For some reason that I’ve never quite been able to fathom, a sense of shame is seen as a good thing. It underpins such common phrases as the question “Have you no shame?” and shows up even more strongly in the scandalized tone when referring to someone else as “shameless”.
But fucking why? Why is shame a good thing? We’re born without it. It’s not an innate or instinctual drive. It’s a reactionary emotion impressed upon us by society—but I’ve never really understood the purpose. What good does shame actually do anyone?
Shame isn’t guilt. It’s not the same as regret, or even embarrassment. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour,” with the corollary of “a loss of respect or esteem; dishonour”.
Sometimes, human beings make mistakes. Sometimes, human beings treat other human beings in patently terrible ways—but most of the time, it’s not because they’re bad people, it’s because they are ill-equipped to handle a situation they unexpectedly found themselves in. In those instances, feeling shame for doing the best you’re capable of is nothing but damaging, causing distress and a loss of respect—from others, perhaps, but more often, for oneself.
Shame hurts. Shame has no positive use. It is solely putative. It is a way that we punish ourselves, and collectively punish each other. And, far too often, we internalize and associate shame with sex, the body, sexuality, and sexual expression.
I repeat: shame is not guilt. Shame is not proof of wrongdoing. Shame is not the automatic consequence of making a mistake, or committing a crime. Shame is always subjective, experienced as the sufferer perceives it. Shame is often a result of distorted perceptions.
Most of the people in my life would probably describe me as “shameless”. And, while it’s not an inaccurate assessment by most people’s standards, it’s not entirely true. But what is true is that, for me, “shameless” is a goal, a way I try to live my life. Because I am not wrong. I strive to do my best each day, to put forth my best efforts, and learn from my mistakes. I have nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing I need to punish myself for. And I am—slowly—refusing to allow other people to punish me for imagined transgressions or cause me harm because misery loves company.
I think this goes without saying, but as we live in a world of rampant asshattery, please allow me to state for the record: this is my intellectual property. As such, please do not copy, circulate, edit, alter, take credit for, or otherwise appropriate this material without my express permission. Thank you.