Healthy Shame, Unhealthy Shame, and No Shame

Shame is a complicated topic.  But NO SHAME is not complicated.  It is very dangerous and the ground of sociopathic behavior, the opposite of “honor” and “integrity” and displaying what is good about ourselves.

Dr. Jonathan Fast of Yeshiva University discusses how difficulty managing different kinds of shame can lead men to acts of violence. Oxford Academic (Oxford University Press)

Men often have real shame issues.  My book on the recovery of the sacred masculine has many references to shame because aggression and shame seem to be the biggest problems with men today. 

Shame can be defined as not feeling that one belongs.  And when that feeling goes deep enough, violence is often the result.

Therefore our debates on gun violence today tap into the issue of shame (and aggression) in men.  As do our debates about politicians and supreme court judges who have no shame (and this includes the chief of the Supreme Court who has done nothing to a judge who clearly has no shame).

I am old enough to remember the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 and was deeply impacted by them at the age of thirteen.  Being from Wisconsin, where McCarthy was our senator, I would run home from school during the lunch hour to watch the hearings on our new black and white television set. 

American Experience | PBS gives the context of Joseph Welch’s question to Sen. Joseph McCarthy: “Have you no decency, Sir?”

The high point of that drama was the moment when Boston lawyer Mr. Walsh said to Mr. McCarthy, “Sir, at long last, have you no decency?”  That famous line has gone down in history. 

Decency is one of the opposites of shame. 

Today, we have the right and responsibility to ask of Clarence Thomas and of John Roberts and of a recent shameless president and the minions who support him, “At long last, Sirs, have you no decency, no shame?”

Of course we should ask it of ourselves too in the mirror.  This is what it means to examine one’s conscience.  We are all capable of ignoring the shame of our actions or non-actions.

People with no shame at all are called sociopaths. 

Hilary Jacobs Hendel, LCSW, explains the difference between healthy shame and toxic shame. The Change Triangle

Being human includes acknowledging shame.  The Adam and Eve story teaches us that.   If you are not capable of shame, you are no longer human.

You can come back however—provided you admit your participation in actions that are wrong.  When we can admit we are capable of making mistakes, sometimes grievous ones, that is when redemption can happen.

There is healthy shame and unhealthy shame.  We will consider that in upcoming meditations.  To be continued.

See Matthew Fox, The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine, pp. 51-57; 285-294.

To read the transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: “Shame.” Photo by Akshar Dave on Unsplash

Queries for Contemplation

Do you agree that to be without shame is to be less than human?  And that there are ways to be redeemed from that sad state?

Recommended Reading

The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors to Awaken the Sacred Masculine

To awaken what Fox calls “the sacred masculine,” he unearths ten metaphors, or archetypes, ranging from the Green Man, an ancient pagan symbol of our fundamental relationship with nature,  to the Spiritual Warrior….These timeless archetypes can inspire men to pursue their higher calling to connect to their deepest selves and to reinvent the world.
“Every man on this planet should read this book — not to mention every woman who wants to understand the struggles, often unconscious, that shape the men they know.” — Rabbi Michael Lerner, author of The Left Hand of God

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11 thoughts on “Healthy Shame, Unhealthy Shame, and No Shame”

  1. Avatar

    Why do men respond to shame by being hostile and aggressive, while women don’t act out in the same way?

  2. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    Many years ago I participated in a sacred ceremonial ritual, in which we sisters were exploring the impacts of unhealthy shaming, and the loss of belonging associated with this.

    It was night and we joined together in a large circle with a fire burning in the center. We were all facing inward, towards each other. One by one, very slowly, each sister turned their back towards one sister who remained facing inwards. All around the circle each sister turned their back towards you, invoking the memories and sensations of being unhealthily shamed… of not belonging. This experience was profoundly heart wrenching and extremely painful. I wept uncontrollably. Then ever so slowly each sister began to once again turn towards you, one by one… redeeming, healing and transforming that sense of loss we had all experienced in life, through unhealthy shaming.

