The Shame Game

Is shame nothing to be ashamed of?

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See! Those fiendish lineaments graven on the darkness, the writhed lip of scorn, the mockery of that living eye, the pointed finger, touching the sore place in your heart . . . . Then recognize your Shame. So wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne in his short story 'The Haunted Mind,' back when the capacity to feel shame was still valued as a mark of good character.

But, as Hollywood's happy-ending remake of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter amply demonstrates, those days may be gone for good. The currently popular thinking in therapeutic circles rejects shame as a useful social reaction, seeing it instead, as psychiatrist Andrew Morrison puts it, as a modern-day 'scourge . . . that will continue to create havoc for the foreseeable future.'

Morrison, author of the forthcoming Culture of Shame (Ballantine, 1996), and psychologist Michael P. Nichols, author of the recent No Place to Hide (Prometheus, 1995), are both careful to distinguish between guilt (feeling bad about something you have done) and shame (feeling that you are entirely unworthy and unlovable). And it is the latter condition--sometimes also called narcissistic shame--that social worker Vicki Underland-Rosow in Shame: Spiritual Suicide (Waterford, 1995) calls 'an unacknowledged national epidemic that is wreaking havoc on our entire society,' a societal malaise leading to 'spiritual suicide on a massive scale.'

Although not all the authors mentioned here wax quite so catastrophic, they do seem to agree that this newly defined social scourge is closely connected to our society's rising incidence of depression, addictions, and eating disorders, being 'both cause and effect' of these maladies, as Morrison puts it. Indeed, adds Morrison, the popularity of tell-all TV talk shows in which 'participants are eager to explain their various humiliations and [thus] attain some degree of acceptance and relief' provides the ultimate evidence for how thoroughly shame has permeated our culture.

But is shame really at the heart of all our problems? Some therapists, including Susan Miller, author of The Shame Experience (Analytic Press, 1993), are willing to concede that a few too many pathologies may have been attributed to shame recently, and that 'as people have been trying to give shame its due . . . there has been a tendency for the pendulum to swing too far, to believe that everything is shame.'

Law professor William Ian Miller goes further still, arguing that there are forms of shame that aren't at all bad for us, and that may even work as positive reinforcers of the social fabric. In his book Humiliation (Cornell University Press, 1993) he writes that the new therapeutic definition of shame 'might even be seen as the linchpin of a new politics of the antisocial, in which it is nearly supposed that a person should maintain high self-esteem no matter how inept or offensive he or she might be.' Miller also distinguishes between shame, which he characterizes as a feeling that 'occupies itself with the big, the moral, the religious,' and humiliation, which is 'grounded more trivially,' as he puts it.

Indeed, although it is the religious aspect of shame that Underland-Rosow and other therapist critics most scorn (she cites the Garden of Eden story as an unfortunate example of the way in which shame has been used to control human behavior since the beginning of biblical times), clinical psychologist Robert Karen once suggested in The Atlantic (February 1992) that the kind of shame medieval Christians believed in--'that all people are sinners, that all are unworthy'--is actually liberating rather than damaging. 'How comforting it might have been to know that one was not alone in one's flaws and vulnerabilities,' writes Karen, looking back on an imagined utopian time of 'universal shame' in which people felt 'assured of their place despite everything, to be confident that all were equal in God's eyes.'

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