Shame is the feeling that you have done something wrong. But more deeply, shame is the feeling that you are wrong as a person fundamentally. As a society we tend to think that shame is necessary and even a force for good because it keeps people in line and prevents them from acting badly. It is my contention that shame is completely unnecessary, often harmful and is in no way a moralizing principle.
It is supremely unfortunate that our society feels that shame is a moralizing principle. Imagine a kid caught stealing a pack of gum from a store. When he is caught he is made to feel ashamed of himself by whatever authority figure caught him. Our society feels that it is then appropriate to shame this kid because it punishes him for the crime committed. Moreover shame also prevents him from stealing gum in the future because he will not want to feel the shame of getting caught a second time. But this is not morality. Morality would be choosing not to steal the gum in the first place because he knew in his heart that stealing was wrong. It is not moral to refrain from stealing merely out of a fear of being punished.
Our society also tends to feel that feeling shame is connected to being responsible. The argument goes that if the kid did not feel shame after stealing gum then he would go around stealing gum all the time unhindered. But this is not responsibility. In fact the argument assumes the kid is intrinsically irresponsible and requires shame to make him act responsibly.
Our society also tends to feel that shame is a just punishment for the crime. The kid steals the gum, gets caught and feels shame. We clearly see the crime and the punishment. This would be fine if this is where it ended but shame tends to linger far longer than it is useful for the purpose of punishment. To illustrate the point, how many people reading this post feel regret and embarrassment to this day for situations that occurred years and years ago? Do you honestly feel that punishment fits what ever crime you committed so long ago?
In truth, shame is a virus. I say it is a virus because it spreads from person to person as people who feel ashamed of themselves tend to want to make other people feel ashamed of themselves. Consider the following example. A boss yells at his employee for making a mistake at work. That employee feels ashamed and frustrated. He goes home and sees that his house is a mess and yells at his son for not cleaning up after himself. His son feels ashamed and frustrated. He then finds his younger brother and yells at him for taking his book without asking permission. The younger brother feels ashamed of himself and because he has no one smaller than him to shame at home, he goes to school the next day and bullies a smaller kid. This is how shame operates. Notice how none of the crimes committed were the real reason why one person chose to shame another in this chain. Notice also that shame tends to be cowardly looking for weaker victims upon which to vent. This illustrates the deceptive nature of shame to both the shamor and the shamed. Each shamor cloaked his shame with the veneer of morality by accusing the shamed of a crime. From the perspective of the shamed, he will operate under the belief that if only he did the right thing he would not have to feel ashamed anymore. But even a little bit of thought about shame will confirm that this belief is false. Shame lingers as long as a person buys into the notion that shame is a legitimate moralizing principle.
The answer must be to reject shame as a moralizing principle because it simply is not. When a person rejects shame in this way he will begin to notice an awareness of the dynamic of shame and a compassion for the people deceived into thinking shame is a necessary force for good. In the example where the boss shamed the father and the father shamed the son, no one in this chain was aware of their true motivation. With awareness, however, a person caught within the throws of shame who is about to pass their shame on to another person can catch themselves in the act. They can ask themselves if this is the right thing to do. That would be an act of true morality and responsibility.
Here is my challenge to the reader of this post. The next time you feel yourself caught in the throws of shame, stop yourself. Gain an awareness of your true motivations. Have compassion for the person you are about to pass your shame onto. Have compassion for yourself for most likely being the previous recipient of someone else’s shame. Know that shame has no compassion or awareness and the true shame of it all is that our society feels shame to be a moralizing principle when it is anything but.
I am 44 years old. If you were to ask me my top ten life lessons off the top of my head here is what I would probably come up with:
- Don’t worry about what other people think of you. I spent far too much of my time worrying about this. So much so that I lost sight of myself and what I wanted out of life. I only really came to terms with this fact a few years ago. There is a big part of me that wants to regret this but regret is a facet of my ego and my ego is what convinced me to prioritize other people’s thoughts over my own.
- In terms of a career Do what you enjoy. Don’t do what you don’t like doing. Again, because I worried about what would make me look good in the eyes of others I made choices based on what I thought they would like. As a result I worked a miserable job I hated for eight years only to be laid off and unemployed / underemployed for a few years before I got back on my feet. I am now in the position of reaching for what I enjoy but it feels like I am racing against the clock. Far better to figure this one out in your twenties or earlier if possible.
- Avoid debt. I wish I was better about this early on as well. Any debt you take on is lost opportunity. It is better to have compound interest working for you with investments than against you with debt.
- If you never felt like you pleased your parents in childhood it probably will never happen when you are an adult. As such, stop trying and free up that energy for your passions. It might actually improve your relationship with your parents.
- Don’t associate with people who make you feel bad about yourself. You can recognize them if you pay attention to your feelings. Trust that your feelings are real, there for a reason and never wrong.
- Loyalty is earned. For so long I felt I needed to be loyal to things and people who had no loyalty to me. As such the rewards I thought this loyalty would bring if I just hung in there long enough never materialized until I was able to let go of this obligation.
- You are entitled to happiness. Everyone is. If you are unhappy there is a reason for it and it probably is not because you are bad, wrong or otherwise defective.
