“I feel like a garbage can, full of ugly, nasty things.”
That’s how a young woman once described herself to me. She was in her late teens or early twenties, and had been raised with a sexually abusive father until her parents divorced. She then lived with her mother, whose life was punctuated by binges with predatory men and alcohol. She remembers getting her own breakfast, dressing herself and going to school on mornings when her mom failed to come home. She was five-years-old at the time.
She has since married, had children and worked in a successful career. But she struggled for years with depression, self-mutilation, and thoughts of suicide. Shame wrapped her like a blanket – or a shroud. She hated what had happened to her, but hated even more the person she envisioned herself to be.
Shame is a terrible burden to bear. Introducing shame into a person’s life is like putting herbicide on a garden: it prevents that person from blossoming. “Shame,” wrote Brené Brown in “I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame,” “corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
Whereas guilt concerns one’s actions, shame is about one’s self. Guilt is a powerful motivator. Shame is a powerful demotivator. Shame makes no one better or stronger or move loving. The only thing worse than feeling shame is the inability to feel shame.
According to Brené Brown, we live in a culture of shame. Perhaps she is right, although our culture is very unlike traditional shame cultures, and might even be regarded by them as shameless—something some social commentators consider a positive thing. But people who “have no shame” are like people who, due to injury or disease, have no nerve endings. Yet in the current cultural climate, shamelessness is considered a good, and possibly even courageous, thing.
Of course, the problem for most people is not being shameless, but being ashamed of the wrong things. For example, people today are often ashamed of things that former generations took pride in: patriotism, masculinity, femininity, respect, broadmindedness, etc. But they are shameless about things that previous generations wouldn’t mention in public, most of which have to do with human sexuality.
(I am not here endorsing all the things past generations took pride in: some were morally debased and indefensible.)
When people refuse to find meaning and satisfaction in love for and relationships with their creator and their fellow creatures, they will look for it in themselves. This usually means they will look for it in sensations and feelings. And of course sexuality is a rich source of sensations and feelings.
An addiction to sensations and feelings overshadows our culture right now. Some of the most critically acclaimed books and movies in the last four decades are variations on a single theme: that to be authentic, people must give expression to their feelings—whatever they’re feeling—even when society considers such expression immoral; even when they consider it immoral; even when giving expression to that feeling harms other people.
This is diabolically deceptive. People are ruining their relationships and their lives because, as they say, “It’s just how I feel. I have to be myself.” But the self is much more than feelings and sensations. Without realizing it, people who live for their feelings are betraying the very self to which they say they are committed.
They endless pursuit of sensual and emotional gratification turns people into ghosts, into mere shadows of their true selves. They dwell on the surface of their lives, becoming increasingly less human and increasingly more like soulless sense perceptors. No one finds meaning and satisfaction like that.
Shame is a devastating disease of the soul that must be treated, but becoming shameless is not the treatment. Shamelessness may relieve the pain, but the cure for shame is found in loving acceptance in the context of honest, mutually affirming relationships.
However, there is, to my knowledge, no known cure for shamelessness.