We are all confused about shame. On the one hand it is a rather old-fashioned emotion - shame is the last thing therapists want their clients to feel, and few people believe that sex should be wrapped in shame, the way it used to be. On the other hand there is a widespread feeling that our current moral state, highlighted by Frances Lawrence's manifesto, wouldn't be quite so parlous if people had retained a proper sense of shame. The young might be more tractable, and even ministers might occasionally resign.
Recent research, however, has been throwing some new and interesting light on the emotion of shame, which suggests that both the liberal desire to do away with it and the conservative aim to bring it back are both missing the point.
Work by Dr Michael Lewis, an American psychologist, shows that shame, like laughter and language, seems to be rooted in what it is to be human, and may be an inevitable result of the way our brains are wired up. Not only that, but it appears to be in place and fully functioning by about the age of two, far earlier than anyone used to think.
The primary emotions - pleasure, anger, fear, curiosity - are all there in the first few months of life and they can be triggered by a simple stimulus: joy at the sight of a parent; fury when milk is late in arriving.
Shame, however is more complex. It requires a degree of self-awareness and enough intelligence not only to set standards, but also to judge when you haven't measured up to them.
"Shame is a wound to the self and it has a very distinctive physical posture," says Lewis. "The whole being seems to collapse. The shoulders cave in, the head drops, the face goes blank and speech becomes difficult if not impossible." He has been using these physical cues to distinguish it from guilt - which usually prompts some action to make up for what has been done.
To find out how early shame appears, Dr Lewis gave to children, aged about two, rigged toys that would fall apart after they had been played with for a short while. Some of the children abandoned them and started playing with something else (seeing themselves as not to blame), others tried to mend their toy (showing guilt), while a third group just stood there motionless, their shoulders hunched in the characteristic collapse that indicates shame.
Not only does there seem to be something innate going on here - two is too early for all this to be the result of parents' and teachers' attitudes - but, even more significantly, some children were harder to shame than others. Lewis found that those who show the most distress when they are vaccinated are the ones who develop self-awareness earliest, or who experience the most embarrassment.
"Experiments like these are leading me to conclude that biological factors may determine how much physical information makes its way to a person's consciousness, determining sensitivity to self and self-conscious emotions," says Lewis. The implication is that the very people whom the moralists want to reach and prick with feelings of shame, are precisely those who are not programmed to respond to it easily.
Another new perspective comes from the American psychotherapist Donald Nathanson, who believes that shame is the key emotion underlying a range of current problems, from addiction to violence. "Our shared contemporary world is much the worse for our ignorance of shame," he says.
This ignorance, he believes, began with Freud, whose dictum was that when patients lay silent on the couch they were suffering anxiety, defined as the result of the sexual drive "not going forward to produce sexual congress".
"Yet what I came to understand," says Nathanson, "is that the therapeutic decision to remain silent produces not `anxiety' but shame. The entire system of psychotherapy, as we had been taught it, worked only if we overlooked the shame that we produced, day in and day out. Post-Freudian society has been treated for almost everything but shame."
Nathanson's theory is that shame is triggered whenever our feeling good about ourselves is thwarted - when we catch that bored look while we are telling a joke, that sneer when we ask someone for a date, that groan that goes up at our fourth consecutive double fault in tennis. Then our head slumps, we blush, and this vicious internal critic appears who has the unerring ability to reduce our psyche to a worthless heap with lines like: "I am weak, incompetent, stupid. I am ugly and deformed. There is something wrong with me sexually. I am a loser."
Most of us try to defend ourselves against the awful feelings this internal critic produces. Our options are described by what Nathanson calls the "compass of shame", whose points are "withdrawal", "avoidance", "attack self" and "attack others". Oriented with this compass, a whole range of psychological snarl-ups take on a new look.
Masochism, for instance, whether just putting yourself down or being theatrically ground under a booted heel, is rooted in "self-attack". "Avoidance" comes in many guises but essentially it is anything we do to make the feeling go away without dealing with its causes. Shame is soluble in alcohol, and boiled away by cocaine and the amphetamines. We can also distract shamed eyes towards whatever we are proud of: the new car, the new pectorals, the new breasts. The bigger the shameful core that is being hidden, the bigger the effort. "Attack others" leads to violence and sadism.
The value of this new formulation, besides recognising shame as the root of many present-day problems, is that it offers a relatively straightforward way of dealing with them. The point is that the internal critic needn't have it all his own way. "We have the choice of recognising an element of truth in those hurtful responses, and adjusting our self-concept to fit," says Nathanson. For example, we can decide, "OK, so I'm not as funny as Jo Brand or Paul Merton, I'm far from a universal heart-throb and Wimbledon is out of the question, but that doesn't knock me out of the human race." Then we can either try to do something about it, or include it in the way we think of ourselves: "I'm not Stephen Hawking, either, but I can cook a mean lasagne."
This approach explains why calls for a return to old-style shame are so wrong-headed. Shame is still with us, and as fierce and virulent as ever. What has changed is that whereas 40 years ago the normal response was "withdrawal" or "attack self", now we have shifted to a culture of narcissism and violence. Instead of hanging our heads we are just as likely to turn to a wide range of addictions, from heroin to shopping - or become destructively aggressive. What is needed is not more shame but a greater understanding of the way it works, so that its power can be defused.Reuse content