As you introspect more and more you realise there are parts of your mind that seem to be off-limits to exploring. It feels almost as if someone had built a wall there preventing you from going further.
I’ve found that these are walls of shame that we all have inside our minds. To really understand yourself, you have to be willing to break through any walls of shame.
But first, what is shame?
A lot of descriptions of shame sound like this:
- “Shame—the feeling that there is something wrong with us”
- “A painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.”
- “I am basically flawed, inadequate, wrong, bad, unimportant, undeserving or not good enough.”
These definitions highlight the negative feeling of shame well. The mixture of humiliation, embarrassment, self-disgust, etc. Most people when they talk about shame speak about ways of healing shame or not letting it affect you.
The problem with this is that it frames shame as something that is inherently bad and should be destroyed at all costs. I think this is not only impossible but a bad idea.
This is a bad idea because shame is a necessary tool for guiding good living. The point is not to abandon shame but to intentionally define your own walls of shame.
To understand this better, you need to step outside of the individual experience of shame and look at it from a higher systems view.
Where does it come from?
In any social group of animals, there is a need to balance the standards of the group with the desires of the individual. In order to achieve the best outcome for the group, individuals must follow the shares rules (laws).
Shame is a powerful tool to enforce this. It is the emotional equivalent to violent punishment that individuals receive for breaking the rule of the group.
If I imagine a baby growing up in isolation on an island. Despite having a 💩-tonne of other mental problems, I can imagine it being very free of shame. Why is that? On the island in isolation, there would be no one to tell them what is right or wrong, no authority to tell them how to behave or not to behave. Without these norms to transgress, there would be no way to feel the disgust and self-loathing that one feels when we break social norms.
Shame, like all dogma, is a shortcut. Rather than getting everyone to understand the reasons for every rule (a very difficult and time-consuming task), shame allows for dogma to be passed down and enforced in a non-violent manner.
Shame is the soft-enforcer of cultural norms; it is what keeps society aligned towards a common goal.
At its core
To strip it back, I think that shame is:
The feeling of failing to meet a standard/ideal that you hold for yourself. This standard could be self-chosen or imposed from others (society).
Or to express as a mental model:
- We have ideals/standards about how we should behave and act in the world.
- Some of these we chose, many of them were chosen for us.
- When we compare ourselves to the ideal we fall short in many ways.
- This inability to meet one’s own ideals is the feeling of shame.
The maze of life
Now that we have a shared understanding of shame, the fun really begins:
If you think of life as a big maze and the walls being built of shame, then the game becomes to finish the maze while navigating between the walls of shame. (e.g. make money but don’t steal, have sex but not wife another’s wife, etc.)
However, you have to ask; who created these walls of shame? Who designed the very structures that I navigate on a daily basis? Was it me? In most cases the answer is no.
Breaking down walls
When you start to inspect your walls of shame you realise that for many of them, you don’t actually know why they are there.
For example, take the shame that many feel about not pursuing success. Many people feel the need to justify living a simple happy life. There is a sense of shame in not being ambitious and successful. This wall of shame makes many of us pursue careers that we don’t like, to make money we don’t really need.
Other walls of shame that come to mind:
If you want to really understand your own mind, you have to be willing to knock down lots of walls that have been in place since your early childhood so that you can explore an idea without the bounds of shame, and understand why the wall was put there.
Some walls you knock down only to re-build based on a more thorough understanding. While others you knock down for good.
Wiping the maze clean
Imagine now that the maze has been wiped blank. You have a entry and an exit and nothing in between.
While this metaphorical freedom sounds enticing, it would actually be difficult to live like this. You would be living without values, morals and standards. All would be permissible because there were no walls of shame to guide behaviour.
So to take this metaphor to it’s ultimate. You might say that for someone who values the “freedom” of the self, the ultimate life is one where all the walls have been knocked down and a new maze has been constructed out of intentionally chosen walls.