The Shame Response

Every conscious human being knows something of the debilitating agony of shame.  We are familiar with the essence of the shame experience – the sense of humiliation, of embarrassment, of exposure. We seek to run and hide, to get away from the situation or away from the people who elicit our shame.

Shame is the experience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden -- hiding their nakedness from God after eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and bad.  This part of the Genesis story represents the desire to return to a time when  people were  free of shame, when we did not realize that something was wrong with us, when we did not know that  we were capable of being lied to, of being duped, or of being  liars  ourselves. Eden is a longed-for way of being, a paradise, where one does not need to fight to survive, where shame is not needed as a survival mechanism or as a mode of control. To be free of shame – and to be free of the struggle to survive – this is the longed for state of affairs that resonates in the memory or fantasy of everyone.  Having eaten of the fruit of knowledge, man knows that he is not a god, that he is “less-than” -- that he must work and strive and fight or he will surely die.

Shame is perhaps the most painful of our feelings and social experiences. Many of us will do practically anything to avoid, control, or eliminate shame.

Shame seems to be a secondary affect.  Primary affects – like anger, sadness, happiness and fear exist in human beings prior to and independent of others. An infant crying in his crib may be angry about being hungry, but his anger is not necessarily caused by the action or neglect of another human being. He is hungry and frustrated because his need for food has not been met. He is not accusing or blaming – he is simply angry. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with his being angry or his crying out loudly with need and anger.

Shame, however, is taught by one human being to another. Shame is social – one powerful human being conveys to another human being that there is something wrong with him. The infant cries out in anger and is met with an angry or tense response by the parent. The parent conveys to the child that there is something wrong with the child’s crying out -- which the child takes to mean that there is something inherently wrong with him. The intensity of the shame corresponds with the effectiveness of the message and with the way it has been delivered.

Shaming messages can be delivered loudly or subtlety, intentionally or unconsciously. The effectively-delivered shame message has the consequence of controlling the child. The offending behavior is reduced or eliminated. The child internalizes the message and remembers the affect of shame – an affect which arises in reaction to the parent’s disapproval and withdrawal of love.

The human child, most vulnerable among all species, is completely dependent on the parent or adult caregiver for survival. The child quickly learns to comply with the parent’s demands. The child develops his identity based in large part on the parent’s perception of him. If unexamined, that perception perdures into adulthood. The internalized shame functioned well – it allowed the child to survive, it shielded him from the parent’s wrath, it protected his parent from exhaustion in trying to deal with his many needs, and it allowed the child to become a good citizen who is not too needy or too demanding.

It is probable that the shame response had something to do with our survival as a species. In a primitive society, where the weakness of one or the attention-seeking of another could threaten the existence of the whole family or tribe, shame functioned to spur the weak one to be strong or hidden and to keep the unique one in line. Shame promoted safety by decreasing risk. Shame served to protect – the tribe was less likely to be attacked if no one brought attention to the tribe and to the tribe’s vulnerability. Shame supports staying beneath the radar to avoid detection and negative energy.

Jennifer Jacquet writes about shame as one of the specialized traits that evolved in human societies which depended on a high level of cooperation, balancing the interests of the group and the interests of the individual. She writes, “Shame is what is supposed to occur after an individual fails to cooperate with the group. Shame regulates social behavior and serves as a forewarning of punishment: conform or suffer the consequences. The earliest feelings of shame were likely over issues of waste management, greediness, and incompetence.”  The group’s very survival depended on cooperation and sharing and the ability to shame and to experience shame was an effective tool in ensuring that survival.  (Cf., “Is Shame Necessary?” by Jennifer Jacquet,, which cites R. Boyd and P. J. Richerson, “Culture and the Evolution of Human Cooperation,” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 364 (2009), 3281–88).

In today’s world, is shame like the appendix, which at one point in our development served us well as a species but which now is merely an add on, prone to infection, without which we would be better off? It can be argued that our society suffers from shamelessness.  Some recent discourse about shame suggests that shame may be an effective tool to use in the struggle against individual greed and over-consumption which is putting our planet at risk for survival. Consider the question, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” Answering “no” to that question can constitute either denial or a pathological narcissism. Answering “yes” to that question can indicate an overactive shame gland which, like the thyroid, has a proper function but becomes problematic when it is over producing (or under producing) a shame reaction.

Like all emotions, shame can serve a positive or a negative function. It can be overactive or underactive. Shame reminds us that what others think of us does matter. Dialectically, when one is shame-based, it becomes necessary to say aloud with Wendell Berry, “Do Not Be Ashamed.”


Do Not Be Ashamed

 by Wendell Berry

You will be walking some night
in the comfortable dark of your yard
and suddenly a great light will shine
round about you, and behind you
will be a wall you never saw before.
It will be clear to you suddenly
that you were about to escape,
and that you are guilty: you misread
the complex instructions, you are not
a member, you lost your card
or never had one. And you will know
that they have been there all along,
their eyes on your letters and books,
their hands in your pockets,
their ears wired to your bed.
Though you have done nothing shameful,
they will want you to be ashamed.
They will want you to kneel and weep
and say you should have been like them.
And once you say you are ashamed,
reading the page they hold out to you,
then such light as you have made
in your history will leave you.
They will no longer need to pursue you.
You will pursue them, begging forgiveness.
They will not forgive you.
There is no power against them.
It is only candor that is aloof from them,
only an inward clarity, unashamed,
that they cannot reach. Be ready.
When their light has picked you out
and their questions are asked, say to them:
"I am not ashamed." A sure horizon
will come around you. The heron will begin
his evening flight from the hilltop.

Contact Bill Lent

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