Dot writes: freed of bibliography-compiling, proofing and indexing, and temporarily ignoring the great obstacle course of lecture-writing and course preparation that I have to negotiate in the course of the summer, I am doing some actual proper research. My own work. Not editing. Not for teaching. It’s lovely. I find myself eager to get to the office and sneaking in extra reading after the children are in bed and on the train. It’s a measure of how little chance I’ve had to do this in recent years that the project in question is one on shame that I previously worked on in two short bursts in 2006 and 2007 (i.e. before Hugh was born). I’m hoping to write an article on the use of shame concepts by the homilist Aelfric, who has some interesting quirks in how he uses shame vocabulary (for example, he repeatedly calls heathen gods sceandlic or bysmorful).

The meat of my own contribution needs to be the vocabulary study and literary analysis, but I can’t help but be sucked in to the theoretical literature on shame. At the moment I’m reading with great interest one I only borrowed so I could morally mention it in a footnote: Shame: Theory, Therapy, Theology by Stephen Pattison (Cambridge: C.U.P., 2000). Pattison’s main theses are as follows:

1. there isn’t really a single essence that is shame. Pattison subscribes to a ‘family resemblance’ theory: in different cultures, periods and languages, there are sets of related concepts/practices that in modern English come under the umbrella of shame. Shame is a sense of inadequacy or failure in the self; its focus on the self is what distinguishes it from guilt, which is focused on specific acts of wrongdoing. But shame does seem to have changed through history, and modern western culture, with its individualism and the immense pressure it places on the construction and presentation of an interior personal identity, makes people prone to an especially ‘psychologized’ shame, in which the self is split into a harsh observer and an unworthy observed.

2. Though shame is part of how societies regulate behaviour and stop people offending against each other, it can be an immensely damaging emotion that stops people fully entering into social and moral life. This is particularly true of people with ‘chronic shame’, a condition in which they do not simply suffer occasional moments of shame but experience their own identities as fundamentally shamed. Such shame can prevent them from forming healthy social relationships, for example because they avoid others in their immense fear of rejection, or because alternatively they project their shame outwards as resentment, anger and envy towards other people. The shamed individual is preoccupied with the self and also characteristically passive and despairing of their ability to act effectively, all of which inhibit their capacity to be moral agents.

3. Christianity needs to find ways of dealing with shame, both helping people to overcome shame and be reintegrated in their communities and facing up to the respects in which institutional religion has in the past damagingly filled people with shame. (Catholic guilt is, in this analysis, actually Catholic shame. Guilt is healthy because it involves owning up to a specific act and wanting to do something about it; whereas shame means viewing yourself as bad.)

I haven’t done more than dip into the last section, which deals with (3), but it could actually be quite relevant to my article, which deals I suppose with the prehistory of modern shame and the meeting of Christian thought about sin and fallenness with a secular society that emphasised reputation and honour. At present I am digesting (2). Two aspects of it seem especially personally relevant. First, it has a section on how a shamed personality can be created in early childhood. In early childhood a baby (so the theory goes) needs responses from its caregivers that make it feel it is a loveable person whose emotions count. A child who is ignored and made to feel s/he doesn’t matter or a child who feels s/he can’t express his/her real feelings but must produce the face the caregivers require is likely to develop a profound sense of being unloveable, inauthentic, and thus prone to shame. It is extraordinary to think how important these early interactions are – the laughing back at one’s baby, cuddling and comforting, asking “Are you sad?” – and what enormous consequences for the rest of one’s life it can have to have a neglectful, insensitive, or in the worst scenario actively abusive caregiver. It is incredibly sad to think that many children don’t get the early love, attention and affirmation they need; but comforting that I’m sure our children do and that we did ourselves.

The second aspect that struck me was that, despite my happy relationship with my parents, I think I do have a mild case of chronic shame. Nothing too extreme, but I do recognise many of the scenarios Pattison describes (for he identifies himself as a shame-sufferer and uses examples from his own life). The difficulty in greeting or visiting people because of the fear that they might not be pleased to see me, rationalising it as not wanting to bother them. The tendency to avoid tasks when I don’t think I’m doing very well. Pre-emptively running myself down (‘I don’t know anything about this, of course, so I’d like to ask you a dumb question…’). Denying myself chances – not taking that trip, not going to that conference. In my own case I would trace it to being bullied at school, particularly in the two years when I started two different secondary schools in succession, and already being socially awkward and a bit of a misfit I became a target. It’s easy to get self-pitying about this sort of thing, but I do pity my younger self: I had a horrible time, and very little emotional equipment to cope with it, and I felt there was nowhere I could go for help because I had wanted to change schools and, anyway, what could they do?

