Can Shame Save the World?
by Dr. Renée G. Soule
When shame is identified as shame there can be change, however subtle and slow.
~Donald L. Nathanson, from “Shame and Pride”
Can shame save the world? Quite possibly, yes. But not without an honest understanding of this challenging affect. Other emotional responses—like anger, despair, and fear—are better understood and honored than shame, even among ecopsychologists. Shame gets a bad rap in part because of the toxic effects of shame avoidance tactics. Rarely do we endure the intensity of naked, organic shame. Nor is the positive role that shame plays in living systems recognized or honored. Like all affects, our capacity to experience shame is inborn and part of our wild (more-than-culture) human experience. As an ecopsychologist, I trust nature. From an ecological perspective, what is shame?
Shame is one of the nine basic affects. “Affect” is a fancy name for core primary feelings we are innately able to experience. We are born with a physiological capacity to experience shame (along with anger, distress, surprise, etc.). Like all feelings, shame calls us to attend to vital needs, whether these needs are being met or thwarted. As will be discussed, the needs within the domain of shame are very important to human survival.
Why is shame so intense? The organic nature of shame provides several clues. First, it is the youngest of all affects, meaning it is recently evolved within the family of affects. Only highly evolved social animals are biologically capable of experiencing shame. Perhaps shame’s recent arrival on the stage of life means that it has not had a chance to be calmed down by direct conscious experience over many generations. Its intensity is not yet tempered by evolution. As a young affect, it is powerful and reckless.
Another reason for shame’s intensity is that humans have an understandable allergic reaction to this affect. For generations, stimulating shame has been used as a tool for societal control. Shame becomes a verb. “I shame you,” or “I feel shamed.” The misuse of shame for social control should make us nervous, but again—this is not shame in its organic form. The powerful affect of shame may be easily hijacked for nefarious purposes, but misuse and exploitation do not obviate the life-serving purpose of shame. Fear too can be politicized, but it is still recognized as a basic and necessary affect.
Another reason for shame’s intensity is it’s organic purpose and mechanism. Raw shame, even when consciously experienced, is almost unbearable. Why? Again, nature provides clues. This affect has plays a unique role in complex living systems. Shame’s job is to attenuate and regulate the only two positive affects available to living creatures: Interest and enjoyment. Under specific conditions (where harm is caused or harm is experienced), shame instantaneously shuts down interest and excitement. The neck droops and all interest collapses. To make things worse, shame shreds joy. Shame sucks all the good feelings out of experience. No wonder we hate shame!
Shame’s intensity may also be linked to the vital role it plays in life. Nature often tends to overdo is vital to survival—thousands of seeds do not mean every one will attain full fruition. The intensity of this affect could be an expression of nature’s overflowing abundance. She hedges her bets. When shame struts onto the stage of life, it dominates the scene. Perhaps, like love, it has many obstacles to clear away! One being, let’s admit it, the willful nature of human beings. We don’t like our will or interest to be thwarted.
Why is this intensity necessary? Let’s imagine this internal braking system did not exist, and all humans could merrily pursue whatever evoked interest and happiness. What could stop nature’s most willful chimp dead in its tracks? Thoughts of “being bad?” I don’t think so. Judgments? Maybe, but not immediately. Fear might thwart us, but not if what we are harming is smaller than us. Shame is important in powerful hominids. Imagine the inner braking mechanism on interest and joy did not exist in human beings. We need only witness what is currently occurring in the Oval Office and to see what happens when when shame holds no sway in powerful individual like Donald Trump. Shamelessness causes far more damage than actual shame.
What is least misunderstood about shame is this: The avoidance of shame is what hurts and harms, not shame itself. We avoid shame in four specific (and familiar) was.. First, we avoid shame by getting angry with others. We attack. My San Quentin students tell me that this shame avoidance tactic is a leading cause of violent crime. A second favored avoidance of shame (which is more common among women) is to attack oneself. Whatever evokes shame must be my fault. I’m a loser, an idiot, bad, flawed, at fault, etc. Self-condemnation often mistaken for shame, but it is not. Beating yourself up is beating yourself up—shame is shame. A third way to avoid shame is simply to avoid it. Party on. Life is short. Get over it. Focus on gratitude. Finally, the fourth way to mitigate the burn of raw shame is to withdraw. This tactic is not particularly harmful (and can even be beneficial) so long as withdrawal is not permanent. Prolonged hiding is disempowering and robs life of our contributions.
What are the needs governed by shame? Again, consider that only highly social creatures experience shame. Shame is all about social cohesion, what might loosely be called “belonging” and essential needs associated with belonging (like respect, safety, expression, mutuality, among many others). Shame, in its organic essence, is a call to heal broken belonging. Whether our actions cause the break in belonging, or our belonging is broken by the actions of another, shame will show up. It doesn’t matter whether the harm caused or endured is intentional or not, shame will arise. Because shame is a call to address the harm caused to a vital relationship.
Aftab Omer, succinctly describes shame’s role in living systems as “life’s call to heal broken belonging.” Belonging obviously includes the net of social AND ecological relations that sustain, nourish, and inform human existence. For this reason, working creatively and directly with shame is crucial to ecopsychology. I have come to suspect that hyper-allergic responses to shame—including ways we avoid shame like anger, numbness, and excessive guilt, withdrawal from life, underly humanity’s confused responsiveness to environmental crises. Harming others and the world we love along with feeling helpless and small are guarantees to elicit shame. News of our complicity should evoke shame. Are we collectively caught in shame avoidance? Perhaps. The negative affects of shame avoidance are truly toxic—individually and ecologically. Rather than forge paths of creative accountability, people commonly blame others, wallow in debilitating guilt, shrug off right actions as insignificant, or turn away and withdraw. Notice, these are classic shame-avoidance techniques.
I am devoted to restoring the dignity of naked shame—in its full somatic glory— and repairing broken belonging that shame indicates. Cultivating a wholesome experience of shame may be the most important of all my offerings—for individuals, groups, and for organizations. Years of working in San Quentin and exploring ecological shame have taught me that a healthy, direct relationship to shame changes everything. It is a path of surrender, power and creativity. I am confident that shame can save the world. Really!
Highly recommended reading: Nathanson, Donald L. Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1992.