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Shame On You

Shame and pride are second order emotions. They are really emotions that are about other emotions. Shame is an inborn script that attenuates the positive effects of interest, excitement, or joy. It is called into play when there is something problematic with the expression of these positive emotions, a kind of “you’ve gone too far,” or other serious mismatch of expectations to events. When you are in the midst of interest or enjoyment, shame or humiliation will reduce them. Your head droops, your eyes look down, you blush, you can’t talk, and you may cover your mouth or face to hide your appearance. Any interference with the usual gradients of the positive emotions may sound the alarm

Shame is a painful affect which pulls you away from whatever might have been exciting or enjoyable, whenever desire outruns fulfillment. To the degree that we are capable of pleasure, shame is the necessary obverse. You are intruding, you have gone too far, your exclusion has hurt someone, you should mind your own business, your actions are offensive. Shame is confusing, it is hard to process what is going on, you find it hard to comprehend and you want to simply hide or flee. Shame reduces your interest or enjoyment when it may not be safe for you to continue. So it is an important adaptation for a complex and highly social organism. In producing confusion and withdrawal, it is a retraction of your boundaries. Just as pride is the opposite, and extends you outward, you want to share, you want to be seen and enjoyed. Shame makes you smaller, it limits intimacy and empathy, and even interferes with cognition, so it may also be building the boundary with the unconscious, as it keeps you from going there, from thinking about it. Most commonly, it follows a moment of exposure, uncovers aspects of our lives that are peculiarly sensitive, intimate, and vulnerable. It is the loss of face, the forfeit of social position that we fear most. While sometimes called the self-relevant emotions, I believe the self is actually constructed from experiences of shame and pride. These are the emotions that build and monitor our experienced boundaries. So what does this have to do with love? A lot. I’ll focus on a couple of good reasons after suggesting some readings.

By far the best book I ever read on emotion was published over 25 years ago, but it is still my favorite source, despite having taught an entire psychology course on Emotion for the last few years of my academic career. It is Donald Nathanson’s 1992 Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex,and the Birth of the Self. It is also readable and entertaining. For deeper readers, I’d recommend How Emotions Are Made, just published in 2017 by Lisa Barrett,who one Harvard psychologist calls the “deepest thinker on the topic since Darwin. One of the best known theorists around is Jaak Panksepp, who teamed up with neuropsychoanalyst Lucy Biven to write The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions, a real tome, but worth it. But for the general intelligent reader, there are the books on Emotional Intelligence and even better Social Intelligence, by a journalist with a Harvard doctorate, Daniel Goldman, and any of the trade books written by Michael Gazzaniga, the father of cognitive neuroscience one of whose finer reads would be his 2008 Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique. For those with less of a literary bent, Renee Brown’s Ted talk on Shame is not to be missed, especially her description of how shame is organized by gender: Norms that women must meet: Nice, Thin, Modest, use all available resources for appearance. For men: Emotional Control, Primacy of Work, Pursuit of Status, Violence. She describes the husband and father of several women getting signed copies of a book she wrote: “You see those people I love?They’d rather see me die on my white horse than fall off of it.” She also describes the magnifiers of shame: Secrecy, Silence,and Judgment. Its antidote? Empathy: “Me, too.”

So what about love? What about the relationships between men and women (and probably men and men,and women and women, too)? We’ve talked about evolution in “Full Frontal,” about history in “Myths of Love,” and “Religion and Eros,” so we need next to talk about development. The self-boundaries which accumulate during our long childhoods, and into adulthood, our character, are molded by shame, from the shameless to the cautious to the withdrawn, from those for whom any hint of sex will throw them into paroxysms of shame, to those who treat sensuality like sunlight..All the basic themes of growth and development provide many opportunities to be shaped by shame, as well as p