The Uses of Shame
Shame is good. Shame is a tremendous weapon against Resistance. Along with habit, momentum, aspiration, anger, eros and joy, shame can be a mighty ally in the never-ending guerrilla campaign against self-sabotage.
What is shame? Shame is the emotion we feel when we are guilty of acts that are unworthy of us.
Resistance hates shame. Because Resistance knows that once we feel shame, we are likely (goaded by this extremely unpleasant sensation) to take action. We are likely to gird our loins, put some starch in our backbone, kick ourselves in the ass–and actually start doing our work.
Warrior societies are almost always shame-based. Samurai culture. The Zulus, the Apache, virtually every tribal culture is shame-based. The ancient Spartans were masters in the use of shame.
These societies used shame to enforce and incentivize actions of virtue. If a Spartan warrior showed fear on the battlefield, his own mother would turn against him. There’s a story in Plutarch about two Spartan brothers who were fleeing from the enemy. Their mother, seeing them running toward her, is supposed to have lifted her skirts and cried, “And where do you think you’re running–back here from whence you came?”
Young Spartan girls would dance mockingly around any returning warrior who had not held his ground, singing ditties of shame. Native American tribes did the same. Shame, these cultures knew, is a powerful counteractant to fear. Marching into battle, we may feel our puckerstrings tightening and start to think about hightailing it for the hills. But when we imagine those pretty young gals cavorting around us back home and making fun of us, we gulp twice and keep marching.
Resistance, of course, is fear. Fear is what stops us, as artists and entrepreneurs, from facing the blank page, entering the empty studio, picking up the phone and making cold calls. That’s when we need shame. That’s when shame is our best friend.
If you’re in AA, you know all about shame. The stories are always the same: a descending succession of personal failures, defeats and acts of cowardice, betrayals of self and others–until the ultimate debacle, which finally triggers … shame. “That’s the last straw,” we say to ourselves. “This way I’m living has got to stop.” And we resolve–for real, this time–to change.
When the threshold of shame has been crossed, self-respect kicks in. Self-respect is good. We want self-respect. When we feel self-respect, we say to ourselves, “This act is unworthy of me. I’m better than this.” Shame steps up and slaps us across the face. Like Cher in Moonstruck: “Snap out of it!”
Another way to think of shame is to consider its opposite: shamelessness. In the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 came the famous rebuke of Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch-hunting tactics from Army attorney Joseph Welch: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of shame?”
Reality TV shows are all about shamelessness. The spectacle of contestants eating worms and bugs to gain their fifteen minutes of fame is like a car crash that we can’t look away from. The producers contrive situations whose aim is to produce (from real people, not actors) acts of shamelessness–lying, cheating, back-stabbing another contestant–which can be taped and broadcast for our delectation. It’s nauseating, isn’t it?
Real work, of course, is the opposite of a reality show. Real work is not a stunt. It’s not a cheap shot or a shortcut. Shamelessness gets us nowhere in the world of real work. We need real, old-fashioned shame.
There’s one critical distinction, however, between warrior-culture shame and the kind we as artists and entrepreneurs need. Spartan shame is communal; it’s enforced from without, by the community. The kind of shame we need is different. It’s harder. Ours has to be internal. Self-imposed. Because our failings are so frequently acted out in private, inside our own hearts, with no witness but ourselves, we ourselves have to take responsibility.
There’s nothing fancy about this. It comes down to simple self-talk. “Okay, that’s enough with the web-surfing/videogame-playing/casual sex/latte-swilling/whatever.” We forgive ourselves our lapses (we are only human, after all) but then we gear up for business. We pull the 1954 microphone a little closer, we lean forward toward our reflection in the mirror. “At long last, sir, have you no decency? Have you left no sense of shame?”
And we get to work.