heavy clouds over field

March 20, 2022

Today a friend forwarded me a NYT article entitled “The Many Uses (and Abuses) of Shame” https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/18/books/shame-machine-cathy-oneil.html?referringSource=articleShare3/20,22(Jennifer Szalai). The article focuses on a new book, The Shame Machine, by Cathy P’Neil, among other subjects. I was interested in the topic because I wrote two books on shame (The Shame Experience, and Shame in Context: http://susanbethmiller.com). The NYT article got me thinking a bit about constructive or what I’ll call “maturational” shame in the context of fiction I have written, particularly my recent novel, A Beautiful Land, which, you may detect, I am trying to market. I had no intention of demonstrating any ideas about shame or any other psychological concept in writing this work of fiction but looking at the book now I see shame represented in a number of characters, which is hardly surprising since it is a common and impactful emotion. I won’t leap to any generalizations since I have scant data, but if I were initiating a research study I might hypothesize that maturational shame occurs most frequently in situations that blend shame and guilt and where a person sees themself as an agent.

If an individual does something that they see causes injury to another and they have a normal conscience, they are likely to experience guilt, an emotion that focuses on harm done to other creatures or to valued institutions or collectives. Shame co-occurs with guilt so regularly in these situations that people often don’t distinguish the two and frequently mislabel them. If I have hurt a friend and my focus is on the action I took and the impact it had, my feeling can best be labeled as guilt. But if, in that same situation, the focus of my attention shifts to myself and I find myself thinking with distress about my human flaws (“What kind of person would do such a thing?”) then I am on the terrain of shame. Often when shame and guilt co-occur and are not so overwhelming that they quickly flee from consciousness, they may lead to some reform in behavior that makes me a more mature, constructive, or kind person.

In A Beautiful Land, the main character, Raissa, does something almost inconceivable to which she believes she is entitled because of the wounds she has suffered and because–she tells herself–she intends through her extreme and peculiar action to rescue a child from a wretched future. During the course of the novel, she comes to feel guilt about the impact her action had on the one she intended to rescue and she concurrently feels shame about the type of thieving, perhaps wicked person she has demonstrated herself to be. Through these emotions she matures in her ability to look honestly at herself. I suspect that situations such as this fictional one in which a person is an agent in their own shameful (and guilty) behavior may be particularly likely to lead to self-reflection and maturation.

In contrast with moments of high agency and personal responsibility are the many shame moments in which a person finds themself exposed as damaged in a situation where they lack agency. Turning again to the novel, I think of an assault perpetrated against a young woman, Ritha, which leaves her feeling demeaned in the moment and permanently scarred, both of which are traumatically shameful. Another, less extreme example from the book is the story of an adult son who carries the belief that he was not highly regarded by his father and the paired conviction that his young adult life is unimpressive in a way that attests to his deficiency. Shame in these situations of low agency is likely to be an open, long-festering wound and the victimization triggers the added emotion of rage. But even in these cases, some personal gain can result over time. Maturation emerges out of painful shame when a person is able to step back enough from the raw experience to recognize, perhaps with another’s help, that their shameful deficiency does not set them apart as unique and as one who must avoid others’ literal or figurative gaze. Instead, it demonstrates that they are human like everyone else.

This way of parsing shame experience leads to self-tolerance but also to forbearance toward others–rooted in the understanding that creatures of all variety and station are imperfect and all are prone to flawed actions. Under these circumstances, shameful acts or intentions are humbling–no longer humiliating.