Table of contents
    1. 1. Some Refs

    These are personal notes and reflections written for the 2011/07/15 meeting of Ways of Knowing on the topic of shame.

    It took me some time to warm up to this topic, but I began to see its depth and complexity, and see it as really interesting. From time to time I experienced a strong, general-feeling, and unclear reluctance to look more deeply into the subject.  To me this indicates the subject has emotional depth and was taking me to an "edge."  In fact, the topic itself seems to have a quality of "taboo" about it in the sense that it seems to be something no one likes to talk about.  It's difficult to study shame from the first-person perspective because involves painful emotions.  I recommend trying this carefully with a trusted confidante, with empathy, humor, and a light touch.

    For a moment, consider what shame "feels like" and how it seems to want people to behave.  It seems to make people recoil from connection with others, to feel unworthy and defective, to slump down, slink away, and hide their face.

    Shame seems to be a universal human emotion -- one that (nearly) everyone has -- and at the same time the way it appears varys tremendously for different individuals and in different cultures. 

    I felt stuck for a while so I did some reading, looking for "outside" views.  Things got interesting as I began to survey, compare and combine various perspectives.  Not surprisingly, it's easier to think and talk about this topic, from a distance, with an intellectual / theoretical style.  In this writeup there's time only to stereotype these ideas (shamelessly).

    People sometimes act as if it would be good if we could do away with all "bad" feelings and negative emotions, and everyone could be happy and positive all the time.  Some even posit this -- as an item of faith or belief -- as the "natural state" of human beings.  I think shame is a fundamental human experience, and even a "way of knowing."  But what kind of "knowing" could it be about?

    A political view says that shame is used to control, and even oppress, individuals, and is imposed on them by groups and institutions. 

    A moral view says that maybe people need some of this oppression to prevent them from acting too selfishly, and if it doesn't come from conscience then it needs to be imposed by groups or institutions.

    A psychological view says that shame is an emotion (feeling) that happens within an individual when they believe they are being seen as resisting group norms and standards.  Shame is regarded as a "negative" emotion.  There's disagreement about whether shame is sometimes useful and adaptive, or whether it's mainly destructive.  There might be appropriate and inappropriate shame, maybe some that's useful and temporary, other that is destructive, toxic, and no longer relevant to a person's real social situation.  The former might be a form of emotional intelligence, the latter, a kind of rigidity and stupidity.

    Another psychological view says that the purpose of shame is to keep joy and yearning from going too far -- that is, to limit and regulate it. A refinement of this idea says that it helps people "hide" their yearning from others, which has a kind of protective purpose for the individual's identity and self-determination.

    Another psychological view is that shame is for the most part unaware, hidden under layers and layers of "defenses", not very available to introspection or reflexive self-observation, and in fact, nearly unconscious.  Some theories say it is as if humans have two different minds, an individual mind and a social mind (tuned to one's group), and that those two minds are fairly separate and unaware of each other.

    Some psychological theories are based on Darwin's idea that emotions, including shame, have the purpose of communicating and regulating behavior and relationships in a group.  In one version, the thing that is at stake for the individual is the "bond" with the group.  In other words, shame keeps individuals from the risky process of being abandoned by or cast out of their group.  Early evolutionary psychology focused on individual selection.  Later on the theory was extended to group selection and this led to new ideas about emotions as complex mechanisms by which a group regulates relationships and behavior.  This put a focus on what is at stake for the group (as well as for the individual) bringing consideration for the advantages of cooperation as well as competition between individuals.

    The group-level analysis suggests that emotions are part of the mechanisms of mood regulation that are essential to the social mind, and link its members into a regulated and communicating whole, supporting coordinated actions and cooperation.  This includes not just simple "mood" regulation but more complex behavior and attributed meaning.  For instance, cooperation helps a group thrive, but if individual cheat then trust and motivations are undermined.  So humans seem to have instincts for punishing "cheaters" who do not cooperate well, and ensuring a certain degree of "fairness."  Shame can be seen as one way this happens.

    In terms of a perspective shift in psychology, this means broadening the focus on the individual, personality, child development, and the bond with parents and caregivers, to include adult behavior and relationships in groups.

    In fact, some versions of psychological / sociological theory say that shame is the main social emotion, signaling social appropriateness and regulating the expression of other emotions such as love, joy, aggression, and so forth. 

    All these ideas have their valid points as well as limits, and these "stereotypes" can be questioned further.  For example, what does the "political" view assume that human nature would be, if it were "free" from the oppressive shame and control of institutions?  In the psychological view, what would a non-pathological human be like?  Would people have naturally high "self-esteem" if it weren't for the negative conditioning they receive?  These are probably not realistic questions but they can help understand the hidden assumptions of the stereotypes.

    Many psychological theories tend to focus on the extreme cases, ones that are destructive, painful, pathological, and maladaptive.  A more "positive psychology" posits that people are always connected, with different and complex degrees of feeling.  Then shame and empathy can be seen as different feeling tones along a continuum of different ways people are connected and in relationship.  In this view groups can be "bound" by shame -- shame isn't a disconnection from a group; people with shame are not free of their group, but connected with it in a way that doesn't feel good.

    I tend to agree with this idea that we are always connected, and that shame is a name for one quality that connection can have. The quality of connection seems to change continuously, with the emotional tone ranging between moving/flow/high and rigid/stuck/low;  when it's up, that's called elation, empathy, positive self esteem; when it's down, that's called shame, dejection, low self-esteem.  The quality of connection in relationships is complex and subtle, varying moment by moment. Anything that reduces the "rapport" between people can generate emotional stresses and shame-like feelings. I think this indicates that shame does more than just regulate yearnings and related behavior.  It's part of a much more profound social communication system.

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