But I don’t want to exaggerate my psychic wounds. I have a happy family life, I’m making new friends, and if I can just get this article written I’m hoping to present it as a paper at a big international conference. In Madison, Wisconsin, which is somewhere I’ve never been.


5 thoughts on “Shame

  1. Laura

    Great topic! This post reminds me of a favorite quote from Wendy Kaminer. In her examination of the contemporary, pop-psych, self-help movement, “I’m dysfunctional, you’re dysfunctional,” she responds to a motivational speaker, who has urged an audience to rid themselves of the “toxins”, guilt and shame , saying:
    “There is a word for people who have no feelings of guilt and shame. They are called sociopaths.”
    While I have no sense of how the church deals with these issues, I appreciate the distinction you made between the two emotions. It makes me think that some denominations in the US have embraced positivist psychology. I believe this is evident in the teaching of “prosperity gospel” or “prosperity theology” in some congregations. And I wonder, how could any (particular subset of) Christians arrive at this?

    1. Dot

      I’m not very sure what positivist psychology is, so I’d better find out before responding properly to your comment.

      It is clear that guilt and shame do have positive (i.e. good) functions, within limits. Guilt as here defined is more purely positive, but shame is incredibly effective and in a primitive form seems to start really early. It’s to do with one’s feeling of being accepted by and acceptable to other people, and so it does play the role of gatekeeper to community and thus safeguard human relationships. But sometimes it goes overboard and shuts out people who shouldn’t be shut out.

      Prosperity theology is another thing I don’t know too much about. The impression I’ve received (from hostile sources) is that it’s basically a way for people to tell themselves Jesus wants them to have big, gas-guzzling cars and not pay much tax. Is that right?

      1. Lily Roth

        If this is at all an accurate impression of “prosperity theology” (not that I know anything about this), it sounds an awful lot like the Puritans (if you were poor, it was because you were unrighteous) and many other religious groups who seem to believe that you get what you deserve, morally speaking (caste systems, etc.).

  2. This is the post I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

    The more I think about it, the more I realize that I am a victim of shame.

    My anxieties, as revealed in my group therapy, seem to largely revolve around fear of failure. When I talk about being afraid of getting in trouble at work, or afraid of running out of money, or when I torture myself over something I said to someone without thinking first, they would ask “What are you afraid of? Are you afraid you’ll be fired? Afraid you’ll end up on the street? Afraid of losing a friend?”

    And I would say “No, no, and no.” I couldn’t explain it. I wasn’t afraid of the consequences of those things – or at least, that wasn’t my focus. My focus was simply on the part where I messed up. Wasn’t that bad enough?

    But I would get blank stares. They needed a reason behind these anxieties, a deeper rooted fear, and I couldn’t really provide it.

    Then I mentioned one time that I had been bullied in high school, and suddenly ever therapist is like “OOOOOOOHHHHHH….”

    The word was never said, and I never thought about it, but my problem is simply what you are discussing:


    I live in constant fear of it. I find the slightest mistake to be unbearably shameful. It’s excruciating.

    Thank you for the word.

    1. kenanddot

      It’s difficult talking about being bullied, because people treat it as a short-cut explanation: it gives them a box to put you in. But on the other hand it is a quite common experience (though some suffer it more than others) so it can open up a sense of connection. And the consequences can be extremely far-reaching, so it is worth thinking about. But it is deeply painful and -yes – shaming: not only do you have to revisit some of the times when you felt worst, but you have to admit to having been unpopular.

      I too think shame is a very powerful and illuminating lens through which to understand a lot of personal unhappiness and also wider social disfunction: it helps to explain why in unequal societies there is so much crime among the poor, because there is such shame in being poor in societies that preach the gospel of self-improvement and making your fortune, and that can issue in anger, envy, self-absorption, sadness, difficulty in relating… Then again, shame is plural and many-faceted and should be treated as a starting point for investigation, not the point at which a final answer has been found. Your shame doesn’t propel you to steal cars – quite the opposite. I think in my own case it would be more appropriate to talk about shame-proneness, as I am fearful of and sensitive to shame but by the sound of it suffer less constantly than you do.

      I recommend Pattison’s book: it’s a bit unspecific about examples a lot of the time, but it is a very clear overview. Only the last section is theological, if the theology aspect is off-putting. I also really liked June Price Tangney and Ronda Dearing’s book on shame, the title of which I’ve forgotten for the moment, though it is open to the obvious objection that it constructs a view of general human psychology on the basis of English usage, which seems culturally insular.

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