Much has been written in recent years about the negative aspects of shame. We are taught how to heal from shame, how to eliminate self-shaming messages, how to avoid shaming others. But what is the value of shame and how can we rightfully call the behavior of people, including the leader of the United States, shameless?
Shame brings that uncomfortable feeling that I am bad. It isn’t a global belief that everything about me is bad. Rather, as a useful feeling, it says “I have failed to act in a way that is that of a good person and I am trying to be a good person.” It can alert us and allow us to do differently next time. Guilt, another useful feeling, says “I have done something bad.” It is easy to confuse the two, but guilt may arise without shame. Guilt can sometimes make excuses that shame doesn’t allow.
What of a man when confronted with accusations of rape replies, “She isn’t my type.” as the U.S. leader just did? We inwardly recoil at hearing that, and I think it is because we recognize a total lack of shame. Similarly when we hear of children locked in cages we feel the shame that many of our leaders fail to feel. I like to think I live in a compassionate society. I don’t like the feeling of knowing I live in a society where this atrocity is taking place. I feel ashamed. Grievously, that feeling is not shared by the people who could change the situation.
So let’s admit that it is the total lack of shame from the U.S. leaders that sickens us. And that lack suggests there is no end to the behavior they condone. Shame can be a gift when used for good. Let’s pause the next time we feel it and see if it brings helpful information before we disregard it.