HumankindNESS-Have We No Shame?

By Jennifer Richardson
We are living through the demise of shame. Everywhere we look and listen these days we are reminded not to shame anyone, for anything. It seems as if drawing attention to any fault or flaw is no longer allowed. Everything is ok, except for telling someone that something is not ok.

In some respects, I think this notion does represent progress if we are discussing shame in the form of a verb. The verb “shame,” is defined by Webster’s dictionary as causing or forcing someone to feel humiliating disgrace or disrepute, or forcing something that brings censure or rebuke.

Words like disrepute (being held in low regard by the public) and rebuke (sharp criticism) seem out of touch, and are fading into the lexicon of yesteryear. Over time culture changes and our language is refashioned as well. Sense can be made of this transformation; I can think of no good reasons to shame someone for immutable characteristics such as race, appearance, or family ties–and to do so is terrible.

One could argue the merits of some kinds of shaming, for example a criminal could be shamed into rightfully confessing to a crime. But generally, we are all discouraged from engaging in shame, the verb, even for bad behavior. To do so, we are told, is to impose our values upon someone else.

I can understand the concept behind limiting the action of shaming others. Most of us are in need of grace, and could stand to give grace as well.

However, Shame- the noun… is another story altogether. Shame (n.) is defined by Websters as the painful feeling of distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.

While the act of shaming should be discouraged, the feeling of shame as the “consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior,” needs to be resuscitated, nurtured, and taught. 

Human beings who live in some connection to other human beings, should feel shame (n.) when they engage in shameful behaviors. We should be teaching our children to understand how to feel and respond to shame on their own. How can we reinforce healthy shame? We do so by encouraging children to reflect on their own choices, understand how their choices affect others, and hold themselves accountable for mistakes. This is training for a productive life.

Any child who purposely picks up a baseball and throws it through a neighbor’s window should be asked to acknowledge the poor choice, offer an apology, and pay or work to replace the broken windowpane. Facing the neighbor and feeling the sting of acknowledged shame is rough, but not as rough as facing life with no ability to acknowledge mistakes and commit to doing better because you know better.

This may come as a shock for some, but once upon a time, we often heard the phrase, “you should be ashamed of yourself.” Truer words were never spoken. One should be ashamed, if one has consciousness of wrong-doing or foolish choices. Shame is not something we do, it is something we feel. Shame helps us abandon behaviors that do not result in positive outcomes.

Shame (n.) is a catalyst for better behavior; it becomes an inducement to grow one’s empathy for how bad behavior impacts the self and others. Shame is personal and individual, and essential to development. Shame on us if we do not teach our children how to understand it.

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