Shame. Or, We Need To Talk

We hear a lot about shame these days.  Body-shaming, fat-shaming, gender-shaming, flight-shaming.  It was even the 2019 word (or suffix, really) of the year in Dutch-speaking Belgium: “-schaamte“.  Anything you can think of can have this suffix attached and become a no-go area.  We hear a whole lot less about people feeling shame though.  “Shaming” has become the verb rather than the adjective; something that bad people wrongly do to other people.  This is a problem for me.

Like a good little engineer, let me start by defining my terms.  These are words I’ll use in this post and how I intend them – in this post – to be interpreted.  They might have other meanings too, but here in the scope of this post, this is what they mean.

Guilt.  Shame.  Judgement.  Condemnation.  I’ll explain with a story.

Chapter 1: Imagine you’re driving down an open road in the countryside at night when, unbeknownst to you, the road goes through a small village where the speed limit drops from 100km/hr to, say, 40km/hr.  You don’t see the change of speed limit sign – maybe it’s a bit dirty, maybe you’re distracted at that moment, maybe you’re driving in Europe where there are blanket speed limits for this kind of thing, maybe you just aren’t paying enough attention – and zip on through without changing your speed.  Nothing terrible happens, and you’re out of the little village again in no time.  Oblivious.

Do you feel guilty?  Of course not.  How can you?  You have no idea that you’ve done anything wrong.  But are you guilty?  Of course you are.  How can you not be?  The speed limit was broken, you were in control of the vehicle, you are guilty.  Guilt itself cannot be a feeling then, because here the feeling and the actuality are in direct contradiction.

This is my first definition: Guilt will be used to refer to the legal status only, not the feeling.  Again, there are other definitions, but this is how I’ll use this word here.

Chapter 2: Now replay the story and imagine that something terrible does happen.  Perhaps – because of your speed – you hit a cat, or another car, or a child.  Are your feelings any different? Of course!  Horror, regret, and shame – that is, the feeling associated with the realisation of our guilty status – all kick, and continue to kick, in.

This is my second definition:  Shame here will be the emotional discomfort associated with realising that we have a guilty status.  Even if nothing terrible happened, and we somehow realised our speed, we would feel some degree of shame at having broken the law.  (Of course, if something terrible happened and we weren’t speeding, we’d still feel a kind of shame too, but that’s another story.)

Chapter 3: Now imagine that you saw all this in a movie.  It wasn’t you driving the car, all that terrible stuff was caused by and happened to someone else, but you have all the same information: the speed limit of the village, the actual speed of the car, and the outcome. Are you – the watcher – able to assess the guilt of the driver?  Of course!  As before, the speed limit was 40km/hr, the car was going 100km/hr, the driver is guilty of breaking the speed limit.

This, dear reader, is my third definition: Judgement – in this post – refers to the purely objective merging of information and reason to form a conclusion.

Having established that our movie-driver is guilty by using our judgement, are we – the watcher – capable of deciding a fair, just, and reasonable sentence for the driver?  I’m certainly not!  I have no experience of the law, or punishment, or sentencing, or rehabilitation, or any of this kind of thing.  And the same time my personal circumstances, my mood, my life story, my politics, my blood sugar level, and so very many other things would influence my decision.  So for me, the answer is “Of course not!”; I am not unbiased, I am not purely objective.

Thus my final definition: Condemnation is the sentencing to punishment following a judgement.

I’m writing this post because, dear reader, We Need To Talk.  And the things that we need to talk about are painful, unpleasant, shame-inducing and we will need all our best reason and kindness to navigate them safely.  It’s my hope that these definitions will help with that in later posts.

We have evolved into a society ill-equipped to wield and to deal with shame.  We throw it upon people to whom it should not belong: the raped women, the abused children, the enslaved societies, the refugees and immigrants and anyone other.  We claim ownership of shame to which we have no right: for the shape of our noses, the history of our parents, the colour of our skin.  Simultaneously, our own shame-dodging muscles are honed and practised, as we become a well-tuned, finely-balanced anti-self-shame machine.  If we are to talk about the issues around which shame exists, we first need to clear up how to feel it and how to deal with it.  That’s the purpose of this post.

