The Evil of Shame
The inquisitive engineer in our group asked, “Are love and shame opposites?” After a few moments of discussion, we tabled the topic until now. So here we are again, wondering how love and shame might be connected, or not. As I researched and reflected on this topic, I came to the conclusion that shame isn’t the opposite of love; shamelessness is. To understand shamelessness, however, we must first understand shame.
Shame is that gut-wrenching experience of being found out, of having our nakedness – whether figurative or literal – revealed. Yes, we can feel shame in private, and we certainly can experience a fear of being shamed, but shaming itself is a public thing, used to control. In his book about shame, Curt Thompson explains that shame destroys what is good, loving, and beautiful in us and the world.  Cruel, manipulative, and ignorant people use it as a weapon.
Yet shame is not all bad. The fear of humiliation can keep us from doing something stupid and unkind. As Maria Wiklander writes in her paper about shame and suicide, different cultures emphasize and express shame in different ways. Nonetheless, the feeling serves to regulate human behavior everywhere.  Thus we can talk about a healthy shame that helps us learn from our mistakes and do better next time. In the best of all possible worlds, when we feel ashamed, we would reach out for reconciliation, and our community would, with compassion and empathy, welcome us back.
Yet often, our community is the one shaming us. With ridicule, gossip, fake news, and rumor, we pillory one another. Some of us are more prone to guilt than shame. We understand that though we sometimes do bad things, that doesn’t make us inherently bad. In that case, we’re less likely to feel wounded by society’s scorn than one who feels ashamed at her core. Especially if she lacks other supportive community, she will feel deeply wounded when so abused. She will feel ashamed, hang her head, and avoid eye contact. She will want to hide.
Empathy and compassion might soothe our shame, yet even if it is offered to us, we probably won’t take it in. That would be too scary. Afraid of being wounded further, of being seen for the terrible person we think we are, we withdraw.
Yet it is by being seen that we begin to heal. By this, I do not mean being gazed at. The curious stares of onlookers only increase our embarrassment. But the loving look of someone who understands the ache and fear of our soul, yet cares for us anyway, can do much to bring us back to community. As we return to community, we become whole.
That’s how a healthy shame can facilitate caring community. We want to be in right relationship with our loved ones. If our friends and family have unreasonable or demeaning expectations, or if no matter what we do, we can’t get it right, then shame will not support wholeness. But if our community’s expectations are compassionate and life-affirming, then a healthy shame will enhance relationships. In this way, shame is a little like love.
Like and Unlike Love
Both emotions invite us to express empathy toward others, to behave with propriety, and to speak with kindness. Shame may be more focused on appearances than love is, and shame arises out of a fear of loss and abandonment rather than from a desire to please or care for the beloved, which is love’s concern. Love tells us what to do to help others; shame warns us how to stay out of trouble.
Exactly what our shame cautions us against will differ depending on our upbringing and the influence of our community, but most people feel shame if they lie, cheat, betray a friend, or violate a boundary. A person can, however, commit egregious sins without feeling remorse. Such people have passed through shame and into shamelessness.
Jeffrey Epstein’s Suicide
Jeffrey Epstein, the infamous trafficker of teenage girls, hung himself in his jail cell. Some insist it was murder, but the medical examiner has concluded Epstein did the deed on his own. Perhaps he was given time to complete the act because of pressure from some rich and famous individuals who feared exposure had Epstein lived to share his story. I can’t prove this conspiracy theory is untrue. Nonetheless, this was not Epstein’s first attempt to end his life while locked up. It seems he wanted to die.
Did he take his life because he felt ashamed? Some research shows a correlation between shame and suicide.  Other studies shows that, while some women may be motivated to kill themselves because of shame, men typically are not. 
Of course, none of that proves whether Epstein died of shame. Indeed, if it was shame that drove him to suicide, why did that shame not stop him from visiting trauma on so many girls? Is that not what shame is for, after all, to keep us from harming others and betraying human values? Did Epstein feel so little concern for the people he violated that he convinced himself he was doing no wrong?
