You might think that without shame, the world would fall into chaos.
If we never felt ashamed of ourselves, we wouldn’t care if our actions inconvenienced, embarrassed or emotionally devastated others because no matter what we did, we wouldn’t experience the emotional consequences of our behavior.
Thus, shame seems useful. At home, at work, even at parties, where skinny dipping or double-dipping might get out of control, shame seems to help us hold the line between civilization and anarchy.
With all due respect I have to say that, like many things that sound right, that’s just not true.
Shame vs. Remorse
It’s not shame that’s socially useful, it’s remorse. Good people feel remorse when they behave badly.
Remorse says, “I’m sorry for what I did.” Therefore, remorse is useful.
Shame, on the other hand, says, “I’m sorry for who I am.”
Being ashamed of yourself, apart from your actions, is tragic. Shame robs you of peace of mind, initiative to become your best self, and comfort in your skin.
Shame is useless because you can’t change who you are. And also because really, you’re not that bad. You might not always behave in ways that make you feel proud, but hey, that just means you’re normal.
Only good people feel bad for behaving badly. Bad people presumably don’t care. So be proud of yourself if you feel remorse; it’s proof of your basic goodness.
Next time you feel ashamed of yourself, ask yourself, “Did I do something I regret?” If you did and you feel bad about it, do something to make it better. You’ll support healthy self-esteem by taking action.
If you haven’t done anything wrong and you still feel ashamed, assume you have nothing to be ashamed of.
Instead, ask yourself this: “If I’m not bad, then who does that make wrong?” Someone shamed you, either by accident or on purpose. That’s how you learned to be ashamed.
I’ll circle back to that last little bombshell in a future post about self-criticism.