So why is “-schaamte” so big it’s become the word of the year?  How have we become simultaneously obsessed by (yet incapable of dealing with) shame?  I think it’s for three reasons.  Firstly, because of the J-word, judgement; secondly, because of the Yossarian effect; and finally because we’ve forgotten how to translate the shame warning system into positive change.

1. The J-word

Let’s start with the J-word; in this case, judgement.  Perhaps one of the most widely-recognised pieces of biblical writing is “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.  For those unfamiliar, the gist of the story is this.  A woman is caught in the crime of adultery, and tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by stoning.  Jesus intervenes in the punishment process, telling the stone-throwing mob that whomever hasn’t sinned themselves should get first throw.  The crowd melts away, the woman survives, (and that’s not quite the end of the story).

This particular phrase is trotted out most frequently when we want to avoid shame by shooting the messenger.  We want to interpret the story as teaching us that the best way to get out of a sticky spot – our own true guilty status – is to find fault with the person who brought it to our attention.  We demand that our accusers be perfect themselves, using this verse as the rationale.

I think this is nonsense.

As the watcher of the movie we needed no reference to ourselves in order to correctly exercise judgement.  The judgement as to the status of guilt or innocence of the driver is unaffected by our own guilt status about matters both related and unrelated to speeding offences.   And indeed, this is just what happens in the story.  Both the sinful observers (the people intent on stoning the woman) and the sinless observer (Jesus) reached exactly the same conclusion: she was indeed guilty of adultery.  (Cue shocked gasps.)  The judgement was correct.

I said this wasn’t quite the end of the story.  The real end is the punchline, “Go and sin no more”, and this is the piece that I think we’ve been missing.  The punishment may have been removed on this occasion but the judgement persisted, and – most importantly – the unequivocal requirement for a behavioural change remained.  The sentence alone changed from death by stoning to “Go and sin no more”.  The guilt was real.  And the judgement of all present – both sinful and sin-free – was correct.

Rembrandt, 1606 – 1669 The Woman taken in Adultery 1644 Oil on oak, 83.8 x 65.4 cm Bought, 1824 NG45

But what about “Judge not lest ye be judged”, you ask?  Yep, it’s in there, sure, but so is something along the lines of “If you see someone doing something wrong, go and ask them to stop.”  But I am not here to throw ancient verses around, I’m writing today to try and help us all understand our damaging habits of shame-dodging so that we can better address ourselves to changing them.

Thus, the first reason we dismiss shame is because we mistrust the source of its diagnosis, but not the diagnosis itself.  We confuse judgement (which is impartial and objective) with condemnation (which is subjective and context dependent).  We shoot the messenger.  That makes exactly as much sense as being angry with your doctor when they tell you about your cancer.  The cancer is real and needs to be dealt with, whomever delivers the news.

2. The Yossarian effect

The second common rationale for shame avoidance is what I’m calling the Yossarian effect in (dubious) honour of the (dubious) hero of one of my very-most-favourite books ever. (An aside: if you haven’t read Catch-22, do.  It’s incredible in so many ways.  But don’t start reading it unless you’re prepared to finish; the final few pages are the making of it.)

Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile: “But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way.”
“Then,” said Yossarian, “I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?”

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

In my mind the Yossarian effect is a kind of FOMO.  If everyone else is doing something, why shouldn’t I?  Even if it’s damaging, or unethical, or unhealthy, or bad in some way, why shouldn’t I?  Why do I have to “miss out”?  Imagine everyone in the room fell over and broke their left arm at exactly the same moment.  No-one hurts then, right?  No-one has “missed out”.  Everyone is the same.  Everyone’s wounds and hurts are beautifully and exactly balanced, and the pain of them all magically goes away.  Yeah, bollocks.  What about if just one person breaks their arm?  Is that person special, or unnoticed by, or undeserving of pain?  No, of course not.  Their arm hurts just as you’d expect.


