Growing pains: There’s no shame in shame

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Shame is a powerful tool.

But rejecting the benefits of shame is a mistake, because it’s a fundamental part of culture that helps us set a standard for our behaviour. 

Most kids go through that phase where they should really start showering regularly, or brushing their teeth twice a day, or working on their table manners. When I was 11 or 12, my parents would wheedle and beg me to cut my nails, wash my hands, blow my nose — all those gross things that start mattering when you turn into a big, disgusting puberty machine. I’d shrug them off because they couldn’t help loving me anyway. 

My folks understood shame pretty well, so when asking politely didn’t work, they resorted to stuff like, “You’ll never get a girlfriend that way,” and, “Don’t your friends think you’re gross?” This tactic didn’t work very well until I got a little older and started to realize I did care what other people thought. I wanted to make good first impressions and maintain a reputation with people who knew me. It’s kind of an Adam and Eve moment — eating from the Tree of Knowledge and realizing you’re naked before the sneering grins of your contemporaries. That step is an important part of growing up, because it means you’ve developed enough empathy and emotional awareness to understand how other people are reacting to you.

But there are certainly things that aren’t worth feeling shame about. Some things you can’t change, aren’t up to you, or aren’t your fault, so marinating in shame soup isn’t productive — it just makes you feel like shit. But you shouldn’t reject the feeling of shame altogether, because it’s a way of getting data on how your actions and choices are received by different people. It’s the desire to avoid shame that partially motivates us, as we get older, to do things like wear clean clothes and be polite with strangers; we’ve learned from experience and those things have become habits.

You can also use shame as motivation to push yourself towards things you either wish you were doing, or wish you were doing better.

For all the work people do encouraging youth to have confidence and be happy with themselves, we still rely on the power of shame to regulate how people act. But the interesting thing about shame is that it relies on having some amount of self-worth. You can’t feel embarrassed about something unless you’re worried it’ll do damage to your public image. So if you feel shame, you should feel a little proud, too.

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