Disordered characters don’t feel shame like neurotics do. Although pop psychology has given shame a bad name, the ability to feel it is a mark of good character. I wrote recently about how neurotic individuals and disturbed characters differ greatly on the issue of guilt. Guilt and shame are related. Guilt is the bad feeling we get about something we’ve done. Shame feeling badly about who we are. It’s when we indict our character, not merely our behavior. The popular wisdom has been that shame is always bad and should be avoided. That same popular wisdom is that it’s only helpful to feel guilt about a specific harmful behavior. Neurotics not only feel guilt more easily that disturbed characters, they’re also more prone to feeling ashamed of themselves when they do something they think reflects negatively on them. As a result, they often motivate themselves to become better people by working hard to fashion a self-image that they can live with. So, when they do something reprehensible, they not only feel badly about what they’ve done, but they also feel badly about the kind of person they imagine could have done such a thing. This is not bad, especially when they vow that they will sincerely strive to be the kind of person that won’t do such things again.
One mark of a character disorder is a person’s relative incapacity not only to be deficient in feelings of guilt when committing harmful acts, but to lack any sense of shame for the kind of person they must be to commit such acts. Shamelessness is a major distinguishing characteristic of the disturbed or disordered character. It’s hard to be genuinely repentant and also hard to make good on a pledge to not commit the same kind of hurtful act again when you don’t really feel like a shmuck for doing the bad thing you did in the first place. Neurotics, of course, tend to be overly sensitive and get far too down on themselves when they mess up. So, too much shame can be a bad thing. But shame in itself is not necessarily bad, especially in the right doses. The disturbed characters among us would not be so unhealthy if they could reflect on the history of harm they’ve done to others and feel just badly enough about themselves to consider changing the kind of person they are.