What is Shame?
The researcher Brene Brown, who got a dose of youtube attention (link) last year from her TED conference talks, has this great definition of shame: "Shame is the fear of disconnection." She talks about how shame is the emotion/state that is pervasive throughout our lives, but which is rarely talked about. Even in the psychotherapeutic community, it is much more common to talk about something relatively rare like suicide then something like shame, which is so common and impactful. And yet, without an understanding of shame, and a practiced ability to spot it as an experience, we are invisibly swayed and sculpted by its logic and rules. But-and it's a big but-that becoming intimate with shame qua shame is a bit like getting to know the sun by staring at it intently. The burning makes it very difficult to hold a steady gaze.
Shame as an electrical dog collar
Another way to think of why shame is difficult to know, is to think of an electric dog fence that dog owners use to contain their pets within a certain perimeter. The owner sets up a fence (or underground wire) that demarcates the "acceptable" perimeter, and the dog wears a collar that, if he gets too close, warns it with a beep, and then if he keeps going, will shock it. Once the dog has had gotten shocked a couple times, it learns, without much thinking, where it's ok to travel, and which lines not to cross. Then in time it will forget why it never approaches that area over there, except if feels vaguely wrong.
So, the analogy is: the perimeter is established by our parents and culture, the collar is our in-wired need to belong, and the shock is the way our nervous system activates, as shame, when we get close to crossing over that boundary. (Now, the wags among you will say you're actually a cat and can just climb over on a tree, but the hard truth is that, in relation to shame, we're all dogs. You might scratch like a cat, but you feel shame like that collared dog.)
You can see, then, that the dimensions or definition of the perimeter is not pre-given. Different parents, different cultures, with different values, are going to have larger or narrower dog-runs, but the structure of shame is the same: cross the value set of your "owners" (the group you are attached to) and you get zapped and pushed back. If you grow up in a fundamentalist culture, the perimeter might be quite constricted, where you get shocked for, say, not adhering to religious orthodoxy. Or you might be the child of San Francisco hippie parents, who seem to give you all the room to run...until you decide you want to shoot for the CEO position at DOW chemical. Different rules, different perimeters, but same internal zap.
Now, admittedly, the way you are responded to externally can be relatively gentle, or harsh, but the internal experience of shame is the same.
Why is shame...shame?
So why is shame so effective? And why do we care about the value sets of our group/tribe/family/culture? Essentially (as the book Loneliness, by Cacioppo and Patrick, very convincingly explains), because we are descended from a genetic line, primates, which prevailed in large part because their ability to be a cohesive tribe was more survival-positive than solo species. Survival for our evolutionary ancestors meant staying closely bonded to each other and the tribe. The ones who were adventurous, leaving the range of the group, got snatched up by the lions, and didn't pass on their genes. We are the descendents of the ones who carried the strong and unconscious "stay connected or die" mechanisms, one of which is shame. (Another is guilt, which is "I've done wrong." Shame is, "I am wrong.")
Also, in terms of the difficulty in focusing on shame, imagine what would have happened to an ape who stood at the edge of his group's territory and reflected meditatively on the pros and cons of going it alone, or of transgressing the troupe's hierarchical structure. Either the group comes down on him for making it weaker (by challenging its structure), or when the tiger pounces, he's slow to react...and then much slower to propagate. We have, it would seem, been also sculpted by evolutionary forces to not spend much conscious attention on assessing or examining shame; if we feel the hint of the warning beeper, that our collar is about to zap us, we simply move back and are safe again. No need or incentive to think hard, since a sense of safety is restored by constraining ourselves.
Notice, too, that this "shame mechanism and logic" has nothing to do with happiness. The Stanford baboon researcher, Dr. Robert Sapolsky, has described the oppressive and rigid hierarchical structure of baboon societies. They are not nice to each other (I remember him saying in a documentary that he's studied them for 30 years and can't really bring himself to like them), but their tightly policed group structure does create cohesion, compliance, and group response to threat, and increases individual and group survival. Even if at an individual level, it stresses the less powerful members out-Sapolsky focuses on stress in these communities. Survival is the point of shame, not happiness, same as with the electric dog fence.
Fast forwarding to today, where our species have developed these massive cortical brain regions, allowing us to use language and think analytically, yet we nonetheless have not shed this basic inherited survival mechanism. It is still profoundly present and, usually invisibly, influential. We are sculpted as social beings by its perimeter of zaps, but because we have learned young what's acceptable or not (shame is sometimes referred to as "what our parents disapproved of") through these "shocks of transgression," we automatically avoid shame by automatically "doing what we're supposed to."
What to do about shame?
So how do we get free of shame? Well, first of all, we don't attack it. The reason why we're still here has much to do with the survival enhancing quality of shame in enforcing social cohesion. At that basic level, we would not be here to have our fancy shmancy thoughts if we didn't have this base of success in not being eaten. Plus, we are profoundly social (down to the neuronal level: those neurons that are most successful at connecting with other neurons, survive; the loners are, as they say, "pruned"), and at times need a blunt stick to keep us and others from acting out some of the darker drives in our psyche and ancient brains. So, it's not our enemy.
What we have to do is a couple-fold: first (after not pathologizing shame), we need to simply be aware that it's there, and have a model of how it works. It's very hard to identify something that doesn't have definition, and theory gives a description and delineation to experiences. Second, we need to map of our own unique perimeter of shame. This entails examining-gingerly, like the dog testing its allowed range by approaching the fence in small steps-what it is that zaps us and what does not, where shame arises and in relation to what, in our very particular lives coming out of particular families and cultures. You map this by looking for those zaps so you recognize, "Oh! That's shame," and then you look for where it gets triggered. It's actually a pretty amazing experience when you realize, "Wow, it's latent all the time, and I rarely notice it actually as shame!"
(If you'd like a direct experiment: think of something you might do which is a bit risque. In San Francisco, maybe running the Bay to Breakers in the buff. Culturally, here, that's not verboten, so probably for most it would be edgy and/or exciting, but not overwhelming. Then think of a time, or a typical situation, where your parents have profoundly disapproved of you and have turned away or rejected you. That feeling that likely comes up, that's shame.)
Thirdly, there's the confrontation with shame. Because, as Brene Brown points out, shame is "I am bad," the healing of old shame is the recognition, essentially, that "I am worthy," not in a qualified way, but as an existential fact, in the same vein that shame does not put qualifiers on why you are bad (shame says that your transgressions point to how you are fundamentally bad).
There's much more to say on the last point, because essentially what that is is, for most of us, a life's work. But the upshot is that shame is not eternal or permanently wired. It's a neurological mechanism (the visceral elements of the shame experience) that is triggered by whatever is defined by our group as verboten. But because it is defined, it can be undefined, can be broken down as well as refuted. But that "deconstruction" of shame requires time and support and is probably thought of more as a path, or element of a life's path, then, say, surgery. But it is doable, and inasmuch as we experience this "de-shaming," we also experience a profound release and relief. We don't even know how much shame we're carrying around until we start letting it go.