I was walking with a friend near an apple orchard in late summer.  It smelt heavenly, the beautiful trees were smothered with deliciously red apples, and of course we were tempted to eat one.  There were thousands of others after all, so what would be the harm?  Two apples out of so many?  What if other people out walking had joined in?  And called their friends?  And those friends brought their families?  And now there are thousands of people taking “just” one apple each?  Is there any stage at which wrongness occurred other than with that very first stolen what’s-the-harm-it’s-only-me apple?

I recently read an interview with Mike Monteiro who said, “If you’re waiting for somebody else to do the right thing you’re doing it wrong”, and I agree.

The specialness of the Yossarian effect goes both ways.  The bad we do is not made less bad when we’re the only ones doing it.  But neither is it made less bad when everyone else is doing it too.

3. The positive protection of pain

Pain is not something pleasant.  It can’t be pleasant, or it would not be able to fulfil its useful, necessary purpose: our early warning system.  Disorders affecting pain responses are incredibly dangerous, because those people live without the warnings and/or without an appropriate reaction to them.  Physical pain is therefore something valuable: its useful, necessary purpose is to keep us physically safe.

I think that the feeling of emotional pain associated with guilt – this being shame – serves a similar purpose, and should be therefore be viewed in a similar way: as useful and necessary, however unpleasant it is to experience. (There are other forms of shame not associated with guilt – I’ll get to them in a later post, once this is cleared up).

Seeking to rid our lives of all shame is akin to seeking to remove all physical pain: it leaves us disorientated, unhealthy, and probably addicted to whatever opiate got us there.  Please understand me here: of course there are use-less forms of physical pain.  A chronic condition no longer needs a warning, and I’m not advocating against respite from these.  In a similar way, emotional pain can become something which is not useful any more either, but – and it’s a big But – I think we are wrong if we believe ourselves somehow entitled to lives completely without shame.  By lumping together our treatment of acute guilt-shame (which can be useful) with chronic emotional pain (which cannot) we become addicted to painkillers.  We do not expect this of physical pain, so why do we expect emotional pain to be any different?

There are two aspects to diseases such as HSAN (Hereditary Sensory and Autonomic Neuropathy): the insensitivity to pain, and the indifference to pain.  We are like children who, on touching a hot stove, feel the pain but keep our hands on the element while trying desperately to ignore our scorching fingers.  In the situations where insensitivity to shame is overcome, we seek indifference instead: we are unwilling to change the source of our shame (we hold our hands to the element, we seek to justify our behaviour) but we wish to avoid its consequences (we take painkillers, we deny shame).

It would be foolish to write this post and not mention the obvious flaw.  For physical pain to be useful, the sufferer must be capable of using it; that is, by being able to actually change something.  To realise that it is the hot element which burns our fingers, and then to realise we can remove our hand.  The same is true for shame-pain.  Shame whose source cannot be addressed cannot be useful any longer.  Shame over the shapes of our faces.  The colours of our skin.  The genders to which we were born.  Who our parents are.  The grey in our hair and the wrinkles in our skin.  Later posts will address those things which we can change – and must change – for all our sakes.

We have misused shame for too long.  We have thrown stones at people who do not deserve them.  We have laboured under shames which are not ours to carry.  But we have also neglected those shames which are ours.  We have sought insensitivity and indifference.  We have been Yossarians, and we have shot messengers.  The bad news is that we must begin to feel shame again.  Shame over our consumption.  Shame over our greed.  Shame over our choices and the consequences they are having on the Earth and our fellow dwellers upon it.  If speaking about consumerism, the over-population of the planet, climate change and the like is considered to be shaming in some way, then our first step must be to learn how to embrace this shame and use it properly.

The bad news is we must.  The good news is we can.  And to own our shame and use it well is the very beginning of change.


5 thoughts on “Shame. Or, We Need To Talk

  1. The penultimate paragraph is great work my friend. I followed you through the rest, but was wondering where you were going with it, then, bam, ah ha… YES

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