Shaming is toxic ... except when it keeps you from acting like an asshole.
I was on a late-night flight from New York to Los Angeles about 18 months ago and suffered my first and, so far, only panic attack.
I'm an entrepreneur and I'm pureed shit at asking for help or admitting something is ever bothering me or affecting my confidence. And being in a pressurized tube hurtling 500 miles per hour at 30,000 feet was a little too much for me on this one occasion.
My heart was beating out of my chest, I had a hard time breathing, flop sweat (though that's pretty standard for me) covered me, and the aluminum rocket I was in felt like it was as big around as a drainage pipe under a Bama State route. The one thing that saved me from a full-on "there's a man on the wing!" style freak out was ... shame.
I was so ashamed at the thought of my distress (had it escalated) possibly causing the plane to land in Tucson or, at best, some incredibly perturbed fellow passengers glaring me down. I wasn't in a life-threatening situation, so I sucked it up, pressed my sweat-slicked forehead against the porthole and shivered my way into LAX, three hours later. In hindsight, I'd like to apologize to whomever had to clean that window.
I had a mild epiphany at that moment, the epiphany being that shame isn't necessarily the opposite of pride and it's not necessarily a "bad" thing.
Shame does its damnedest to prevent you from being an asshole.
We live in a society (as humans more than Americans) in which our freedom should only extend as far as not infringing upon everyone else's freedom. What do I mean?
Well ... you should be ashamed that you didn't clean up your dog's poop, because someone else may step in it. You should also feel ashamed that you said some vile shit as you passed a buxom woman. You should absolutely feel shame if you willfully skirted the spirit of securities laws and bankrupted thousands of people. You should also feel fairly ashamed because you parked in two parking spots.
We can go on and on, but the gist is — there's a tacit understanding about how polite civilization functions, and it's by most of us not acting like assholes.
One of the biggest mistakes we've made in the last couple of decades was teaching dumb people the phrase, "It's better to ask forgiveness than permission." This is mostly because at the "Dumb People Bi-Annual Meeting," they decided they can only apologize by looking down, kicking an imaginary rock and saying, "Sorry, I guess."
How does this factor into relationships?
We discuss the need for a "shared value system" when seeking a partner. As far as I know, "shared values" means your gender preferences are compatible, you feel similarly about honesty as a policy, you're both either Sith or Jedi, and you explicitly have an understanding regarding getting some "strange" on the side.
As such, if you're in a relationship that expects monogamy, damn right you should feel ashamed if you bring back a scorching case of herpes that you picked up from a go-go dancer in Fort Worth. The strong hope is that the shame of possibly getting caught will prevent you from doing something that crappy to your partner in the first place. Tangent, I've heard it said that shame keeps people (often Catholic teens) from taking proactive prophylactic measures and that just seems like a complete cop-out.
Can shame be bad? In two words: Hell yes!
Feeling crummy about yourself because you have a small, uncooperative penis is no good. Feeling crummy about your large, uncooperative vagina is also no good. Feeling crummy because people comment that you're more muscle-y than the rest of the female tennis players is triply no good. Feeling crummy because you have a sexual agency for the first time in your life and want to sample a few flavors instead of buying a pint of French Vanilla is also really crummy.
The word "shame," in a number of ways, has been co-opted to become a verb meaning "to impose your personal values on another's sovereign person." Said another way, for clarity's sake:
It's a shame that shame is a tool used to shame consenting adults about personal choices (i.e. their weight, choice of partners, etc). Can it be argued that fat, slutty people cause insurance rates to go up? Don't be pedantic, extreme athletes and people with kids do the same thing.
I really wish we'd embrace a different word for foisting a set of personal expectations onto someone so that we can use shame as the divider that keeps you from veering into my lane without putting on a blinker. I'd like to use the word degradation but "slut degrading" doesn't have the kind of ring to it that editors will put in the headline of articles.
Whatever the case, let's not summarily dismiss the power (and value) of honest shame. Like anger, it is an incredibly powerful tool — making us better people and much better neighbors.