The Atlantic Monthly, February 1992
Shame used to be valued as a sign of character, of knowing limits. But contemporary culture…has tended to dismiss shame as the mark of a timid person. “We can be ashamed of anything—including our assets—when we see that they provoke disapproval, or divide us from others. Hidden and un-dealt-with shame can stalk one’s being, inflicting an unconscious self-loathing.” Normal shame is healthy. Unacknowledged shame is a pathogen. The need to repress the shame (over, say, being fat on an airplane) that threatens to become self-loathing—this need often drives people toward perfectionism, withdrawal, diffidence, combativeness. “An unconscious feeling of unworthiness often crystallizes around some negative, hectoring view of the self: one is ugly, stupid, impotent, unmanly, unfeminine. One is phony, grasping, ignorant, boring, cheap. One is insignificant, immature, unable to love.” Sometimes shame-filled beliefs are wholly false, sometimes a cover for other, deeper, shames; sometimes partly or mostly true. Some people are in fact fat and unattractive. Many of the realities and the beliefs can be creatively dealt with. “But…pathogenic shame belief seems to block creative avenues It is crippling, because it contains not just the derisive accusation that one is a wimp, a bully, or a runt, but the further implication that one is at core a deformed being, fundamentally unlovable and unworthy of membership in the human community. It is the self regarding the self with the withering and unforgiving eye of contempt. And most people are unable to face it. It is too annihilating.” Shame is often instilled by parents, who cannot accept the child they have and use shame to induce conformity either realistically or hopelessly. It’s often instilled in school and felt deeply by the nerd in gym class, the jock in the lab. “Shame sets off a whole series of defenses and compensatory behaviors.” Early on, the only real chance of an antidote is unconditional parental love—of a healthy kind.
Parents can instill shame not only by failing to love and accept in conventional ways, but also by “loving too much,” i.e. by coddling and spoiling. “Some parents fail to prepare their child for the fact that others might not find him as adorable as they do. They may neglect to teach him good manners, may give him the impression that certain of his obnoxious traits are cute, or may generally assure him that he is the most fantastic child who ever lived. They are, unwittingly, setting him up for shame.” Shame yields inordinate compensations: the needy person (ashamed of it) may become “a caricature of independence,” a “woman who secretly despises herself for being selfish may … compensate for what she sees as her shameful self-seeking with rigid displays of generosity. No one must ever see that claw-like third hand reaching out of her pocket with ‘selfish’ written all over it.” We all are haunted by, and keep on fighting, certain childhood shadows.
“One of the premier diagnoses of our times, narcissism is a reflection not only of an apparent trend in mental illness but also of the strains and distortions in the lives of essentially healthy people. Although it has long been associated with grandiosity, self-adoration, and an annoying attitude of entitlement, many theorists now believe that the emotional fragility of the narcissistic personality is based on shame. Narcissists must be wonderful and adored or else they are less than nothing. No amount of success seems able to fill the inner void, except momentarily. Unless they control everything . . . the old sense of shame gets reactivated.”
Guilt has a solution: you make amends. But what if you are ashamed of being ugly and stupid. How do you put that right? Helen Block Lewis: “’The only thing that suits it at this moment is for you to be nonexistent. That’s what people frequently say. I could crawl through a hole. I could sink through the floor. I could die.’” Shame and guilt are often intertwined: one can trigger the other and both can be triggered by one event. (48) “To express a shunned feeling of shame can be like emerging from a harsh, self-imposed regime where the voice of contempt rules without check and where the self lives as a second-class citizen.” (49) Shame “has a contagious quality, not only because it is considered shameful to look upon another’s shame, but because it makes our own shame demons restive.”