It is common, now, for personal development gurus and psychologist, to deplore the emotion of shame. Today, when even anger has been brought in from the cold, among all the emotions, shame stands alone as being known as the ‘wrong’ emotion. This infographic from the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine that usually exhibits excellence in the analysis of people in distress, portrays the confusion around the vital emotion of shame.
I have been unable to understand why this confusion exist and why shame is considered a ‘wrong’ emotion until a recent Bliss and Grit podcast revealed the extent of the passion and that, indeed, personal development gurus are bewildered by the existence of shame. In this podcast, although the presenters state they will go down the rabbit hole of the origins of shame, actually they throw up their hands in despair. To their praise, they did fall back on the most sensible advice for people and emotional states, to look at it, sit with it, explore it, question it.
The most revealing question asked in the Bliss and Grit podcast is “What’s it for?” In this question, I think I’m finally coming to understand why mental health professionals and personal development gurus have got shame all wrong. Indeed, being ashamed of shame is the perfect vehicle for shame.
“What’s it for?” is a fundamental question for understanding EVERYTHING. There is a single premise that I work with for EVERYTHING that exists: that neither God nor evolution makes mistakes. Or rather, when mistakes are made in the functional apparatus of the organism, those mistakes become, quite literally, dead to the world. Of course, you could argue for the vestigial apparatus, however truly vestigial organs (perhaps not as common as once thought) are truly lacking in function and therefore make no impact on the organism at all. So We can disregard shame as vestigial.
Shame is a very important human emotion. To understand how important, we need to understand that our evolution from primates to becoming the best survivals in modern evolutionary time and evolving to outstrip evolutionary constraints has been markedly assisted by shame. We need to understand that our evolutionary success has not because we have evolved as special individuals but that we have evolved a special social capacity. Our special social capacity has enabled the vulnerable human infant to be protected for many years of its life by, not only the mother, but the community. Our evolution from the primate seems to have come with a polygynous social structure based on an alpha male killing machine and a harem of females with additional lesser males and females. Our early social structures which are still evident in the rule of society, today, have been built on subservience to the alpha male.
The alpha males ability to bring violence to external competitors stimulates the emotions of attachment and desirability in females and lesser males and females. Therefore the alpha male creates the social collective by his external violence. His ability to bring swift discipline, even rage and execution, on that social network calls the social group to subservience.
The alpha males offering of long term protection for the social group, so important to the nurturing of the baby and child to some level of independence verses his tendency to, even inadvertently, kill such an infant, or its mother, is the tension of threat and abundance that has enhanced our human sense of shame.
Shame is, like the other immediate emotions, anger and fear, has a very important role in internal social regulation. It provided immediate subservience from the individual challenged by a more dominant member of the group. It is probably stimulated from the earliest moments through mother’s and other siblings’ behaviours and by their interactions with the Alpha and other dominant members. The purpose of this early training in shame would be, in large part, to prevent the infant coming to the negative attention of the Alpha. It also creates a regulation for the growing person within the larger social group. Even if the person grows to become a large male itself, the shame response will be effective as a simple regulation against that male becoming violent among most other male and female members of the social group. Except that, sooner or later, the Alpha male gets older and weaker and the strongest mature male will usurp and kill that male, other males are happier to be part of the supporting social group. For females, the shame creates an avoidance of conflict with most of the members of the social group, invaluable in maintaining a position within the group.
Early human alpha males carry a personality that we would now call psychopathic. The successful alpha male could kill without compunction. However, although some of his kin may be, he wasn’t an irrational brutalizer, rather intelligently calculated in most of his manipulations. The young alpha male, gathering a group of young females and other males, would detach themselves from the original family group and strike out for new territory. This is likely the reason for the rapid and vast distribution of humans across the world.
With population growth, and increasing success of women who probably hybridized the earliest grains through their attention to herbage through gathering. It is more than possible that it was women who invented pottery and writing. The temptation for the alpha male to acquiring more ‘stuff’ and status has also been the downfall of the alpha and the tribe. In acceding to the demands of new technologies to come together with other tribes, forming towns, meant that the alpha male has been delegating aspects of his role ever since.
Nonetheless, while second ranking males and females gradually found more power, and religion became more sophisticated, bringing philosophy that increasingly raised the status of the lowest ranking of the town and city, shame continued to play a vital role in establishing for the young humans of every generation, signals that they weren’t fitting in or weren’t playing their role.
Like many immediate emotions, a certain abuse went along with their inculcation. The degree of bullying from intimates establishes the level of shame felt with any reprimand from authority figures. It is important to note that the inculcation of shame has a future context. In that it is closely related to anxiety. The futurist imagination of the human allows shame to be attached to the idea of infringement, rather than the act of infringement. Depending on the level of imagined shame provoking failure, marked anxiety can also be provoked. It is important to maintain the distinction between shame and failure although both emotions can often be present, together and both are responses to dealing with an unrealized future. Shame is provoked by the imagined loss of ‘fitting in’ the social group, that people might deride the person, and will loose status. Anxiety is provoked by the implication that a failure will mean not surviving. Anxiety and shame hark back to a time when failure to ‘fit in’ was a literal expulsion and, as a single vulnerable human, a failure to survive.
Nonetheless, at the lower or manageable levels of emotion, shame continues to play a valuable role as a signal that we have not complied with social norms, that, perhaps, we don’t fit in. As a signal, we may tend to want to restore our calmness and protections by ‘fitting in’ which means withdrawing from what ‘out of norm’ activity we were proposing or doing. On the other hand, the astute human can take notice of the signal, note its relevance to the step out of norm and choose to restore calmness through the use of reflective practices and language that supports the venture while minimizing shame and anxiety. Similarly, the astute human might concede that their ‘out of norm’ practice was, indeed, a fruitless venture and that moving back to the norm is the more correct response. In either case, it is the reflective work towards restoring the calmer equilibrium that is the more valuable for the person wanting to live fully in this modern world, much less supported by the social group, more likely that you are doing something different to the values of the group, and with more choices to explore.
The alphas still try to control everything and everyone. People have a tendency to shame their others in simple genetic habit to keep each other protected within a close knit group and to fall under the protection of the alpha. As the regulation of the alpha, the psychopaths, are falling away many people find themselves acting, quite literally, shameless. Shameless action include: bullying, damaging, over use of reward stimulation, and a falling away of responsibility for the social group. Shamelessness is nihilistic, leading to a materialistic society marked by dysfunctional human development and ideation around sexuality and wealth, and avoidant of any complex responsibility eg for the environment. Paradoxically, shamelessness is responsible for harmful levels of shame among those people who are, naturally sensitive with shame. I say paradoxically, because the shamers are often shameless in their own immoral and unethical behaviour.
While the person who is hurting with marked chronic shame, it is toward reducing the shamelessness and, actually, increasing the overall shame in society that we will get the greatest benefits for everyone and for the future.