- Don’t judge other people. People who judge other people judge themselves equally as harshly. They do this because they were judged harshly and when they judge others harshly the people they judge will judge others and continue to spread the virus.
- Shame is toxic. Shame is the source and result of judgment. It is also the origin of misplaced loyalty and probably debt.
- Religion and politics are voluntary. Because no one can know what’s on the other side you should not and probably cannot force you beliefs or values on others. Nor should you judge another person harshly for believing something contrary to what you believe. If you find yourself doing this perhaps you should ask yourself what am I ashamed of? Who judged me harshly when they should have had compassion for me?
In this life, can I really achieve anything? I think of achievement as if it is something important with intrinsic and lasting meaning. But someday I will die and whatever achievements I have made will be forgotten over time. Not even the Earth will last forever. Not even the universe will last forever. And yet I feel the need to achieve something in this lifetime. I want to leave my mark. I wonder, however, how much of this desire to achieve is motivated by shame and ego. In other words could my need to achieve actually be the need to avoid humiliation of not achieving brought on by comparing myself to others or some idealized version of myself?
If I remove the ego from the equation then I can see two legitimate reasons to achieve in life. The first reason is the awareness of being in the moment and enjoying the act of achieving. If I am enjoying what I am achieving while I am achieving then that has value regardless of whether it lasts in time. The second legitimate reason to achieve is true compassion. This can be compassion for others but also includes compassion for the self (which may be the same thing – see The Universe is Solipsistic). For example I might choose to achieve to make a living to support my family (and myself). This seems to have value as well. I call this true compassion, as opposed to false compassion which is motivated by ego or shame. For example I might choose to appear to be compassionate to make myself look good in the eyes of others.
So it seems that achievement for its own sake or out of compassion is good perhaps because it is truthful. And achievement that serves the ego is bad perhaps because it is untruthful. It is untruthful because there is an implicit assumption that life will go on forever (which it will not) and achievements are stored like wealth forever (which they cannot). It is also deceptive about what its motive appears to be.
What about no achievement at all? I suppose this could be either desirable or undesirable. Obviously if I do nothing for too long I will starve to death. That is not desirable. I could also become a drug addict and loose all motivation to achieve. That also seems undesirable. I could simply “be” without achieving for a period of time not long enough to starve to death. There is something desirable about that akin to meditation. Although I would probably struggle with that because sometimes when I am not achieving I feel lazy (a shame based emotion) and it becomes difficult to enjoy the act of not achieving. That is not a desirable situation either. And even if I could not achieve without feeling shame then it becomes some kind of spiritual achievement. That sounds desirable. Spiritual growth comes from venturing out of my comfort zone. But why do I need to grow? Is this not also the need for achievement, only bumped up to the spiritual level? I suppose there is the expectation that the spirit exists eternally, so maybe that is the difference and the motivation appears to be true. I suppose when I boil it all down it’s about Truth. If achievement is true then it is worth pursuing and if it is untrue it’s not but I still feel like I’m missing something here.
Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, 16th century image from Japan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here is an idea I have about the nature of the universe. The idea is that the universe is solipsistic in that there is one mind and we as individuals experience an illusion of separateness. All consciousness comes from the same source. Perhaps there was some event like the Big Bang that set the illusion of separation into motion. This is not such an original idea, however, I think the way I approach it is a little different than anything else I have heard or read.
I got the idea in law school reading hand written criminal appeals written by uneducated murderers. It occurred to me that the criminal would do anything he could to get out of prison. He would research the law and hand write a complex legal document. Even if he knew he was guilty he had infinite compassion for himself — because he was himself. When we look at murders in prison we probably think they should be there. But if you or I were the murder we would want our freedom. Why? Because on some level we all have infinite compassion for ourselves. This is not to say that we are never self critical, but rather to illustrate that underneath the self criticism there sits a place of self compassion.
According to this model, to the extent we have compassion for others it is because we recognize ourselves (the universal solipsistic mind) in the other person. We see ourselves quite strongly in our children (for obvious reasons) and therefore have more compassion for them than strangers. The same is true for family members, fellow countrymen, teammates and friends we associate with.
In this model the forces of evil in the world attempt to perpetuate the separation through judgement, shame and perhaps even the concept of altruism. When we judge a person we say we are better than them and we separate ourselves from them. When we shame a person we make them feel inferior and separate. The same holds when we judge ourselves. We then become separate from ourselves. This really is the ultimate illusion. We can see that we are one whole and yet when we judge ourselves we act and feel as if this is not the case. The same is true (according to this model) for the universe as a whole.
Now, one might argue that this view of compassion is actually selfishness and that it is morally superior to have compassion for a complete stranger unconnected to ourselves for other reasons rather than having compassion for someone because you recognize yourself in them. This is altruism. But I suspect this point of view comes from a place of shame. It is judgmental and attempts to separate those who love themselves from those who think the purest form of love can only be directed to another person. Anything else is selfishness and selfishness is by that altruistic definition bad. But if the universe is solipsistic then the love of the self is the actually the highest good and altruism is an illusion of separateness.