ Discomfited ~ Awkward ~ Humble ~ Reticent ~ Abashed ~ Flustered ~ Withdrawn
Shame in its Mood State
Ashamed ~ Guilty ~ Embarrassed ~ Intimidated ~ Penitent ~ Regretful ~ Remorseful ~ Chagrined ~ Culpable ~ Reproachful ~ Sheepish ~ Rueful ~ Contrite ~ Humbled
Humiliated ~ Guilt-ridden ~ Guilt-stricken ~ Disgraced ~ Stigmatized ~ Mortified ~ Self-condemning ~ Self-flagellating ~ Degraded ~ Shamefaced ~ Belittled ~ Demeaned ~ Ostracized
Though we all know shame: the rush of heat, the flushed skin, the clenching feeling that stops you from talking or acting … notice that intense shame, unlike the lite and mood state levels of shame, is miserably uncomfortable. In general, people tend not to identify shame until it’s in the mood state, so they miss out on the ways in which the lite versions of authentic shame continually help them moderate their behavior. If people only know the mood state and intense versions of shame, then it’s no wonder that shame has such a bad rap. Intense shame is so painful that we may do just about anything to avoid, ignore, repress, or run from it.
But that’s a mistake, because shame, which is anger at yourself, is the primary emotion that can help you become an honorable and socially capable person. Shame can certainly overwhelm you, but when you can get into a healthy empathic relationship to it, shame can be your best friend. Shame can make you very sensitive socially, so that you’ll be able to stop yourself (gently and appropriately) before you say or do something wrong. Healthy and appropriate shame will also help you make amends if you realize that you’ve hurt someone, stuck your foot in your mouth, or broken a social rule.
But it’s very important that your shame be authentic to you — that it be a part of your own moral code and your ethics. Your own authentic shame may be a bit grueling, but it doesn’t create misery. The miserable shame — the shame that pretty much ruins the entire subject of shame — is shame that is applied from the outside as a control mechanism. Mockery, denigration, public shaming, personal attacks … these externally applied forms of shame can cause unending pain that may feel unaddressable.
Shaming messages that are applied from the outside often attempt to break down your self-worth: they brand you as lazy, bad, insincere, untrustworthy, dishonest, unattractive, unintelligent, unlovable, or unworthy of respect. If you take externally applied shaming seriously — without challenging or questioning it — you may fall into a shame spiral. Whereas your authentic shame comes forward in response to a behavior or action that you really shouldn’t be doing, applied shame tends to make you feel as if there is an unaddressable and unforgivable flaw in your very being. And if you’re a broken and unaddressably flawed individual, where do you go from there?
With authentic shame, you can change behaviors, make amends, try new approaches … you’ve got options. But with badly applied foreign shame that questions your worth as a human being, you may find yourself unable to function properly. Dealing with applied shame is a very difficult task, but we’ve got an empathic skill that will help (How to re-work a toxic emotion), so worry not!
For today, let’s welcome our authentic shame with open arms and learn about the gifts it brings us.
The Gifts of Shame: Restoring Integrity
Integrity ~ Atonement ~ Self-respect ~ The capacity to amend your behavior
Shame is a form of anger that arises when your boundaries have been broken from the inside – by something you’ve done wrong, or have been convinced is wrong. While anger is the honorable sentry that faces outward and protects your boundaries from external damage, shame is the sentry that faces inward and protects your internal boundaries (and the boundaries of others) from your own incorrect or ill-conceived behaviors.
Shame is a vital and irreplaceable emotion that helps you mature into a conscious and well-regulated person. With shame’s assistance, you’ll be able to skillfully monitor your emotions, your thoughts, your desires, and your behaviors. However, if you don’t have conscious access to your own authentic shame, you won’t understand yourself, you’ll be haunted by improper behaviors and compulsions, you may explode with the toxic shame that torments you, and you’ll be unable to stand upright as an individual.
The questions for shame are: Who (or what) has been hurt? and What must be made right? These questions help you turn toward shame and use it honorably. When you can approach your shame empathically, you won’t be painfully shame-filled or guilt-ridden; instead, you’ll have a compassionate sense of ethics, the courage to judge and supervise your own conduct, and the strength to amend your behaviors without inflating or deflating your ego unnecessarily. When you successfully navigate through your authentic shame, you’ll feel proud of yourself, and you’ll move naturally into happiness and contentment.
When shame arises in response to your own authentic and addressable flaws or missteps, it flows appropriately (and often a step or two in front of your behavior). If you welcome your appropriate shame, you’ll stop yourself before you do something foolish, before you say the wrong thing, or before you enter into unhealthy behaviors or relationships.
Authentic and appropriate shame will help you turn away from your own maliciousness, charlatanism, and thievery – even when no one’s looking. It will keep you punctual, polite, and upstanding, and it will lead you gently but firmly away from the path of temptation. Authentic shame will stand at your inner boundary and monitor everything going out of your psyche and everything occurring within it. With its honorable assistance, you’ll become a conscientious and well-moderated asset to yourself and our world.
Working with your shame
The first task in working with shame is to welcome it with open arms. When your shame arises in the presence of others (it usually appears first as an internal pull in the gut, a flush of heat, a momentary speechlessness, or a sense of internal caution), it’s important to listen to your shame. If your shame stops you before you say or do something shameful, you can thank it and make your necessary preemptive corrections.
If you don’t know why your shame has come forward, you can ask yourself or the people around you if you’ve done something incorrect (Who – or what – has been hurt?), and apologize or make amends if necessary (What must be made right?). When you can openly welcome your shame, it will recede naturally (and swiftly) once it has helped you make your correcting actions (Emotions are action-requiring neurological programs). Then, your contentment and happiness will arise naturally, and you’ll move forward as a smarter, stronger, and more honorable person. Go you!
But if you can find no reason for your shame to have appeared, then you may be dealing with foreign or inauthentic shame. This kind of shame doesn’t help you manage your behavior. It trips you up, pulls at you, confuses you, makes you feel rotten, and wastes your time. If you’ve ingested too much foreign shame, it can essentially knock you sideways and make you less able to function.
This kind of unhelpful, disabling, and self-destructive shame is the kind that some people have been focusing on the memory of Amy Winehouse, on her friends and family, on Anders Breivik and the hate groups to which he belonged. And I have to tell you, this public shaming is the opposite of helpful. Enforcing shame upon others really doesn’t do anything but make them feel attacked and isolated. In children, a shaming approach laced with physical punishment can actually impair cognitive skills. In addicts, a shaming approach can increase psychological pain and lead to isolation or self-destructive behaviors.
Public shaming may succeed in getting people to stop publicly performing a behavior shamers don’t approve of. But if the behavior is important to people, they’ll find a way to hide it from view, and they’ll continue to do it (or they’ll fight back and act out even more openly). Shame applied from the outside doesn’t help people develop self-regulating skills. Public shaming really backfires, though it can be a fairly effective way to manipulate and control people who don’t have a good connection to their own healthy shame.
I read an article today about the use of emotional manipulation and shame in the cosmetics industry, and it’s a wonderful teaching lesson about the importance of identifying applied shame and public shaming tactics. Emotional skills are not just for relationships, art, drama, and music. Emotional skills can help you protect yourself from manipulation and exploitation.
Shame is one of the most important and powerful emotions you have, but because it’s so very powerful, it’s crucial to keep a close eye on it. Welcome your authentic shame, get to know it, learn to rely on it, and it will help you identify and separate yourself from the toxic effects of applied and foreign shame.