Shame is a really socially informed emotion. Clearly we have it to encourage us to align with our community groups, which for most of history we’ve depended on for survival. Also clearly there are a lot of modern humans who feel no shame for the harm and pain they cause. Alongside this there is the question of who we make ashamed, and what it costs to be part of a group.
If the shame is deserved because harm has been caused, then the answer is to do something restorative. We all make mistakes, that’s just human. We will all mess up and hurt other people, and feeling shame in face of that is a strong prompt to get in there and fix things. If we’re able to respond to our mistakes with restorative action it should be easy enough to draw a line under things and move on, learning from the shame but not feeling burdened by it.
If the shame is underserved because no harm has been done, then it can be hard to live with. I’m thinking about the many ways in which we make people feel ashamed of their bodies, their sexuality, their perfectly harmless lifestyle choices and so forth. Making people feel bad about innocent things will diminish them. It serves a social function, too. This kind of shame is all about who has the right and the power to express themselves and who is powerless and made to fit in.
It is hard to overcome shame on your own. This is fundamentally a social issue so the solutions need to be social as well. Unshaming someone can be a collective project. It’s why we need Pride events, to help counter a long history of encouraging queer people to be ashamed of ourselves. It’s why so many minority groups take up similar approaches – asserting the right to exist and to be as you are without having to feel badly about it is a work in progress for a lot of us.
Any time we affirm each other, we are potentially helping someone feel less ashamed of themselves. It’s really powerful to have spaces where we can treat each other as valid and good, rejecting the kinds of social judgements that wound so many people. Just being nice to each other about appearance gets a lot done – there’s so much body shaming out there, so much cruelty around the accident of how anyone looks, and all too often what we’re being judged against are photoshopped images and bodies that have been surgically modified.
I don’t really know what’s going on with people who go in for shaming others. No doubt for some it is entertaining to cause pain, but I can only see that as itself coming from places of pain, shame and inadequacy. I think you’ve got to be in a pretty awful place to want to hurt someone, or make them feel ashamed of themselves over entirely harmless things. I wonder to what degree the urge to make others feel shame comes from having a great deal of internalised shame themselves. I think sometimes it comes from a desire to control others and make them smaller, which is something that comes from fear and insecurity. People often hate in others the things they can’t deal with in themselves, as with the cliche of the homophobic politician who turns out to be into gay porn and rent boys.
When you have a community you can trust, then there’s scope for affirmations to counter anything you’ve had treated as shameful. If you’re not hurting anyone else, then what you do is your own business and no one should feel entitled to tear you down over it.