Shame is Inborn

Darwin taught that all inborn emotions are designed to promote the survival and success of each species. So how can shame be good for us when it feels so bad that many of us avoid it like the plague? Especially men!

We are a herd species, so rewarding and shaming point us toward restoring our close relations and to fit in with our herd. Parents, friends, teachers and religious and political leaders all coach us in restoring social relations. But some can be brutal and humiliating at times. In boyhood we learn from older men and friends to bury much of our emotional experience because it is shameful to feel and show sorrow, fear, shame itself, and even surprise or too much joy. When we squash these five basic emotions to fit in with other men around us we cramp our humanity.

But if we really pay attention to the first moment when shame occurs, we will notice that an interesting and enjoyable experience has suddenly, surprisingly stopped, and an awkward, empty and dreadful moment arrived instead. And if we’re not on the lookout for such a dreadful pause in our normal flow of emotions, we will only notice a handful of other feeling-and-thinking states we habitually bring up to substitute for this awkward space.

Childhood researchers know about this first response of shame-as-interruption because in 1975 they discovered it in the still face experiment.1 They filmed mothers in vivid facial communication with infants as young as three weeks. When the mother briefly turned away and then turned back with a completely immobile poker face, the infant looked stunned. Imagining myself in that moment would give me a sinking feeling, as if the floor had just vanished beneath my feet.

Twenty-five years later neuroscientists exploring a three-way computer game called cyberball simulated a similar experience.2 Two “players” were manipulated computer images and the third an actual research subject undergoing a functional brainscan. When the virtual playmates stopped passing the ball to the study subject, two small parts of the brain lit up as if reacting to physical pain. The scientists called this social exclusion. Just like interrupted facial communion between mother and infant, this disrupted virtual connection is the first moment of shame.

Thus in its first appearance shame signals our sudden disconnection from a key person in our group. This is shame’s essential message. Much of what makes our popular understanding of shame so unpleasant is a handful of feeling, thinking and acting habits we have developed to replace this unnamed awkward moment. We’ll explore those habits later, because they are extremely useful for beginning to develop the great benefits shame offers us.

Shame in Friendship and Love

As biological feedback, fear warns us of potential physical danger, while shame warns us of potential social danger. As in the stillface experiment, shame signals that there’s something askew in an important relationship. The sustained and flexible attention of a familiar person is disrupted when an emotional expectation meets with a frozen, inattentive face.

There are many ways that such a disruption can happen in adult life: Perhaps you’re eagerly telling a friend or lover what has just inspired you. And his or her response is a low-ball wet blanket like “that doesn’t surprise me” or just an uninterested stare. Or a woman friend turns to look at you while talking in a small group, and you keep looking at the wall next to her. The point here is that all of our family are bound to turn off their attention during our childhood when they have more pressing things to do. And we get used to muffling our reaction to the sudden sinking-feeling by focusing elsewhere ourselves. But the first person who deflects their attention or turns away from any avid face-to-face chat leaves a little heartache in their wake.

You can survey your rapport with your closest friends: How much do you listen to each one with rapt attention and response, and how soon do you change the subject or switch to someone or something else? There’s no best answer, but it’s worth the effort to notice how you’re habitually focusing your attention. You can also consider your past and present partners and note this: How many of each one’s commonest and favorite themes or subjects can you name? If your partner is a woman, perhaps you have gradually built wedges in your intimacy by low-balling your attention to her insecurity, worries, sadness, fears, or even surprise and joy. That means limiting your involvement with her vulnerable side of life.

A Gender Difference in Early Romance

That vulnerable side may lead to the first big men’s shame-moment in romantic intimacy: “The talk.” Nobody tells that better than blues pianist Norah Jones: “What am I to you? Tell me darling true. To me you are the sea, vast as you can be, and deep the shade of blue. When you’re feeling low, to whom else do you go? See I cry if you hurt, I’d give you my last shirt, because I love you so.” To her, he must be deep with feeling, since she wants to share his sadness and hurt. But what if he can’t touch such deep feelings? What’s his response?

“But if my sky should fall, would you even call? Opened up my heart, I never wanna part, I’m giving you the ball.” She’s edging on forever, but he doesn’t have the words. He’s dumbstruck when she needs the depth of feeling she sees, from her heart, in him. Having concealed from himself most of his own sorrow, fear, hurt, surprise, joy and amazement to be a man, he’s trapped in guilty conscience between losing her and faking words he can’t quite feel. So he feels like a fool (shame) and puts off calling.

Will it be too late? We need to realize that shame is a call to action, to do whatever it takes to bridge the gulf between us and a precious person we want in our life. Even if love is too big of a word, we need to get started with finding some words. Even if they don’t come out right at first. We can learn to welcome and tolerate fear, sorrow, joy, surprise and even shame by practice, such as by keeping track of one each day. We’ll explore some ways for tracking and acting on more kinds of shame moments in next week’s blog. But if there is someone in your life right now who could possibly slip away if you don’t speak, you can try a line from the Beach Boys: “God only knows what I’d be without you.”

  1. Brazelton TB, Tronick E, Adamson L, Wise S (1975). Early mother-infant reciprocity, Ciba Found Symp 33:137-54.
  2. Williams KD, Cheung CK, Choi W (2000). Cyberostracism: effects of being ignored over the internet. J Pers Soc Psychol 79: 748-62
All Emotions are Beneficial. Shame is Especially Useful.

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