By Norman M. Brown, Ph.D.
Before attempting this novel approach to shame, please read my first contribution, All Emotions are Beneficial. Shame is especially Useful. For this previous blog will turn many of our normal conceptions upside down.
How we Hurt ourselves with Shame
To piggy-back on that blog, shame in itself is not damaging. Shame is beneficial because it signals that a painful rift of discord has opened up between ourselves and a person or group we care about and that we need to heal that rift. What is more damaging is what we feel, think and do or say instead of noticing what is really causing our experience.
That means that feelings are not the root causes of everything we experience, and neither are thoughts. For thoughts, feelings, perceptions, images and actions are all bound up together when they become building blocks of our personality. That means that what we do, feel, think, imagine, dream and say all come together in our ongoing construction of the personality we are continually developing.
Shame is what happens when an interesting and enjoyable experience has suddenly stopped, and an awkward, empty and dreadful moment arrives instead. What we do to fill up that empty moment can be categorized as the compass of shame1 and diagrammed below.
Shame moments get included and enshrined in our habitual living patterns. But if we don’t recognize and record them as those initial awkward confused-and-sinking warning! moments (Something’s wrong), we’ll enshrine them as these other patterns instead: withdrawal, attack-self, avoidance and attack-other.
Yet even then, many of these shame-triggered ways of acting and being can have both healthy and unhealthy consequences. For besides causing us and others they can also promote useful actions and valuable character development. And most importantly these patterns can alert us to seek their source in a prior moment of social discord. I assume that many of the more damaging results diagrammed above are explored in other contributions to the Good Men Project. So I will delve first into some of the more valuable clues to social discord that emerge when we look beyond some shame compass responses.
Withdrawal is the most widely known response to shame, as an urge to hide from view. It shows up as shyness when approaching people we don’t know well and becomes more intense when they are also very attractive to us, whether through celebrity or beauty. Since shame arises when excitement is interrupted and held in limbo, attraction, whether sexual or not, triggers shyness when male people feel it but don’t express it. Most men believe “The prettier the woman, the more timid the shy man.” It’s Newton’s laws of motion applied to emotion.2
When shame makes us confused, losing our balance, we reach for something familiar to hold onto. Perhaps it’s our own man-cave that could be inside of us. We just need a reassuring connection in the moment. There are Introverted and extraverted ways to get this shelter. An introvert will hunker down, maybe curl up virtually, and reach for some comfort in food, video or a digital device. An extravert might talk to somebody, either real or virtual.
I usually turn inside for solace, and I remember last July in the Trinity Alps when I was privately communing face-to-blades with some quiet lovable grass on the ground next to a trail. I’d passed out from heatstroke, grazed my head on a rock on the way down, and then tried but felt too weak to walk. My partner Marsha went for help to get me the last quarter mile and across the river to the roadhead campground. In a few minutes a young middle-aged couple showed up, obviously very fit, and stood looking down on me with my nose in the grass. “How are you doing?” said the woman, taking charge. I choked up, ashamed to be so helplessly in need. I said my heart wasn’t working right. I was a retired psychology professor, specializing in love and emotions. She asked me if I could walk, so I said I’d try. While she went to get my pack, the man stood there flustered, saying that he didn’t know much about heart problems. When she got back I got up. Then she asked me something about the emotions. That made me put on my professor hat, and I was surprised that I could walk. With her as audience and guide I got to the river and walked across it without a hitch. By drawing me back into my area of personal competence, she aced the whole rescue operation. She switched on my avoidance response to shame, an approach teen girls learn to draw boys out and bypass shyness in their early talks.
Withdrawing personally from a shame scene is a natural approach to recovering from the shock of it all. It can give us time to think up ways to respond to an unfamiliar situation that fit with what we’ve seen around us. Our results and try-outs can then become a go-to path for other strange moments. Even when we don’t know what to say, we can identify ourselves and start professing, as I did, or admit helplessness, as the other guy did.
The key to pivoting from helpless self-sheltering to beneficial action is reflection: What has happened to bring me to where I am now instead of where I want to be? And what closeness have I lost? If I focus on the events that led to my shame moment, I can begin to work toward repairing the rift between myself and others. Even if I can’t patch things up yet, I can admit that I feel bad. That’s a place to start.
If I don’t use my withdrawal to consider ways to work out what triggered my shame moment, I might sink instead into attack self: What did I do wrong? Why am I not strong? Seeking out our faults can lead to improving our social skills, as it typically has for girls who’ve regretted and probed their presumed mistakes since toddlerhood3. But for men to build up similar relationship repair skills to women’s, they’d need to talk to each other about their failures the way women do. Habits of male competition—including “kidding” (play-shaming)—block our trust to open up to other men, even though the men’s movement has been trying to help us grow since the early 1970s.
In this culture of isolation, self-criticism of our faults can load up so much depression, self-hatred and even fear of what we’ve seen that we’d rather be drunk, unconscious, or even dead. It is this dread that others might see our ugly thoughts and deeds that leads some people to suicide. And men are far more likely than women to die when they attempt suicide because they don’t want to wake up afterwards to see someone looking down at them—knowing they tried suicide and failed.
Recovering from Attack-Self.
This attack-self web we spin from shame becomes more unbearable the more we wrap it around us. But there is a way to cope with this terrible state: Welcome the light of curiosity into the darkness of self-hatred and fear, and the light and the dark states can balance each other. Our curiosity can reward what our understanding of shame—another version of the same “Newton’s law” of emotion.2
If your own curiosity doesn’t shine enough to lighten your heavy thoughts, tell your story to someone else. For what seems dire to you may not seem as bad to someone else, especially if they like you, so their positive feelings can lift up yours. They can be friends, counselors, teachers, or group-mates who like helping each other make lemonade out of life’s lemons. In other words, if you can’t bring up enlightening emotion from inside yourself you can rest assured that someone else can and would really like to help you do it.
Though our warlike culture has poisoned the emotional well for American boys, some grown-up men have been working to expand masculinity through new perspectives in traditional places, like boy scouts, religious groups, military training, alcoholics anonymous and men’s groups.
We’ll explore the final two clusters of shame responses in another blog. And one thing we need to remember when shame won’t let go of us is this: Rarely is the fault for what’s gone wrong in a connection either all ours or all on the other side. The fault line has opened up between the two sides, with both sides’ compass of shame involved.
1. Nathanson, DL (1992). Shame and pride: Affect, sex, and the birth of the self. New York: Norton, p 312. 2. These are not Newton’s laws but Silvan Tomkins’ explanations of the delicate balance between joy and excitement on one side and shame on the other. Tomkins, SS (2008). Affect, imagery, consciousness. New York: Springer, pp159f. 3. Olesker W (1990). Sex differences during the early separation-individuation process. J Am Psychoanalytic Assoc 38(2), 325-346.