The Invention and Rediscovery of Shame

by Mark Zaslav, Ph.D.

A genius, superhuman scientist creates two naked, intelligent, robot-beings in his laboratory.  For his first experiment, he instructs them to eat any food in the well-stocked refrigerator, except for a substance labeled “Awareness of What is Wrong.”  The scientist leaves the lab, and upon returning notes that his robot-beings are hiding from him.  He asks them why they are hiding and they tell him it feels wrong to be naked in front of him.  Concerned, the scientist asks if they have eaten of the banned substance.  Admitting their transgression, the male robot-being blames the female, and the female blames a snake-like creature.

The beings are banned from the lab and the female gives birth to two sons called A and C.  Both sons present offerings to the scientist-creator.  The scientist expresses appreciation only for the gift of son A.  Son C, in a state of envy and self-righteous rage at finding his gift unappreciated, murders his brother.

This is the story that greeted me when, ten years ago, as a life-long atheist and long-time clinical psychologist, I began to read the Bible.  In the story of Genesis, after the creation of the universe, earth and man, this Garden of Eden “experiment” is the first, and apparently most important demonstration about human nature conducted by God.  At the time of reading this, I was interested in the emerging scholarly literature about the “self-conscious” emotions of shame and guilt.  I was surprised and intrigued by the importance attributed in the Biblical story to the instillation and demonstration of shame.  Certainly, ancient authors were aware of the unique human capacities for tool making and language and they undoubtedly noticed that people had larger brains than other animals, but they chose to begin their story with an allegory about the human capacity for self-conscious moral evaluation.

While guilt and shame are usually mentioned together (and their meanings blurred), modern cognitive and social psychologists view them as different emotions.  Guilt is an emotion we feel when an act causes real or imagined suffering to another person.  Guilt is associated with a sense of regret as well as a motivation to make amends or apologize.  Research on people prone to experience guilt shows that they are more likely to accept responsibility for their behavior, show more empathy, have more durable self-esteem and be less likely to abuse substances than people prone to shame.  In short, proneness to healthy, “shame-free” guilt is associated with positive psychological functioning.

Shame, on the other hand, is associated with a global sense of being bad, deficient or inadequate.  In the parlance of current psychological theory, guilt is about “doing” and shame is about “being.”  We all experience a sense of shame when we fail to meet expectations, behave badly, or are reminded of our shortcomings.  Like guilt, the capacity to experience a sense of sense of shame presumably evolved because it was helpful for our species.  Evolutionary psychologists surmise that shame “handcuffs us to the social contract.”  The capacity for shame promotes social conformity and cohesion, and helps motivate accomplishment or achievement.  Without the healthy capacity to make and respond to moral judgments about the self, a civilization based on honor, propriety, cooperation, hierarchy, obligation and order would be impossible.

For people very vulnerable to a miscalibrated sense of shame however, almost any human encounter, mistake, misfortune, errant thought, or disturbing memory can give rise to an implosion of self-esteem including fantasies of not existing or not even deserving to exist.  Narcissistic personalities, associated with off-putting grandiose and entitled behavior, seem to function primarily to protect against a debilitating sense of shame.  Shameful states are not only painful, but they tend to be private and wordless.  For example, while guilt is often a convenient topic in psychotherapy, shame tends to be avoided unless tactfully brought into focus by a skilled therapist.

The first few pages of the Old Testament effectively summarize the characteristic human responses to shame: hiding, blaming, envy and rage.  Unlike guilt, which tends to motivate affiliative social behavior, excessive shame fuels social avoidance and victimized, angry self-absorption.  For the chronically shame-prone,  there may be a simmering sense of grievance easily triggered by feeling unappreciated or wronged.  Angry, even violent behavior may accompany these states.

In the modern world, famous but damaged people seek the limelight while simultaneously trying to hide in plain sight.  Recent deaths like those of Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse and now Whitney Houston reveal that despite talent, accomplishment and wide adoration, celebrities often feel they can escape secret states of shameful self-loathing only through alcohol and drug intoxication.   Addiction is both shame selecting and shame fueling.  A history of abuse, trauma or neglect predisposes to experimentation with drugs, and the long descent into addiction provides more shameful material from which to hide.  In addictive disorders, hiding literally becomes all consuming.

The prevailing ethos in our enlightened age is that it is “wrong” to be excessively judgmental.  The irony, of course, is that even this admonition to open-mindedness is couched as a moral injunction.  It seems that try as we might as a culture to shift the object of our disapproval to judgment itself, it is impossible for our species to disengage the process of disapproving.  Research suggests that the human brain constantly and automatically makes moral judgments about virtually every aspect of life.  Even when we invoke reason or argument to justify these judgments, it appears that unconscious emotions really determine the verdict we defend.  For instance, Adam and Eve rationalized and cast blame when confronted, not in a genuine attempt at introspection, but merely to dissipate their shameful sense of self-disapproval.

Whether one believes it divinely inspired or not, the Genesis story continues to shine a light on a fundamental truth about being human.  We are the only animals that have evolved a moral sense, and the emotional capacity for shameful self-judgment is the basic building block of conscience.  The Biblical argument seems to be that without moral free will, anchored in the ability to experience shame, we are reduced to robot-beings living a meaningless existence.  In turn, undue vulnerability to shame and its vicissitudes leads directly to the most troublesome aspects of human nature, including deceit, malignant envy, rage and irrational violence.

In the end, the scientist has done his work.

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The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not reflect the opinions of the Marin County Psychological Association. The information posted on this blog is not intended as, and is not, a substitute for professional mental health services.