When we’re familiar with the compass of shame responses in our lives, we don’t need to be ashamed when noticing we have just enacted one or more of them, either internally or in external actions. Instead we can be interested in increasing our self-awareness in this way. For now we can conclude that we’ve just had a shame moment. We can reflect on what happened and what to do about it to achieve a healthy shame result.
Furthermore, all of these various responses can have beneficial effects. An automatic withdrawal from an awkward scene can give us time for understanding and planning to react intelligently. Blaming ourselves can motivate many people, and typically women (see toddlers research in Blog 5) to reduce the damage by taking responsibility and apologizing. Some of the ways we avoid shame can have positive results too. For example, some of us develop habits of exercise, meditation or yoga that support good health. Others devote themselves to a particular field of work or athletics that leads to expertise and excellence. And some perfect the social skill of joking in awkward situations that puts even unfamiliar people at ease in each other’s company. Even blaming some issues on external circumstances and some mistakes on different persons can launch a repair that focuses on several different causes.
Shame Indicates Human Disconnection
But shame’s greatest gift is its emotional signal that a personal misunderstanding or rift is developing. And sooner would be better than later to repair it. To begin this repair we can first catalog two types of healthy shame responses. These are first normative or moralistic and second humanistic or community-focused responses. A normative or moralistic response could normally make the healthy shame responder themselves feel better. But that might not help anyone else involved. A humanistic response would aim to make everyone involved feel better. But this requires considerable empathic understanding of what might work for each person. And thus it could be both more noble and much more difficult to achieve. In fact, neither approach might succeed in making all the people involved feel better at first. But the efforts they make could lead those involved to gain social skills and feel hopeful that further conversations would improve their relationships.
A Family Example
For example, five siblings feel pressured to sell the family’s city home that has been theirs for many generations. The only brother wants to sell as soon as possible so they can “move on.” But one of the sisters feels bad and ashamed of herself because she wanted to take more time but didn’t speak up to any of the others. She worries that she would be ignored by some siblings and censured by others.
Her normative shame response might be to call or text her brother and apologize for taking up his time. Then she could apologize for wishing to postpone giving up the old house. She might be conforming to a family custom that the oldest male makes key decisions based on logic, and the women go along with that unless they have a good reason for objecting. So she might feel safe because she’s not “making waves.” But she’d feel alienated and lost inside, without even knowing why. Her brother would probably ignore her request. And he might be annoyed by her unreasonable intrusion, even though he didn’t say so.
For a community-focused response, she could tell a sister who might understand her urge to take more time. One of them might express some nostalgia about their ancestral home. Their sadness might be blocked by shame, but enlivening when they shared it. It’s possible that the sisters would not be able to slow down the sale. But unlocking and sharing their feelings in a memorial conversation about their home could be a healthy milestone in their family history—even if their brother were uncomfortable about joining in.
In conclusion, the shame these family members are dealing with signals disconnections among the siblings. And many of them may also be disconnected from their own feelings of loss. But once expressed, their discomfort might motivate some of them to renew the closeness that was probably stronger in their youth. Thus recognizing moments of shame and sharing our feelings of loss can lead us to create better communal relations.