Shame - As Felt
We have all experienced that painful feeling inside when having done something terribly wrong. Without making claim of the following as a professional opinion (from a psychology point of view), shame is an emotion and like grief or sadness it hurts – inside. Shame can make you sink into the darkest places of your mind. It eats you up making you twisting yourself in mental pain. You punish yourself - you suffer! Now ask your-self – if you feel shame caused by wrong-doing – wrong in whose eyes?
Shame is first and foremost a social emotion, like shyness, pride or honour. This means that your actions and behaviour are not only ruled but also judged on basis of social norms prevailing in the society you live within. This in the next instance is linked to perceptions of what is perceived “normal” (and not normal). Shame and honour – as the opposite pole - differ across communities and nations. One person´s shame might be another person´s honour and even fame, and what is acceptable for one person might turn out unacceptable for another. The feeling of shame is therefore just as much a result of how others see you, as it is about how you see yourself – that is – unless you are strong enough to stand out. This is difficult as we are all a product of the society and culture we live within.
Depending on your nature – you might be more or less prone to the feeling of shame whether you admit it openly or not. Indeed, there are an amazing number of people who seem unaffected by having committed truly shameful actions. Does the politician express shame for being corrupted? Does the average man admit shame for having hit his wife? Maybe in silence but publicly saying - Ì am ashamed of my own actions´ - seldom before (s)he is being caught. Until this stage denial usually prevails over shame, and (s)he practically has to be needled to the wall before publicly admitting that – feeling of shame.
A sensitive person might feel shame in situations others don´t and this is where the effect of social norms becomes particularly visible. Norms and rules apply at the workplace, in relations with neighbour, in your community and within the state. The fear of shame is a controlling mechanism. One use it when raising children to teach them the difference between right and wrong, society uses it to control inter-personal relations, your employer uses it to ensure discipline and even between friends there are certain norms and rules. If you deviate from the standard – you might often be perceived an outsider or even worse your action is perceived as shameful. Few are ready to stand out or rather – stand up – the societal cost and punishment is too high and for some impossible to live with.
Societal perceptions of right and wrong are not static but dynamic public perceptions that change over time. Therefore an action that would make you shameful years ago could indeed make you proud and bring you honour today. No pain no gain, they say. Is there gain from shame? In a way - yes. Shame is seldom expressed publicly as such, and most would try to bury it to ease that feeling. While being ashamed probably is adequate in many situations, cultivation of shame as such is negative and useless, as are good intentions without action. The last is exactly my point. Shame neutralizes and paralyzes you and isolated speaking brings with it few positive results. In many cases it doesn´t make sense to talk about when shame is right and wrong. What makes sense is to examine when shame can be used for positive development.