I believe that shame may be one of the most debilitating emotions. Its toxicity arises from the fact that those who feel it strongest may deserve it least. The worst individuals may not feel it all. Feeling shame after committing a dishonorable act is a good thing; it is a lesson from your conscious. Feeling shame for some perceived shortfall of achievement is less so.

Two Types of Shame

First Order Shame

First order shame arises when you feel bad for some perceived shortcoming. The young man without a girlfriend may feel this. His shame arises because he feels that he has failed in some important endeavor. It relates to a deficit between some desired state of being and actuality. It mostly relates to a personal assessment about personal actions or status.

Second Order Shame

Second order shame arises when although satisfied with their current status (or action), they realize that others will think less of them for it. An example would be the man who chooses not to have a girlfriend but realizes that many will think less of him for it (e.g., gay? Nerd?). In some ways this is worse than the first order type because it turns what should be a satisfactory situation into a cause for stress. Other examples could include unemployment: where the individual feels no shame for their lack of job, but realizes that others may look down on him or assume laziness of fecklessness.

And . . .

I am afraid there is no real point to this, no grand strategy. These are just my musings on a late Saturday afternoon. You may be glad to know that I feel no shame for that.


5 Responses to “Shame”

  1. Xamuel Says:

    In those two examples, the “first order” shame could arguably be a “good” thing, while the “second order” shame is unquestionably a “bad” thing. The former can inspire the young man to change himself, to improve himself. The latter will, in a worst case scenario, lead to a miserable relationship for show…
    [DU: I think the first type can be debilitating because it can crush all hope, leaving the sufferer believe they are “unworthy.” The feelings of shame are a further negative on top of the disappointment of failure. I agree that handling the second order type is a necessary skill, and giving in to it a potential disaster.]

  2. PA Says:

    You have somethign of a gift to speak the kind of language that smart, sensitive teenagers want to hear.

    Strangely, when I read your posts on these types of subjects, I picture myself as a high school sophomore, and how clarifying it woudl have been to read some of what you write.
    [DU: Thanks. In some ways that is exactly who I am writing to. Some of these posts are a sort of things-I-wish-I-knew-then for my own teenage self. While I tend to believe that we can only learn these lessons for ourselves (and in our own time), I would enjoy the possibility that I provided some encouragement to a younger man.]

  3. zhai2nan2 Says:

    I think “first order shame” is just “guilt.” Guilt, in my terms, is when you feel bad due to some kind of internal “conscience.”

    Second order shame is part of what I call “shame.” “Shame” is mostly about shaming, i.e. the socially popular human stands up and points a finger down at the unpopular human and says, “You’re an outcast, and you should feel bad about being an outcast.”
    [DU: I would see guilt as a bad feeling for transgressing your own values or expectations (e.g., a lie for which you will never be caught) whereas shame is a bad feeling for transgressing community values (e.g., drunkenness). In some cases that transgression is imagined, in that your act is not truly a transgression as far as others are concerned (e.g., not having a job or girlfriend)]

  4. BSD Says:

    What about shame over something done to you?
    [DU: I suspect that in this case feelings of shame arise from the belief they should have avoided, or may have actually caused it by their own actions. A victim of mugging (for example) may blame himself for not fighting back harder or running faster. Someone who is ripped off may feel shame over being conned. I suppose both would count as First Order shame: a personal assessment about personal actions or status, a feeling they did something wrong (even thought they obviously did not do something wrong.]

  5. BSD Says:

    This post really hit home. You’re right about those that often do the most wrong feel the least shame. Then again, I don’t think you or I would know because we’re not them. But they SEEM not to. They probably don’t. I wonder why. And I wonder if that somehow makes them superior.

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