We have no emotion that’s not useful in some way. Everything is there for a purpose, even an emotion that undermines its purpose.
I’m talking about shame. Its purpose seems to be to help us fit in with others. Shame, and its milder version, embarrassment, comes up when you violate a social norm which might get you expelled from the group or, at least lower your status.
Let’s say you did what I did in a dream last night. In my dream, I walked into Starbucks, placed an order, and, when I reached for my wallet, discovered I forgot not only my wallet but also my pants. I felt shame, as I think you would if that happened to you. That’s because we have social norms that dictate wearing pants, or a dress, when we walk into Starbucks. When we violate those norms, we feel shame. This, I suppose, helps us remember to put something on. It keeps you accepted by society and makes Starbucks a place you can go where you don’t have to see what people look like without their pants on.
If someone was without their pants in Starbucks, the person not only would get kicked out of the place, they may get arrested. No one would feel sorry for them and Starbucks would not feel the need to close every store down and retrain its employees.
The desire to avoid expulsion is so great that if I had actually walked into Starbucks with no pants on, I would be ashamed to even talk about it. If this wasn’t a dream, and a common one at that, I wouldn’t be telling you because I’d be afraid of what you would think of me. You wouldn’t come to me for therapy because you’d imagine I’d counsel you with no pants on; or worse, you’d think I was an exhibitionist and should be locked up.
Another useful thing about shame is the show it puts on. When I have an acute attack of shame, I automatically duck my head, hide my eyes, and turn red. That’s what I did in my dream, which told everyone in Starbucks I was ashamed. Shame is a social signal. If I do make a mistake and violate a social norm, like forgetting my pants, this display tells everyone that at least I feel bad about it. People won’t treat me quite as harshly that way. Someone might feel sorry for me and grab a napkin to hold over a strategic location. No one would call the cops.
Shame is such a powerful emotion and so eager to help us not suffer expulsion that it often butts in when it’s not needed. That was the case in my dream. After all, I was not actually in Starbucks. I was sleeping in my bed, a place where I should be permitted to be without pants.
When you feel shame it’s important to ask yourself whether the feeling is warranted. Is the thing you’re ashamed of really so bad? Will it actually get you expelled or lose status? I should have asked myself that in the dream. I would have said, no, it’s OK to be in bed without my pants on. I had no reason to be ashamed.
It’s important to contest emotions, but people often get confused about them. They’ve heard it said that they can’t help but feel the way they do, so they believe they must go along with whatever their emotions want. They claim that anyone who challenges their feelings is not being sensitive or affirming. If you’ve heard this or believe that, let me try to clarify things. Emotions are like toenails: you can’t stop them from growing, but you can clip them. When they get ugly and dangerous, I hope you do.
Emotions are also like big, dumb galoots, who are simple-minded, strong, and really want to help. They mean well, but don’t have much sense. They need a sharp-witted friend to tell them what to do and when to knock it off.
One place where you don’t need shame is in therapy. Let’s say you were a person who forgot to put his pants on when you went to Starbucks. You might feel so much shame about your social faux pas, you wouldn’t want to talk about it afterwards, even with a therapist. This is a case of shame being over-eager to protect you. If a therapist expels you from their office for saying you forgot to wear pants when you went to Starbucks, it is they who should be ashamed, not you. Shame, on your part, is unnecessary and could hinder your therapy.
Now, if you forgot to wear pants to therapy, that might be a different matter; but, even then, I’m not sure. We therapists are supposed to be pretty tolerant folks. In fact, being accepting and empathic is central to our profession. While we appreciate you wearing pants, we strive to make our offices shame-free zones. Some of us are better at that than others, but all would agree that shame has no place in therapy.
That is not to say that it is impossible to violate a social norm in a therapist’s office; it only means that, once you do so, shame is unnecessary. Your shame doesn’t have to put on a show for us therapist-types to want to help you. We already want to help. Shame seems to be most useful when it deters you from breaking a rule. If you break the rule and if people are already sympathetic, then shame is in the way.
I once knew a man who would pull his pants down in a public place and waggle a certain part of his body at people who least suspected it. Not Starbucks, for that was too dangerous. He’d go to the library, prowl around the stacks, and do his thing. You might wonder, did he have no shame? He certainly did. In fact, he had enough shame to not do it in the open, like where he’d get caught, and plenty to spare to keep him from talking to me about it for the longest time. Shame was even present when he was doing his deed; it’s just, he was affected by other emotions: other big galoots who talked him into it.
You see, shame, strong as it is, is not all-powerful. It can be overcome. It can even end up contributing to the very things it most abhors.
Earlier, as I was writing this, I was pacing around my house, trying to think of a way to explain how this happens. Not looking where I was going, I barked my shins on my coffee table and said a profane word or two, maybe more. It got me thinking about profanity. Take the word shit, for instance. That’s a profane word I may have said. If it was just an ordinary word, and not something forbidden to say, I don’t think it would be as satisfying to say in the right circumstances. To my mind, there is no better time to yell shit than after I bark my shins.
By prohibiting an act, shame ends up teasing us, tantalizing us with it. Shame doesn’t mean to do this, its function is to bar us from doing the things that may result in expulsion; or, if that fails, to announce to the world that we feel bad about doing so. Dumb as the emotion is, it doesn’t realize that, like an enticingly draped cloth over the body of a beautiful woman, its making us more interested, not less.
I think other shameful acts work the same way. The very fact that this man knew he should not be dropping his drawers in the library and wagging his private parts made him want to do it. He was looking for a thrill, wanted to subjugate others by shocking them, and thought, if he didn’t go ahead and do it, he wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about it.
This man had an awful time getting up the nerve to tell me about his problem. He had decided to go to therapy about it, but took weeks, talking about other things, before he could be honest about the reason he was there. All that time, he continued flashing people. I knew there was something going on, but I never would have guessed it. He kept saying he would have to kill himself if he didn’t stop the thing he was doing, but then he wouldn’t tell me what the thing was. He finally realized this was a matter of life or death. He had to tell me. So, he did.
It’s normally not a very smart thing to tell people that you have a sexual perversion unless they’re likely to join you in it. It doesn’t get you invited to many dinner parties. Shame, in trying to protect him, was making everything worse. He had to learn it was OK to reveal this secret to me. But that was just the beginning. I had the man go into extreme detail, describing every incident of exhibitionism he could remember and what preceded it. Why did I do this? To see what the triggers were, develop alternatives, and reduce his shame.
Yes, you read that right. Shame was doing nothing to prevent this man from harming dozens of people and putting himself at risk of serious incarceration. It was actually making things worse. You see, all shame could do was beat him up whenever he broke the rules. It wasn’t teaching him anything. It just made him want to hide. Then, when it looked like shame turned its back, the man felt compelled to retaliate against his shame for being such a big bully.
When you do something wrong, what you should do is pay attention to what you are doing and who you are harming. When shame gets in the act, it gets all your attention; that’s how it makes things worse.