These days, most people agree with pop psychologists, life coaches, and self-improvement mentors who promote the idea that shame is a bad emotion and that we should avoid anything that is typically associated with feelings of distress and worthlessness.
I beg to differ. I believe that shame is a morally valuable emotion and can be very constructive. A pivotal mechanism that motivates individuals to improve and live up to their ideals. Personally, it has helped me to stay in line with my values. It has served me as an internal moral compass. Sometimes it warns me that I have done something that is outside of the person I want to be. Shame challenges the perception that I have for myself every time I watch someone acting so virtuously, that it makes me feel inadequate by comparison.
I feel that those who attack shame fail to see where the real problem is. The problem does not lie within shame itself — it lies within the values and reasons that trigger it. Very often, people become attached to the ‘wrong’ set of values. But perhaps it is better to explain what I mean with an example.
Chopel is ashamed of his sexual orientation and keeps it a secret because he feels that he will disappoint his conservative parents. Shame results in a negative evaluation of himself and makes him experience distress, fear of exposure, and worthlessness.
In that example, Chopel experiences what psychology calls irrational shame because he has identified with values he can not satisfy. There is no way he can live up to his parent’s values. Therefore, he feels scared and ashamed — a failure. Chopel would be in a much better situation if instead of becoming attached to his parent’s values, he identified with a set of values that he could satisfy.
Focusing on trying to get rid of shame — as most pop psychologists would suggest Chopel to do – would not ever help him, or anyone, for that matter. Instead, Chopel should use his time and energy, trying to discover his core values and what he stands for. By doing so he will become insensitive to irrational shame caused by ideas and values that don’t represent him. Then, shame will transform from something toxic to something constructive.
So the next time someone tells you “I felt ashamed” don’t just nod your head in agreement and pretend to sympathize. Instead, explain to him/her how constructive it can be as long as you know yourself and understand why you’re feeling shame at a given moment.