Of all the nine inborn human emotions, shame is probably the most undervalued and certainly the most underappreciated. At least this is true in America where high self-confidence is valued for achieving success, wealth, power and fame. The popular conception of shame keeps us from realizing its true potential for stimulating our growth in relationships and groups. I will delve into shame’s potential in this series of blogs.
Shame Feels Bad
Along with five other basic inborn emotions shame is popularly classified as a negative emotion. For just as fear warns us of our physical limitations, shame warns us of our limitations in social situations. Typical behavior we associate with shame are putting ourselves down, feeling shy and shrinking back from social situations or being nervous when someone is looking at us. We can also feel unattractive, inadequate, unlikeable or defective in size, shape, ability or social skills compared to other people. Most people associate both nakedness and sex with shame. Families invoke shame to teach courtesy, kindness, going to church and not acting antisocially or hurting other people’s feelings. Shame feels so bad that many, especially men do their best not to feel it at all.
Avoiding shame can act as a barrier to experiencing other feelings vital for intimate relations. These feelings include distress or sorrow, fear, shame itself, and to some extent also joy and wonderment. Worse yet, when life becomes unbearable, shame, though still unnamed, can persuade us to commit suicide.
Bad Feelings Help Balance Good Feelings
Darwin said the evolutionary function of all nine emotions is to promote survival and success of our species. Humans are a herd species, like many others. Thus by survival of the fittest, he did not mean the fittest individuals but the fittest groups. Thus a negative emotion like shame can contribute to our success by warning when our relationships and communities are not getting along. Metaphorically the two positive emotions, curiosity or excitement and joy, are like the gas pedal in a car that drives us forward to connect with other people. But shame is like a brake that keeps us from driving too fast and crashing into an unfamiliar person or group. Shame also contributes to resilient communities by reinforcing communal customs, conscience and morality. Shame balances self-centeredness with concern for others’ well-being.
A Science of Shame
Before analyzing the ways shame works we need to include the awareness of feeling bad in a larger context. Scientific studies have deduced this feeling from specific features on infants’ faces and bodies when they are communicating with other people.
Silvan Tomkins (1911-1991) developed the first comprehensive understanding of human emotions during his career as director of clinical psychology training at Princeton from 1947 to 1965. Observing his infant son’s emotions in the 1950s led him to describe the physiology of nine basic emotions. These observations have been repeated with countless other infants since then. But unlike the other eight emotions, shame is unique in that it very rarely appears on its own but almost always in relationship to another person or emotion.
Researchers have observed that an infant must have at least a fleeting expression of excitement or enjoyment, usually in face-to-face contact with a familiar adult, for shame to occur. When an exchange of positive emotions is interrupted or impeded the infant responds with shame. Its face is deadpan, with eyes averted and downcast, and its neck and shoulders begin to slump. A naïve observer could conclude that the baby is embarrassed, depressed and trying to hide away from all social contact.
Another spontaneous experience of shame is familiar to all of us who use digital Smart-phones, though we don’t have a name for it: When we send a text to a friend or relative we know immediately that it arrives at the other person’s phone. So we naturally expect that he or she is immediately affected by our message and will respond almost immediately too. If nothing comes back we are suddenly and unexpectedly perplexed, as our minds cast about for an explanation to fill the void of this disconnection. We will explore this uncomfortable space between disappointment and limbo in the next blog.