Shame is as old as man. Everyone at some point in their lives have known what it means to cower because we feel small and humiliated and exposed. We all know that feeling of wanting to disappear, of wanting to be invisible, of wanting the ground to open up and swallow us. Shame is a negative emotion and we don’t want to feel it. Some even believe we were never supposed to feel it. In the Biblical account of creation, the first human beings felt shame after they disobeyed God. This has led many Christians to believe that in God’s original design, man was never supposed to know shame but the invention of sin changed our reality.
Even though shame is something we want to avoid feeling, it can be a force for good.
The Merriam Webster dictionary defines shame as a painful emotion caused by the consciousness of guilt, shortcoming or impropriety. In other words, we feel shame when we don’t live up to expectations we have of ourselves. According to Hilge Landweer, a philosopher of the Free University of Berlin, for someone to feel shame, some conditions must be met. The person must be aware that he has transgressed a norm and he must hold said norm as desirable and binding. Knowing he has transgressed will make him uncomfortable and able to self-criticize. For this reason – shame being a private and social emotion – we can use it to create the change we want to see in the world. We can use it to enforce our values and redefine what we expect from ourselves and others.
Over and again, I have heard in conversation that our generation is shameless. This means many things (most of which are good) but statements like this are premised on the belief that there are things we should feel ashamed of but don’t. This is true. In this study by Daniel Sznycer, he explained that, “The function of pain is to prevent us from damaging our own tissue. The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them.” Daniel and other anthropologists show us how shame was developed as a way to maintain social order. By developing a system of shame, injurious choices were deterred. Simply put, the fear of shame or the actuality of experiencing shame has a way of getting us to act in accordance with laid down precepts. We are social animals and we want to belong, we want to feel seen and validated. We want to share our lives with other people. Because this is true, it means we will want to do what we can to ensure we remain a part of the pack. Because we don’t want to be devalued, we will not risk stepping out of line or transgressing what our community deems as “normal behaviour”.
Chimamanda Adichie, in one of her many talks, recommended that we use shame to get people to do the right thing. In her own words, we can use shame to make boys see there’s something wrong with their refusal to cry. Her recommendation works because shame is not so much about doing something bad, it is about feeling bad. Say we are in a bar and we see a man harassing the waitress by casually slapping her buttocks or telling her to smile, if we collectively shame the man for that behaviour; if the bar refuses to serve him; if his friends change tables leaving him alone; he is less likely to do it again. By expressing disapproval and introducing the element of shame, we basically tell him that people like us don’t do things like that and not just that – we disassociate with people who do things like this. But if we act normal, he continues with that same behaviour. This same scenario can be applied across board to a variety of social issues like rape, domestic violence, sexism etc. Parents use shame to teach their children basic social codes (“it’s not good to lie but you lied and my heart broke. Do you want to be a bad person?”) and we can apply this same thing to adults.
Even though shame can be a good tool to drive social change, it has downsides. To explain these downsides, it is important to introduce the concept of guilt. When someone feels bad about who they are as a person, they experience shame; and when they feel bad about behaviours they exhibited, they experience guilt (Lewis, 1971). And according to Tignor and Colvin (2017), both shame and guilt are negative affective states that occur in response to a transgression or shortcoming, and both are self-conscious emotions, meaning that self-reflection is critical to their occurrence. This means that even though both shame and guilt are responses to a shortcoming, they are different. While shame is about us, guilt is about others. While shame says “I am a wicked person”, guilt says “I did a wicked thing”. This difference is crucial if we really care about the social change we want to trigger.
According to Pivetti et al (2016), people who feel guilt instead of shame are more likely to want to fix the situation. This he attributed to how guilt is characterized by a desire to make amends. Shame on the other hand makes the shamed want to hide and escape. Pivetti is basically saying that unlike shame, guilt promotes prosocial behavior because it is about empathy and looking outwards; it is about intrinsic motivation. Guilt is less disabling than shame and the possibility of motivating the individual towards change is also higher. Also, it is often easier to rid yourself of guilt than to rid yourself of shame. It is easier to apologise or confess or pay a fine or serve a sentence than to change or accept who you are. (An attack on this idea is to see guilt as a crucial part of shame. We cannot feel shame without feeling guilt. They are cousins. So, in many instances, people will feel both of them).
Also, it is important to point out that shame can lead to “othering”. Consequently, it is unable to sustain long-term change at the end of the day. It becomes us versus them. By disassociating from people who transgress values we hold dear, we can become a divisive people. By using judgment as a tool to provoke change, we threaten rejection and trigger behaviours that are counterintuitive. According to Brené Brown’s shame resilience theory, when people are called out on their behaviour, they either move against shame and respond with aggression, move away from shame and become avoidant or move towards shame seeking approval. This is no way to create sustainable change. (A counter-opinion is pointing out that if shame focuses on traits or behaviour rather than the person, it may not be as divisive. Instead of making the person a summation of his transgressions, we can instead shine the torch on the attitude).
Using shame as a tool also raises the question of what to do if the person is shameless. If, like Donald Trump, they become more brazen after a reprimand, what happens next?
Lewis, H.B. (1971). Shame and Guilt in Neurosis. Psychoanalytic Review, 58(3), 419-438.
Pivetti, M., Camodeca, M., Rapino, M. (2016). Shame, Guilt, and Anger: Their Cognitive, Physiological, and Behavioural Correlates. Current Psychology, 35(4), 690-699.
Tignor, S.M., Colvin, C.R. (2017). The Interpersonal Adaptiveness of Depositional Guilt and Shame: A Meta-Analytic Investigation. Journal of Personality, 85(3), 341-363.
Arekpitan Ikhenaode is a Nigerian writer. She participated in the Crater’s 2021 Remote Internship for Writers.