Following on from the last post, I’ve been thinking more about possibly helpful – or at least unavoidable – forms of shame.
First, I want to acknowledge just how unhelpful some forms of shame can be. I think shame is most unhelpful when it focuses on the person and not the behaviour. “You should be ashamed of yourself…” “Shame on you!” “I hope you’re ashamed…” All of these focus the shame on the person.
Behind these statements is probably some kind of distorted sense of protective fear that wants the person to see what they’ve done, to take responsibility for it, and to change. But the problem with focusing the shame on the person is that it actually does the opposite. It takes their focus off of their behaviour and onto themselves as being shameful. They feel labelled, categorized, tagged-and-bagged as ‘bad’. This make a person feel trapped in this ‘bad’ state, and can make them feel like ‘bad’ people are simply bound to keep doing ‘bad’ things.
Let me quickly say that I don’t think the opposite is helpful either. To say with glee simplicity: “It’s OK, you are awesome!” Such popular positivism is well-meaning, and probably intends on letting kindness make a space for people to be their own guide and learn in their own time. However, it can also have the opposite effect. I don’t think any of us can truly or completely silence our conscience which reminds us that we are not perfect. Overly-positive commentary from others, whilst well-meaning, can actually end up reminding us of our negatives.
The goal is the acceptance of our behaviour and taking responsibility for it. And some forms of shame may just be helpful, necessary or unavoidable for this.
I am happy to be shown otherwise, but maybe it is helpful for us to feel some kind of shame when we have done something wrong. And I am distinguishing shame from guilt. Guilt is, I think, a logical admission, a verdict, in our minds that we did something. Shame, in this sense, makes our admission a felt reality, an experience, in our hearts.
But now… what about shame that is sourced not in our own judgment of our own behaviour, but shame that is sourced in the judgment of others, our family, our church, our city, our society? Can that ever be helpful or healthy? I am daring to suggest it can.
One possibly helpful example is an anti-smoking campaign in Aotearoa-New Zealand: “smoking: not our future”. This, it seems to me, is a movement that attempts to use shame in a helpful way. Rather than pointing the finger, negatively, at people who smoke, it signals the future, positively, at a society which smokes less. In principle, at least, it should be a good thing to promote good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour. Some forms of shame seem to be unavoidable for this, right?
How does this basic dynamic become unhelpful or even harmful? I reckon it happens when people use shame in ways that are a) disproportionate to the behaviour, b) self-righteous, c) impatient or d) forceful. In principle, even putting someone in prison can be done in ways that are a) appropriate for the crime, b) humble, c) measured and d) gentle.
So much moral discourse in our culture seems to assume that the way to help people avoid depression and self-harm is to avoid anything that makes people feel shame. I wonder if some of our overly-positive language serves to trap people in their own prison of self-judgment?
What if we accepted that sometimes people feel shame for good reasons, such as to come to a place of surrender and acknowledgement and taking responsibility? Our role is to empathise with one another in our mutually-experienced guilt and shame. We all get it wrong all the time about all kinds of things. It doesn’t have to be a morality contest… It can just be life.
Shame doesn’t have to be linked to self-hatred and self-harm. Shame can be re-claimed in a context of self-care and self-honesty.
If shame is such a wrong thing to feel, then it only makes us feel even worse when we feel ashamed. But if shame is a normal part of human living and learning, then maybe we are strangely enabled to not stay trapped in our shame, but to work through it to acceptance and change.
Theologically speaking, the Gospel of Grace doesn’t imply that we are ‘basically good’ people who have never done anything shameful. Rather, it is precisely because we have done those things, and (hopefully) have a healthy sense of regret, guilt and shame about them, that the Gospel of Grace is such good news.