The Shame Game

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.’

Despite his use of the past tense, one could argue that many
modern religious communities still provide that same acknowledgment
of human weakness coupled with group acceptance and support. The
urgings of frantic recent books notwithstanding, it’s hard to think
of that as pathology.

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