Dealing with shame

You, too, can learn to wield shame, the double-edged sword. 

Shame, that universal emotion, is a double-edged sword. Shame overlaps with the law to some extent. For example, being arrested is shameful. But human nature is too complex to be entirely governed by law, and shame is useful in keeping society humming along. The fear of public shaming keeps people civil, dressed, and ethical.      

Shame is also a powerful self-regulatory mechanism. Shame motivates people to work hard, earn a living, do well, and perform. Shame is also a valuable emotion for self-examination. For example, even if the rest of the world will never know I was jealous of my best friend, I do and am ashamed of it. The lack of shame defines serial killers, rapists, and thieves. Guilt and shame are intertwined, with shame being a subset of guilt. A society without shame would be anarchy. A sure sign of mental illness is the dulling of public shame. In NYC, you see people sleeping in subway trains with food strewn around them and on their faces; somewhere, their circumstances defeated their shame. 

But shame is also a cruel dictator who pillages and plunders millions of people’s lives. Like fear, shame is always lurking around the corner, waiting to invade you. But unlike fear, each invasion erodes your self-esteem. As social beings, we are sensitive to comparison and judgment, perfect conditions for shame to thrive. On this foundation of social comparison rests the constantly changing social norms. Today’s youngsters can’t believe that disability rights came into force only in 1990 or that being disabled was shameful (sadly, it still is in many families). 

Famous shame researcher Berne Brown is out to eradicate shame, but that’s oversimplifying shame’s many textured nature. For example, those whose phones go off in the middle of a concert must feel ashamed of themselves. So, must people who cheat on their spouses, steal, lie; the list is endless. It’s best to accept shame as a powerful innate emotion, a sharp double-edged sword. Being clear about one’s values and realizing you only have one life to life is a critical first step in dealing with shame. So is understanding that as social beings, we must be good citizens. 

To wield shame adeptly, develop an internal shame meter aligned to your values, yet connected to society. Have an independent data plan for your shame meter, so it can function on its own when you don’t want to use the public Wi-Fi.  And let the philosophy of “live and let live” be your service provider’s motto. 

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