I was talking with a friend last week who told me a story about a colleague of his who often gets caught going in late to work or not showing up at all. But he said she had no shame about her behavior. My friend continued on with his story, but I wasn’t listening anymore. That last statement had grabbed my attention. My first thought was that she should feel some shame about it. Otherwise nothing would motivate her to change her behavior. But then I’ve read enough on this topic to know that shame is never a good motivator. So what is shame and what is its purpose in our lives?
Two Different Kids of Shame
Many in the field of psychology and social work are focusing on this topic lately and discovering some interesting things about what makes us human. First off, I need to distinguish between positions of shame and feelings of shame. The former is a part of all societies, but always seen as something negative. Shame may have a function in society, but still, to be in a position of shame is never a good thing. The latter however can be a good thing. It’s a feeling. All feelings are good, in that they indicate something to us or those around about heart.
What is Shame?
One of my professors in graduate school used to say that feelings of shame occur when who we want to be doesn’t line up with who we are. It’s the moment we are caught in the act of pretending or trying to keep it together but we can’t. It can even be as petty as being caught with our fly down. We like to think we are people who are organized and presentable. And we assume this is true until someone informs us otherwise. Then the embarrassment or shame sets in to indicate we aren’t who we thought we were.
Shame as an Indicator
Now, having your fly down is not a big deal. But what happens when you are asked to do a presentation, you prepare well and deliver your presentation, but begin to stutter, fumble over your words, sweat and eventually sit down in defeat. Is it not the feeling of shame that overtakes us in these moments? They are indicating to you and those in the room that you thought you should have done better, but for some reason couldn’t. In this way shame is merely an indicator as to our ability to cope with the imperfections of being human.
The Danger of Shame
The danger with shame lies in what we let those feelings tell us—that we’re not good enough, that we can never win, that others are better than we are, that it’s not worth trying, that being rejected is ok, that it’s not worth loving others or that I’m not worth loving. These are all lies that our feelings of shame sometimes try to tell us. And if we believe these lies, we will find ourselves in positions of shame—something that is not good or healthy for the human heart.
So you see, feeling embarrassed or ashamed is not a bad thing in and of itself. It indicates to us that something is off—that a girlfriend is not reciprocating a kiss, that a fiancé has left us at the altar, that our friend is not as trustworthy as we had hoped, that our kids exposed something of us we wished they hadn’t, that I sometimes drive over the speed limit, that I don’t have an answer to everything or that I wear polka-dotted pajamas. In this way shame is a powerful emotion to let us know we are still human and that we don’t have to have it all together.