Why Feel Ashamed?

Why Feel Ashamed?

Shame has been at the forefront of my thoughts recently. I wrote a couple of posts about things I had not been able to talk about before because of the shame I felt: self-harm and violence. And before that were other bloggers’ thoughts about shame: autisticook, Musings of an Aspie and feminist aspie. But what is shame all about? What makes something shameful?


Shame is nothing new: the word itself has roots going back before recorded language. It is thought that it ultimately derives from a word meaning to cover, which fits well with the desire the feeling provokes to hide the source of the shame. It is a negative feeling, so much so that it has caused suicides. And yet shameless is used as a criticism: you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

There have been attempts by cultural anthropologists, psychologists and philosophers to distinguish shame from embarrassment and guilt. I don’t worry myself about such things: in my view they all overlap to a degree and I’m more concerned with what most people would understand the meaning to be than imposing some artificial academic divisions between the three.

Because the fact is, with very few exceptions, everybody knows what shame feels like. Are we born with that knowledge? Or is it learned? I favor the latter: shame seems to me to be a reaction to feedback from other people. This makes it a cultural phenomenon which is supported by different cultures having different standards of what is shameful.

Too Embarrassed to Stim

Society judges your actions. It needn’t even be a majority verdict to cause shame. But if it is so negative — harmful in some cases — to the individual what purpose does it serve? Presumably there is some benefit to society, to the population as a whole. A way to coerce, a punishment to force members of that society to conform. I know: I’ve felt ashamed of my differences at times, of the way I failed to fit in. Of flapping and other obvious stims. Hmm. That’s a pretty big downside: making someone ashamed of harmless, natural behaviors just because it makes other people feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. Because shame doesn’t care whether the act is deliberate or accidental, helpful or harmful, right or wrong.

Shame figures prominently in association with characteristics or actions that stand out from the crowd, that attract critical attention. Being stared at for the way I look or act, seeing people point and whisper, hearing disparaging comments: these all trigger embarrassment and shame. And that is not healthy. It can cause a descent into a spiral of guilt and self-loathing leading to anxiety and depression. Breaking that pattern means finding acceptance; that might be from a supportive group but also means accepting yourself. Self-confidence helps, but is something that can be learned once you are given a start by a supportive environment.

Hiding My Shame

So far I’ve talked about shame being induced by the reactions of other people, but it goes further than that. It gets internalized: we make ourselves feel ashamed or guilty. We blame ourselves because we have been taught that what we do is wrong or humiliating. It becomes possible to feel ashamed for something nobody else knows about. This is how it was for me with cutting, it is one reason why people don’t seek help when something becomes harmful and self-destructive: because we believe what we are doing is wrong. Well, I’ve got a response to that:

NO. What you are doing is not wrong. Yes, it’s harmful. Yes, you would probably benefit from modifying your behavior. But feeling ashamed of it only fuels the problem and drives it underground. Covers and hides it. Forms a barrier to discussion so you can’t even learn that it affects other people, that you’re not on your own in this. It’s hard to stand up to your own shame, to break its inhibiting effect. When I was invited to write about my own experience with self-harm I had to face my shame. The most difficult part to admit was that cutting felt good, that it actually helped me. Because harming yourself is bad, isn’t it? You’re not supposed to say things like that. But I did. Because it was true. Can it be bad if it stopped me killing myself when I was that close I had drawn blood? Well, yes. It can be bad. It was bad But it was better than the alternative, and I am no longer ashamed of it.

Some Actions Really Are Wrong

The examples I’ve used so far have all been things that do not harm others. I can’t say the same for my violence during meltdowns. My guilt remains intact because violence goes against what I believe to be right. My shame derives from my upbringing: it is ingrained in me that violence is the last resort in self defense. It is ironic that society appears more able to accept violence than a child in class flapping her hands or rocking because it makes her feel more comfortable. Violence is endemic: we are steeped in it from TV and movies, through history as well as current affairs. So I guess it is only natural that it is not seen as being so shameful. Oh well, I’m used to my views being a little off from the norm: it’s an occupational hazard of thinking for yourself.

A Place for Everything

I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve reached the conclusion of my exploration of shame, and it appears to me that more often than not shame is used as a tool of oppression. In the majority of cases it causes some harm to the one shamed: it might inflict emotional pain; it might prevent them seeking help for a problem.

Would society shatter under the weight of its differences if not for shame to keep its members in line? I doubt it. It doesn’t prevent bullying, abuse, harm, murder. We don’t need shame: it has no place in a healthy environment. We need positives like support, compassion, patience and, perhaps, just a little pride in ourselves.

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