Shame is a painful emotion that assists in self regulating our behavior. Shame is felt most often when we fail to meet our own standards. Our standards for behavior are ingrained within us by culture, family of origin and to a lesser extent our peers. Shame alerts us to when we have fallen short, and in its most positive sense allows us to reflect and make necessary changes. Shame becomes toxic/addictive when the undesired behavior brings us pleasure and temporary relief from emotional pain, becoming cyclical. That is to say, emotional pain prompts us to engage in an undesired behavior for relief, leading to further emotional pain. Thus, the cycle begins again and again, until a person is left with shredded self esteem and often escalating the behavior or engaging in others along the way.
Shame plays an important guiding role in society. Societal norms, mental and physical health, and cultural beliefs and values are bolstered by each individual’s sense of shame. There use to be a saying, “Have you no shame?” when someone conducted themselves inappropriately in a social context. In the 21st century, our rush to eliminate long held values and replace them with new progressive ideologies has made pin pointing what is shameful increasingly difficult, even taboo.
While it appears that we as a society have reduced the “burden” of stodgy old fashion beliefs and values, we have not rid ourselves of shame. Evidenced by the increase in addictions, unhealthy behaviors and rising rates of depression and suicide, shame is alive and well, but its guiding help is too often overlooked. We are becoming a nation of toxic shame.
Shame works! I struggled with alcoholism for several years, without a deep sense of shame I am not sure if I’d be here today. It was shame that ultimately gets credit sobering me, or at very least to take the steps to do so. No amount of harm reduction, sympathy/acceptance, gentleness or forgiveness was going to do it for me. In my case, I needed to feel the excruciating pain of shame. My life is beautiful today because I chose to embrace my emotional pain. We can also see that the stigma placed on cigarette smoking has been effective. Most smokers today do feel shame that will hopefully prompt them to quit. Shaming unhealthy or anti-social behaviors is indicative of a caring civilized society.
The Humanist movement of the late 19th century believed it could replace religious values with intellectual and cultural values. This is the basis for progressivism. However, as a “consumer culture” the intellectual nature of the movement has been supplanted by marketing, ideology and propaganda that serves dubious interests parading as well reasoned beliefs. Additionally, policy is a poor replacement for culture. I agree that culture and intellect can guide us, together we need to value these to enhance society and this includes shame. Unfortunately, our culture seems to be wrapped up in the late stages of decadence and anti-intellectualism, leading many scholarly types to the conclusion we are experiencing an irreversible decline.
Enjoy the ride.