    Facing one’s unhealthy shame is an intensely vulnerable and emotional experience, that releases floodgates of repressed and suppressed feelings, thoughts and memories. Yet choosing to do so, through the creation of rituals and ceremonies… in a sacred and safe place with others whom you can trust… does lead to redemption, healing and deep soul transformation.

    1. Avatar

      Thank you Jeanette, what came to mind immediately is that we have no rituals such as you described to deal with shaming. I think of the explosion in our school communities of bullying. The more we “talk” about it the worse it gets. But upon reading of your experience, I believe this type of ritual or exercise could possibly be that powerful tool that brings insight and empathy to those who participate.

  3. Avatar

    I see shame as being closely related to our inner conscience, which is spiritual in nature. Our inner conscience is God’s Spirit of Love~Light~Life within us guiding our unique true selves with Love and Wisdom on our eternal inner and outer spiritual journeys with others, all living creatures, sacred Mother Nature/earth, and All physical and non-physical co-Creation~Incarnation~Evolution within our sacred multidimensional-multiverse Cosmos.
    This is mainly why historically unbalanced, toxic, egocentric, destructive patriarchal values have separated us and most human societies and institutions from our divine essence and loving nature as human beings, our inner conscience and cosmic consciousness, of Loving Oneness. The consequences of this tragic and sinful separation have been human intrapersonal, interpersonal, societal problems, destructiveness, and suffering through most of human history. However, our True Heart Selves~Sacred Eternal Souls are Always Present and evolving within God’s Spirit of Divine Love~Wisdom and Eternally Evolving Cosmos….

  4. Avatar

    It may be of interest to look at shame differently. The difference between shame and guilt is that guilt is an admission that one did something bad or wrong. Guilt is related to behavior. Brene Brown says “with guilt you can make a mistake and say I’m sorry. Shame says, I AM bad. Sorry. I AM a mistake.” I am not good enough or smart enough. Shame can cause you to feel flawed, inferior, worthless and unlovable. Shame can be attached to an action, but it is a self-judgment that ignores the action itself and says my very being is awful and unredeemable. It bears a two packed punch: on the one hand it can lead to depression. On the other can lead one to be defensive and attack and blame others for the very same things that cause us shame. Because of its poverty mentality, the person cannot feel the big sky vast and limitless nature of the unborn mind. Shame needs the comparison to others and emerges from feelings of judgment that one does not meet the group norms. The isolation that shame evokes can cause us to lose our connection to all beings as ego takes over. The antidote to the secrecy, silence, and judgment of shame is vulnerability, openness, and compassion. Shame cannot exist if we can hold onto our interconnection with all beings.

  5. Avatar

    Here is a clip about greedflation which is one of the most obvious examples of “No Shame” that exists among the wealthy who rise prices to exploit the people in their vulnerability. This idea that is ok to do this is justified by corporate capitalism with its “No Shame”. The multinationals are icy cold powers and principalities where shame and justice and compassion do not exist. Just the bottom line.

  6. Avatar

    In her beautiful book, In Love With the Mystery, Ann Mortifee writes on shame:
    “Shame is debilitating. Its only purpose is to shock us momentarily when we have behaved with unconscious inappropriateness. To be ashamed in order to notice our own folly is a useful awakener. We must then see our mistake, put in the correction and move on. To linger in shame is self-destructive as well as self-indulgent. Recognize shame when it arrives. Learn from it and then banish it as quickly as you can.”
    I wonder if some of what we see is a constant ignoring and suppressing of that initial flicker of shame of whatever thought or action, that then becomes hardened and unconscious and unrecognized in further thought, action, turning eventually into self-hatred?
    Blessings to all.

  7. Avatar

    Perhaps Mr. Fox is already aware of the work of Karla McLaren, but if not, please look at her website. Her perspectives on on healthy/unhealthy shame share common ground with what Mr Fox has written above. She describes healthy shame as that which prevents an individual from transgressing the boundaries of others. She describes unhealthy shame as that which others put upon an individual as a method of enforcing social control. I’ve learned a lot from reading her books on befriending and utilizing ALL emotions.

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