Abuse and Shamelessness
Probably he did. According to James B. Stewart, Epstein justified his sexual abuse of children by saying “that criminalizing sex with teenage girls was a cultural aberration.” In other societies and at other times, he insisted, it was just fine.  Stewart described Epstein as someone who wanted to be important, who surrounded himself with the rich and famous, or at least manipulated photos and perhaps used blackmail to make it seem as if he were so surrounded. He lacked the inner strength to feel validated because of who he was. He needed at least the pretense of love, and he hid his lack of compassion behind bravado.
Was there shame in his heart? Did he ever lie awake at night, beset by demons? Did he long to stop himself from abusing girls, but find he could not? Addiction is like that. Could he have been addicted to wealth, power, sex, brutality?
Once imprisoned, he may have felt the shame of violation himself as the world inspected and judged him. He could no longer hide. Did that give him an inkling of what his victims felt? Sexual violation makes one feel exposed and dirty. The very act is disgusting and despoiling. To recover takes years, if one ever fully does. Could Epstein have begun to understand this?
The Cycle of Addiction and Shame
Perhaps he felt the agony of one who has done despicable things and can never take them back, but now has no drug with which to quiet his tortuous thoughts, like an addict who falls into the despair of shame once sober enough to see what he has done. It’s not unusual for an addict to keep drinking or doing drugs because he can’t stand to feel the humiliation that sobriety brings.
You would think that since shame feels so horrible, once we experience it, we would change our behavior so we wouldn’t feel ashamed in the future. But it doesn’t always work that way.
If we are raised to experience guilt rather than shame when we make mistakes, we believe we can change ourselves. We trust in our ability to improve. Yet shame is the belief that deep in our core we have no value. Shame tells us we are irredeemably bad, so there’s no point in trying to do better.
Therefore, the more we feel shame rather than guilt, the less able we are to cope with life in general. We dare not fail at anything. Losses become unendurable, because to lose is shameful. If our friends and family increase our embarrassment by denigrating us, we may feel hopeless, powerless, and lost. We see no way out.
Shamelessness and Denial
For one who has become shameless, who denies wrongdoing and directs attention away from himself by assaulting everyone around him, shame is intolerable. Indeed, the shameless use any means to talk themselves out of admitting they could possibly be shameful.
But what if, in a solitary jail cell, with endless time and no drug to numb his mind, Epstein began to feel something beneath his shamelessness. Maybe it was outrage at his humiliation. But it must have been something. If he had felt no discomfort, he would not have killed himself. An addict without access to her means of escape can become panicky or fall into despair. What can she do, when caught up in shameful feelings, if she can’t acknowledge her guilt or reconcile with her community? She might, as Epstein did, choose the oblivion of death over the suffering of life.
Yet shameless individuals experience no such dilemmas. They avoid the taint of shame by denouncing everyone else, taking pride in their misdeeds, blaming the victim. Because they don’t care about the respect, affection, and companionship of others, shame does not motivate them. Perhaps everyone desires love on some unconscious level, but the shameless have convinced themselves love is unnecessary.
Shamelessness and Applause
On the other hand, some shameless types confuse mindless adoration with love. They play to the fawning crowd. They go to their deaths insisting on their innocence, complaining that they were wronged.
Apparently Epstein was not that far gone. Who knows what compelled him to harm so many people, but it seems not to have been a complete shamelessness.
Stewart writes that after their interview, Epstein invited him to some dinners. When Stewart declined those, he asked if the journalist would write his biography. Stewart describes Epstein’s voice as “plaintive,” as if he longed for company. Or perhaps he just wanted someone to listen to his self-aggrandizing stories. Shameless individuals appreciate an audience. They love applause.
Yet when we confuse obsequiousness with true caring, we may find that eventually the crowd turns against us. Then we are left with nothing but the emptiness of our souls. We feel overwhelmed with shame, terror, and loneliness. When everything we grasped for is gone, we may feel we can’t continue.
Healing and Returning Home
Some people, though, can continue their charade no matter what. Nothing will pierce their shamelessness. No soft or tender emotion weakens their resolve. That’s why the shameless one cannot love. Shame may be a horrible emotion, but at least one who feels it can also feel other things, like love.
