Shame and Shamelessness
Shamelessness is a defining aspect of the most problematic kinds of narcissism. I’ve asserted this in several articles. (See, for example, Shameless and Guiltless Thinking.) But that begets a question: What about all those pop psychology books that said shame is such a horrible, toxic thing? Isn’t shame inherently bad? To be psychologically healthy, don’t we need to be free of any semblance of shame? And if shame is unequivocably a bad thing, then shamelessness ought to be a wonderful thing, right? But anyone who’s been on the receiving end of a shameless character’s behavior likely feels otherwise. So what’s the real deal with shame, anyway?
Shame can be certainly be a bad thing. And some shame is truly toxic. That’s especially true if it’s unwarranted and/or excessive. You can definitely have too much shame. But ironically, you can also have too little shame. And in our days of rampant character dysfunction, shamelessness is a much bigger problem than too much shame. The most severely disturbed characters among us are the most shameless.
Guilt Versus Shame
Guilt is that horrible feeling people with mature consciences get inside when they’ve done something wrong. It has to do with the harmful behavior itself, and the remorse we might feel after doing it, whether deliberately or inadvertantly. Shame is that unpleasant feeling we get when we don’t feel good about who we are. It’s not about what we might have done or failed to do. Rather, it’s about how we think of ourselves as a person of worth.
Disturbed Characters, Decent Folks, and Shame and Guilt
Disturbed characters know two things about conscientious people: they don’t like feeling either guilty or ashamed. So, to manipulate a conscientious person, all you really have to do is make them feel guilty or ashamed, even if they haven’t really done anything to feel guilty or ashamed about. (See: pp. 125-127 in In Sheep’s Clothing.)
Disturbed characters are the opposite of conscientious folks. By definition, they’re conscience-impaired. And for that reason, they tend be lacking in both guilt and shame capacity. When they do something harmful, they don’t feel badly enough about it to think twice about doing it again. And when they act in manner that conscientious folks would regard as a negative reflection on them, they simply don’t care. That’s shamelessness. True, you can care too much about how people regard you or how you regard yourself. But you can care too little, too!
An Indictment of Our Age
Perhaps the most negative criticism that could be leveled on modern culture is this: all manner of conduct once regarded as outrageous or unthinkable has become normalized. We’ve not only become desensitized to such behavior but also have become more tolerant of it. That’s one major reason character dysfunction is truly (as I assert in Character Disturbance) the “phenomenon of our age.” But an even bigger reason for the character crisis is, perhaps, the death of healthy shame.
Sure, it matters what you do. But it also matters who you are. At least it used to matter. Character is largely about how you define yourself – how you see yourself – and how you want others to see you. It’s about how you style yourself. And it once mattered more than anything else. It can matter again, too, once we afford it the prominence it once had.
The Power of Constructive Shame
As I asserted earlier, not all shame is toxic. And some shame can be powerfully constructive. Shamlessness is a defining trait of our most malignant narcissists. But proper shame can define the healthy or even reformed character.
I’ve worked with many disturbed characters over the years. Some had led very destructive lives. And to a person, not one who truly turned their life around did so out of a sense of guilt. Rather, it took that hard look in the mirror. And when someone finally didn’t like the person they saw – that they had allowed themselves to become – everything began to change.