The adults who raised me used the word “shame” with some frequency. More specifically, the female adults. As in “Shame on you!” Or the rhetorical reproof, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself!” Where I come from, women — grandmothers, mothers, aunties and schoolteachers — used “shame” this way more often than men.
I don’t possess any lucid cultural analysis that explains this. I admit it is anecdotal. But I can’t recall my father ever saying, “Shame on you!” His disciplinary interventions tended to be less morality-based and more raging incredulity about my mental capacities, often threatening aloud — and I mean really loud — to buy me a bathing cap, given the frequency with which he believed my cranium to be lodged in the far end of my alimentary canal.
These many years later, “shame” is a word containing great paradox for me. The same word is used to describe two very different things. Near polar opposites.
One use of the word “shame” is quite simply a messenger from hell. Dark and destructive. Crippling. Humiliating. A prison of paralyzing self-loathing. In the hands of psychologically immature, dishonest, insecure or just plain mean people with power, shame is manipulative, hostile and deforming, especially to children. In extreme cases of abuse of power, I would be willing to consider this word a kind of evil. I do not exaggerate when I say the core of my life’s work as a counselor is identifying and exorcising unhealthy shame.
But another use of “shame” is an angel from heaven. Filled with light and healing. Liberating. Humbling. The only key to the prison door of self-absorption and entitlement. In the hands of a psychologically mature, courageous human being, this “shame” is the penultimate teacher. It shapes true character. To be truly human we must be willing to acknowledge and give thanks for healthy shame.
One word. Two very different ideas.
Humiliation is a terrible teacher, extracting a terrible price. Even when the desired lesson is good and true, even when the issue is truly one of justice and right … well, humiliation leaves scars making even the best lesson hard to celebrate. And humiliation is the desired outcome of unhealthy shame. Shame-based leaders — parents, employers, supervisors, religious leaders, etc. — believe deeply that if people feel badly enough about themselves they will do better. Any social scientist will tell you the opposite is true, of course. Toxic shame drives bad behavior.
In healthy shame, we are not humiliated; rather, we are humbled. To be humbled is to recognize and surrender to limits. I am not God. I am not entitled. While I am not nothing, neither am I everything. I am neither famous nor infamous. Healthy shame is the guardian voice of boundaries. Healthy shame calls out to us when we overstep our ordinary, mortal selfhood in acts of presumption, hubris, self-absorption, blithe narcissism, wanton selfishness, indecency and other such interpersonal indignities. It doesn’t say “Shame on you!” Rather, it inquires soberly, “Have you no shame?” I love the way the ever-polite English say it: “Sir, you forget yourself.”
Here’s an example: The boy, age 10, lies to his father. When the father inquires about the discrepancy, the boy lies some more, his face defiant and desperate. The father shows the boy the evidence. The boy confesses, tears looming. The father’s heart breaks for the boy. He knows what the boy is feeling: shame. It’s awful. It’s as if your heart is nauseated, but there’s no regurgitating the sickness.
How to walk this tightrope? An important lesson must be taught, but how to do it without crushing the boy?
“Well, this changes things,” the father says, thoughtfully. “You’re old enough now so that you and I should make a decision. If lying is the way you’re going to handle yourself, then I guess I should get ready for the next several years of not believing you. On the other hand, maybe lying is not the man you want to be. Not a man you can respect. Maybe you’d like to tell me this is the first and the last time lying will be a part of our relationship. It’s your choice, boy.”
One tear spills toward a trembling chin. The boy says, “I won’t lie to you anymore.”
“That’s wonderful news,” the father exclaims with a warm smile.
The boy is humbled. Not humiliated. The father helps him find the courage to embrace a healthy shame. Which opens the way for a healthy self-respect.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.