That’s because shame is not the opposite of love, but a desperate longing for love. True empathy and compassion can help heal shame because shame represents a rupture in our relationships. Reconciliation brings these wounded ones home.
The tragedy for the shameless is that this is not possible. Talk about horror. Such a life seems unendurable. How can we not feel compassion for a person so wounded he no longer recognizes his own suffering, no longer experiences shame? Were it not for the sadness one also feels for the victims of such a person, this would be easy. Nonetheless, I send lovingkindness to those who seem so broken, and I practice Tonglen for them. If compassion can heal the shameless one, I rejoice; if not, at least my practice helps me.
Love and Being Known
Thompson writes that “the healing of shame begins and ends in the experience of being known.”  If we are shameless, we dare not be known. We can’t bear even to look at ourselves, nonetheless have someone else look at us. Being known requires intimacy, and we’re scared of that because we don’t know what it would be like.
Still, healing is possible. By creating communities of safety, for instance, we undo our culture of shame. These days, shame is smothering our society. We see this in the glorification of shamelessness that allowed Jeffrey Epstein to harm so many children and that allowed one such as Donald Trump to become our president. Even still, this man, who wouldn’t know shame if it snatched off his head, is loved by many of our country’s citizens. That itself is shameful.
Love may or may not be the opposite of shame, but it is what heals shame, and our country seems to have a paucity of love.
If I Have Not Love
In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul wrote:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing (Corinthians 13:1-3).
The shameless are nothing, just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals. Yet, opposed to love as they are, they do a lot of damage. Is there no way to reach them?
I do not know of one, but at least we can keep others from becoming as shameless. If we could stop shaming one another, it would make a huge difference. Thompson points out that a lot of people fear that if we don’t use the cudgel of shame, our world will fall apart. They seem to think we need censure and gossip and humiliation to make people be good.
That’s not how it works. The fear of shame – or more correctly, the fear of abandonment that shame inspires – may motivate us to do what is socially acceptable. Yet too much shaming leads to shamelessness. Even in small doses, shame makes us feel bad, and because it doesn’t teach us what to do instead, we lose faith in ourselves and hope in our future. If there’s no point in trying to improve, we might as well give up. We stop seeking to reunite with loved ones. Left alone to suffer, we lose the capacity to care.
Our Shameless Country
As a nation, uncaring seems to be our state these days. In so many pockets of the country, shame is gone. At least, shame for those things we used to consider reprehensible, such as abusing children and spreading lies. But the answer isn’t to shame people faster and harder. The answer is to stop humiliating one another.
“Love,” Paul continued, “does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). The truth uncovers wrongdoing, not with anger or judgment, but with understanding. We can heal the wounds of shame that fester within us, yet only if we allow ourselves to be seen and known and held with compassion, and only if we look deeply at the other and see beneath the surface, experiencing them not with our own shame, but with tenderness. We are all beloved and sacred. If we know and hold each other with compassion, we may be able to undo shamelessness with the power of love. We may soothe the suffering in our hearts and our world. Then there will be no more violence, abuse, or hatred.
Shame and love both seek reconciliation. Let us reach across that which divides us, finding common ground in our shared humanity. If we can’t undo all the ugliness and evil in the world, at least we can repair one heart at a time. Using the balm of love, we can heal our own shame and that of our neighbors.
In faith and fondness,
- Thompson, Carl, The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe about Ourselves, Downers Grove: IL, InterVasity Press, 2015.
- Wiklander, Maria, “Attempted Suicide and Shame,” Stockholm: Karolinska Institute, 2012, 9.
- Maria Wiklander cites a number of studies that showed shame to be a common component of suicide or suicide attempts, ibid 17.
- Wiklander, Maria, et. al., “Shame-Proneness in Attempted Suicide Patients,” BMC Psychiatry, 2012, 12-50, May 25, 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3492007/, accessed 8/27/19.
- Stewart, James B., “The Day Jeffrey Epstein Told Me He Had Dirt on Powerful People,” New York Times, August 12, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/12/business/jeffrey-epstein-interview.html?searchResultPosition=9 , accessed 8/12/19.
- Thompson 15.
Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved