On Healthy Shame

There are two kinds of shame. There’s the shame of being compared unfavorably against an external ideal, and there’s the shame of being compared against yourself – or more precisely, against your best self. Only the latter kind of shame is healthy and useful.

The first kind of shame is demoralizing. It’s a logic of hopelessness. The external ideal will always be better, and you will always be worse. That’s how ideals work. They’re vanishing points on the horizon of our standards. The shame you feel is the impassable distance between that far off point and the place where you are, now and forever, stuck. The distance stings doubly so because the ideal is obviously impossible, and yet you still feel guilty for not having achieved it. The ideal is a burden placed on you by the judgements of others, whether real or perceived. This kind of shame has no resolution.

The other kind of shame is upbuilding. It critiques and compliments simultaneously, in one loving expression. Instead of being compared to an impossible perfection, you are compared to yourself. Healthy shame draws a sharp distinction between you and your actions. It’s a shame that doesn’t critique you, only what you are doing. You aren’t a failure. Your actions are failures. Your choices have failed to live up to the promise of the person you already are, the person you have it in you to be. This kind of shame doesn’t feel like a burden. It feels like an inspiration.

Ignore any shame that doesn’t feel like love.

|  30 Jan 2014