‘The really fundamental questions of our lives are not questions of fact or finance but questions of value.’ Patrick Grim, Ph.D.
Our Self-Conscious Emotions
Guilt, Shame, Embarrassment, Pride/Hubris
The first central idea about the self-conscious emotions is that they require high-level thinking about self, social norms, and morality, whereas the basic emotions (fear, anger, sadness and joy) come much more automatically. The second is that all of the self-conscious emotions are believed to be related to our social self, and a tendency to (a) avoid rejection, (b) achieve dominance, and (c) maintain intra-group harmony.
First, let’s focus on guilt and shame.
Question: What would the world be like if no one experienced shame or guilt?
Guilt is about our actions; right or wrong, good or evil. ‘I have done something that goes against my core values and beliefs, and I feel badly about that.’ Shame is about our core-self; feelings of inferiority or unworthiness. ‘I am inherently flawed and defective and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.’ The difference: ‘I did something bad, and I know it’ and ‘I am something bad, and they know it.’
Consider the following example:
Sharon is shopping for Christmas ornaments. There are two similar ornaments available from the same company – one for $10, and the other, adorned with real crystals, for $60. She surreptitiously swaps them, slipping the more expensive bauble into a $10 ornament’s box. Then she takes it to the counter and pays $10 for it. Later, as she’s hanging it on the tree, she feels terrible.
Question: What is it that Sharon is feeling? Guilt or shame?
Guilt: She tells her husband what she’s done, and he suggests she return the ornament to the store and make a $50 donation (the price difference) to a local charity. She takes his advice and feels much, much better. Lesson learned.
Shame: She realizes that she is an awful human being and she doesn’t deserve the love and/or respect of her husband and children. Each evening thereafter she laces her eggnog with copious amounts of brandy and stares at the ornament, viewing it as proof that she is a bad person.
Feeling guilty can absolutely be a healthy thing, as this emotion can and often does lead to positive behavior change: ‘I feel badly about my behavior, and I’d like to fix the situation and behave differently in the future.’ Shame, on the other hand, is incredibly unhealthy, causing lowered self-esteem (feelings of unworthiness) and behaviors that reinforce that self-image: ‘I am a bad person and there’s nothing I can do about that, so I might as well continue behaving badly.’ In short, guilt is potentially a very healthy emotion, and shame is not.
Let’s take a closer look at shame. One source splits shame into two categories: healthy shame and toxic shame. Healthy shame describes the feeling of: ‘I have done something that violates my core values and beliefs, and I feel badly,’ while toxic shame describes the feeling of: ‘I am inherently flawed and defective and therefore unworthy of love.’ Healthy shame appears to be the same as guilt. So that leaves only toxic shame.
Question: If shame is so unhealthy, so toxic, why does it exist?
Well, shame is often used in an attempt to influence or control others; in teaching others the lessons we think they should learn. Parents use shame on their children. They rely on: sarcasm, name-calling, eye-rolling, expressing disgust, etc. All are ways to communicate that someone else is not worthy of our respect. Shame is used to censor. Shaming works! It works so well because we’re wired to connect to and to seek acceptance from others, and shame effectively withdraws that acceptance and connection.
Question: Have you ever been shamed? Have you shamed others?
Shame exists on a number of levels:
- Private shame – Shame that is self-inflicted. I’m too fat, too dumb, too …
- Instructive shame – Shame employed by parents to socialize their children, etc.
- Destructive shame – Shame used to taunt or punish, bullying, etc.
- Public shame – Shame masked by ‘culture warriors’ as advocacy, etc.
Shame makes us feel terrible, like we’re horrible people, broken, worthless and disgusting. And when someone shames us, we lose respect for that person. It can become a viscous cycle.
Question: Is shame ever warranted?
What if there is something about you (or someone else) that is flawed … something truly not so great? Indeed, the list of character flaws is long. How should we deal with people who are: abusive, bigoted, cruel, fraudulent, hypocritical, lewd, spiteful, untrustworthy, etc.?
Our Moral Landscape
Growing anecdotal evidence suggests that our moral landscape may be changing. Specifically, our prevailing moral system may be shifting away from guilt and toward shame. Evidence to support this possibility can be gleaned from internet traffic, particularly discourse on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. News can travel rapidly; some postings strike a chord and may go ‘viral’. Participants all want to have their say. The truth seems not to matter. Mere accusations are worthy of shame. Even ‘typos’ are met with scorn. It can get pretty ugly.
If our moral landscape is in fact evolving, ‘millennials’ appear to be leading the way. Instead of concern for doing right, millennials seem more concerned with being liked. That’s noteworthy.
Recent research (see Christian Smith’s 2011 book: ‘Lost in Transition’) reveals that, in our modern society, ‘tolerance’ is on the upswing, especially among younger generations. Anecdotal evidence shows that emerging adults are more open-minded toward beliefs and behaviors outside the mainstream. This trend is seen as a positive; an antidote for racism, sexism and various other social pathologies. ‘Multiculturalism’ – efforts to promote inclusion and diversity – exploit this trend. Paradoxically, hyper-sensitivity to certain belief, labels and figures of speech – deemed ‘politically incorrect’ – strongly suggests that intolerance remains alive and well.
Question: Does embracing ‘tolerance’ excuse us from rigorous moral reasoning?
For many millennials ‘tolerance’ boils down to refusing to judge others. ‘Live and let live’ is commonly expressed. Is tolerance simply a cop-out? Perhaps, but many young people lack the knowledge and tools necessary for moral discernment, hence their moral ambivalence. Instead of employing moral reasoning to come to some sort of moral conclusion, they’re more likely to say of another: ‘I would not do what you’re doing (I believe it to be wrong), but if you believe what you’re doing is OK, than that’s fine with me.’ This amounts to moral relativism.
Moral relativism, while not a new perspective, has the potential to leverage our moral landscape. How so? One theory suggests millennials withhold moral judgments for fear of being judged themselves. Millennials face this fear for a few reasons. First, they’ve become more and more dependent on technology. Second, this technology has not only expanded their social horizons; but also helped mold their social identity. And third, they’re both willing and able to interact within a wider circle of like-minded friends, especially in cyberspace. Now, if one was to judge another or take a moral stand, he or she risks an immediate backlash; not only from one’s ‘friends’, but also complete strangers. Reprisal typically takes the form of shaming. One’s judgment may have been entirely justified. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the unwritten commandment: ‘Thou shalt not judge.’ The lesson is clear: If you want to remain friends, and not be ostracized, don’t rock the boat. Over time, shame supersedes guilt.
Question: Is digital technology altering our moral landscape?
Managing & Overcoming Shame
Some degree of shame may be warranted; a large degree of shame may be undeserved. At times, the difference can be subtle. Consider the following claims.
- Matthew 12:30 30 “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
- Mark 9:39-40 39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us.
Question: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Is this always true?
Respectful vs Shame Based Systems
Respectful Systems Shame Based Systems
Violation of values leads to guilt Violation of person leads to shame
Rules require accountability Rules require perfection
Relationship is maintained by dialogue Relationships are uncertain; in jeopardy
The best weapon against shame is empathy and respect. Shame based systems produce a number of adverse side effects: increased rigidity; alienation and distance; development of a controlled or conforming image; and, of course, more shame and despair. Respect based systems produce: accountability, repair and resolution; clarification of values over time; growing empathy, and personal growth of self.
Coping with shame can be difficult, especially if it’s unwarranted. We are taught to hate the sin, but love the sinner. The situation calls for ‘moral fortitude’; the ability to discern, trust and stand behind your moral convictions. Moral fortitude allows you to rise above shame, to tune it out.
Question: Do you struggle with ‘moral fortitude’, or not?
This material is largely based upon the book “Questions of Value” by Patrick Grim Ph.D. and is used with permission by the author. Please see http://www.pgrim.org/ for more information.