The alternative to shame

Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change”.
(Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me)

At our current overall state of evolution, shame is a terrible way of keeping people in line as well as a primitive one, since it operates entirely through fear rather than through love. Our societies today, fractured as they are, are quite advanced enough to do without shame as an increasingly ineffective moral guardian.

The mature and loving alternative to controlling social behaviour by means of shame is to make choices based on human needs – our own and those of others. This comes naturally to people who were never domesticated into the shame culture, while for most of us we still have to struggle with the legacy of the past. The key however is simply to be present and pay attention. When we become conscious of the results of our choices so that we have immediate feedback, we don’t have to try to be good or even to tell good from evil. We simply understand the connections between our choices and their results and see how those results affect us. If you lie to your partner, she finds out and gets upset, AND you are present with her pain, that is enough to tell you that this isn’t the way you want to behave in future. If you are conscious and you are running a big manufacturing business, you experience that what your company does to the environment is something that you are doing to yourself. It is not an intellectual process, it is visceral. And so for your own well-being, which ultimately is the same as the well-being of everyone, you try to stop doing that. Of course, getting a whole business to change is not so easy, but the point is that you transcend good and evil when you connect with human needs, and shame is all about good and evil, so it’s only relevant to those who are not yet conscious of human needs.

Hence in a restorative justice system, such as that practised by some American first nations and many other ‘tribal’ communities until recent times, where a group of mainly conscious individuals also includes some who are less self-aware, healing comes about not by blaming and shaming but by a process in which ‘transgressors’ get to hear at first hand the effects of their actions on others and thus to expand their consciousness.

Shame and the evolution of awareness
In society as a whole we find 3 stages of evolution as regards the experience of shame. At the first stage, people are genuinely unconscious of the effects of their actions on others. Such people are often said to ‘lack empathy’, which of course hasn’t stopped some of them rising to positions of prominence on the world’s political stage! Shame may therefore help to keep a Teresa May or even a Donald Trump in check when they have too much power. Such people are not yet able to grow through shame, so they will have to learn through karmic pain. Meanwhile they don’t really know what they did ‘wrong’, but they still want to be liked (need for acceptance), and they have a pragmatic understanding that the alternative response to their behaviour will be some form of violence (being kicked out of office for example), so shame has indeed already helped to modify some of their policies in response to public outrcy.

At a second stage of development people may feel plenty of shame and be acutely aware of being ashamed, but are not yet ready to make changes. For these people there is still ‘juice’ left in shame – they can add ‘being ashamed’ to the list of things they beat themselves up about! This is a popular option in certain religious circles for example.

At the third stage we are so fed up of splitting ourselves into two, with one part being ashamed of the other, that we choose to let shame go entirely and learn through joy instead. Of course this doesn’t happen overnight, and there is a process to go through of working through the stuff we have been ashamed of before we can be totally free.

Explore The History of Anger, Guilt and Shame

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