Shame Happens

In the comments on my recent post, The Adaptive Value of Shame, I’ve been going back and forth with one person who’s of the opinion that shame is always detrimental. I disagree, and I want to unpack this a bit.

When I say that there can be some value in the experience of shame, I’m not suggesting that we need to shame people in order to tap into that. Rather, what I’m saying is that the feeling of shame can be a strong motivation in changing how we act. It’s a subtle, but important distinction.

Shaming people, telling them that they’re bad or sinful or dirty, creates deep wounds that can last a lifetime. I see it as a form of emotional violence that is just as damaging as hitting someone can be. And although we often think of it in terms of the big acts of shaming, the smaller daily injuries that are inflicted on so many of us can be even more harmful. There’s a reason that queer, transgender, and genderqueer youth have higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse, suicide, and depression

But we don’t need to be shamed in order to feel shame. That’s because shame is the emotion of disconnection, or as Gershen Kaufman put it, it’s a rupture in the interpersonal bridge. Another way to think of is is misattunement. When the positive connection we have with someone else is diminished or broken, it can trigger one of the shame emotions. Which one comes up will depend on the relationship, the nature of the rupture/disconnection/misattunement, how much we want the positive regard of the other person, our individual histories, and other factors. In general, the more we desire the relationship, the sharper the drop in connection, and the deeper the drop, the bigger the shame response is likely to be.

To make this more concrete: I was recently talking with my partner and the way I said something made her think that I was taking her for granted. She got angry and left the room. As she walked out, I realized that she had disengaged from me because of what I had said, which triggered a shame reaction for me.

Since we have a very solid relationship with a long history of dealing with misattunements through apologies, amends, and reconciliation, it was a fairly small shame response on my part. But I can easily recall times from earlier in our relationship (and in my personal growth) during which a similar event would have resulted in a much bigger reaction on both of our parts, along with defensiveness, accusations, blame, and a lot of processing.

Nevertheless, the shame that I felt in that moment, even though it was smaller in scale and scope than it would have been in the past, was an important piece of information. It told me that my words had led to a disconnection between us. So after a moment to ground and center, I went into the other room and asked, “Did you feel upset after what I just said?” That started the conversation about the tone of my voice and how it had sounded. I was able to say that I hadn’t intended to use that tone, while acknowledging that my partner’s response was totally understandable and that I would have had a similar one if I had been in her place. And so, we moved through it and back into attunement.

If I hadn’t been able to notice my feelings of shame and recognize that it was a sign that we had gotten out of alignment, this whole experience would have taken much longer to recover from. I speak from long, personal experience on that. The more I’ve learned how to notice these micro-shames, the more skilled I’ve become at avoiding shame-triggering events and at resolving them when they happen.

On the other hand, if my partner had actively shamed me in that moment of her anger, all of that would have gone out the window. The fact that she hadn’t is part of what made it possible for me to lean into the sensations of shame and move forward.

In all of our relationships, misattunements and disconnections are going to happen. That’s simply a result of our being imperfect creatures. That means that shame is simply going to happen. Rather than fighting that, I’ve found a lot more success in accepting it and learning some skills at shame-resilience.

For me, part of that has been seeing these smaller emotions as being in the shame tent. The skills for responding to any of them can be applied to many of the others, similar to how the skills for dealing with worry or anxiety can often be applied to fear or panic. And just as feeling an ongoing low-level irritation can make us more likely to have a bigger anger reaction when something else happens, persistent low-level shame can make us more likely to have a larger shame reaction in response to a later event. These both suggest very strongly to me that there’s a lot of value in grouping these different feelings together.

That can often be challenging, though. Some people like to distinguish between shame as the toxic form and other feelings like guilt and remorse as the healthier versions. I certainly get that, just as I get that there’s a difference between rage, anger, and annoyance. Yet, we don’t usually have the same desire to group these smaller angers as somehow distinct from rage, nor do we usually have difficulty with putting them all in the “anger tent.”

I suspect that one reason why shame gets different treatment is that a lot of people feel shame for feeling shame. The desire to push the shame away instead of integrating it can sometimes be because we don’t want to admit that it’s part of our experiences. Another reason is that since shame is used in so many toxic ways in order to control people, it can be difficult to consider the possibility that there may be some ways in which smaller shames can be non-toxic or even useful. And since talking about the concept of shame can trigger feeling shame, finding ways to discuss guilt or contrition without using the word “shame” can make it easier to avoid setting off a bigger reaction.

Rather than trying to make it so that shame never happens, I think it’s much more effective to learn how to deal with it when it does. A good relationship isn’t one in which ruptures, conflict, and disconnections don’t occur. A good relationship is one in which resolution, amends, and reconnection are fostered. And over time, as we get more skilled at dealing with the inevitable missteps, we move through the process more quickly and the disconnections happen less often. But we can’t do that unless we can deal with the fact that shame happens.

6 Responses so far.

  1. I think this is beautiful and true. Will share!

  2. Eli says:

    The question is, said Alice, whether you can make a word mean so many different things.

    The question is, said Humpty Dumpty, which is to be master — that’s all.

    Yet, we don’t usually have the same desire to group these smaller angers as somehow distinct from rage, nor do we usually have difficulty with putting them all in the “anger tent.”

    You would probably have to call it “the homicidal rage tent” and talk about “the helpful nature of smaller homicidal rages in a good relationship” to have an equivalent analogy. I still think that, rather than prepending long explanations on how you redefine “shame” as meaning “disconnection”, your point would be more intelligible if you would simply say “disconnection” when you mean “disconnection”.

    I agree that prompting people to rethink their stance on shame is useful too, and our discussion has helped me clarify my own thoughts on the negativity of shame, still I feel a little frustrated that we seem to talk on different wavelengths because words seem to mean different things to us…

  3. Mindet says:

    I have to say I’m with you on this one, Charlie.  I understand how it could be helpful to separate shame from guilt and remorse, but when I feel guilty and remorseful I get the physical sensation of shame; the burning feeling of all the blood rushing to the surface of my skin.  For me, it is viscerally the same.  When I am ashamed of something I’ve done, or shamed by my own actions, if you like, the shame is about me, whereas when someone else tries to shame me, that is about them; I feel that that’s where the difference is.  They’re pushing their experience onto me, instead of the shame being my experience.  Damn, I wish I could express this better!

  4. I wonder about the evolutionary psychology of shame, which could arise as a result of other people withholding when they’re hurt. Could there be a survival benefit to knowing that you’ve transgressed in some way against your tribal leaders, even when they won’t tell you? I imagine so.

    I’m also wondering about the role of mirror neurons. I believe that healthy people suffer when they see others suffering. When they also feel responsibility for the other’s suffering, then they get the experience of shame. So someone who was “emotionally deaf” (as I recently heard psychopathy described) might logically understand that they’d caused someone suffering, but they wouldn’t feel the suffering themselves and hence, never get to shame.

    I notice the judgment “Charlie’s partner should have reported her resentment when it occurred and not left.” By ‘should’ I mean it would have been more efficient. It was that withholding that got me thinking about the evolutionary role of shame.

  5. Charlie Glickman says:

    Mike, neurobiologist Allan Schore suggests that shame emerges at the development stage when children start toddling. Infants don’t express it in the same way, not having differentiated from their caretakers yet. His hypothesis is that when we become self-ambulatory, caretakers need a way to control or limit behavior at a distance. Think of a child getting into a dangerous situation, like walking into the street. If the caretaker yells, the child freezes and might even sit down all of a sudden. Schore thinks that this is the developmental root of shame.

    Of course, it grows and changes, but I find this concept compelling. The evolutionary adaptation of shame is that it allows caretakers to regulate children’s behavior at a distance, in much the same way that a dog owner can use calls to tell a dog what to do.

    The underlying questions are whether the caretaker’s interpretation of the dangers are realistic, whether their response is proportional to the situation, and whether there’s a process for reconnection. But then, those are the same for the hypothetical dog owner, too.

  6. Eli says:

    Paul Hiebert made the distinction between shame and guilt based societies an important building block of his cultural anthropology;

    Shame is a reaction to other people’s criticism, an acute personal chagrin at our failure to live up to our obligations and the expectations others have of us. In true shame oriented cultures, every person has a place and a duty in the society. One maintains self-respect, not by choosing what is good rather than what is evil, but by choosing what is expected of one.

    Personal desires are sunk in the collective expectation. Those who fail will often turn their aggression against themselves instead of using violence against others. By punishing themselves they maintain their self-respect before others, for shame cannot be relieved, as guilt can be, by confession and atonement. Shame is removed and honor restored only when a person does what the society expects of him or her in the situation, including committing suicide if necessary.

    Guilt is a feeling that arises when we violate the absolute standards of morality within us, when we violate our conscience. A person may suffer from guilt although no one else knows of his or her misdeed; this feeling of guilt is relieved by confessing the misdeed and making restitution. True guilt cultures rely on an internalized conviction of sin as the enforcer of good behavior, not, as shame cultures do, on external sanctions. Guilt cultures emphasize punishment and forgiveness as ways of restoring the moral order; shame cultures stress self-denial and humility as ways of restoring the social order.

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