don't be ashamed of yourself

Today we ask that you release your shame around “doing the wrong thing.”

Release your shame around “doing the wrong thing.”

Sometimes it is said that “Money is the root of all evil.”  But it is much truer to say that “Shame is the root of all evil.”

This may sound wrong.  Isn’t shame what keeps people moral?  Don’t we teach our children to feel shame in order to prevent wrongdoing?

This is perhaps the greatest misconception of all: that shaming ourselves and other people breeds morality.

In truth it does the opposite: shame breeds physical and mental illness, and leads directly to acts of human perversity and violence on a grand scale.

If you examine the majority of violent and criminal acts, at the root of these acts is some sort of shame.

Societies with high rates of violence and suicide are always heavily shame-oriented.

What is “shame”?

First of all, it is a learned phenomenon.  Babies are not born with a sense of shame.  It is something they pick up from the people around them — often while they are still pre-verbal.

Shame is the belief that you are bad, broken, or defective — either because you have done something wrong, or because there is something fundamentally wrong with you.

Often this feeling is so unbearable that the human ego responds to it by lashing out at other people, shaming and blaming them: “It’s not my fault, it’s his!”

And therein lies the root of much human violence: “It’s not my fault, it’s his!”

The Biblical myth of Cain and Abel captures it neatly: Cain feels existential shame because his brother Abel is praised and preferred over him.  If Abel is better, there must be something wrong with Cain.  He finds this feeling so unbearable that he kills his brother.

Much criminal behavior is rooted in such energy.  Most wars are started in this way.

Shame is everywhere.  It is like the air humans breathe.  Men and women are told how they should look, how much they should weigh, what clothes they should wear, what their partners should look like, how much money they should earn, how their children should do in school.  If they do not live up to these standards, they are taught that they should feel shame.

Since no one can live up to these standards, everyone feels ashamed.

It could be said that shame is the human condition.

Even “spiritually evolved” people are ashamed.  They do not meditate enough.  Their diet is not pure enough.  Perhaps they have bad karma from another lifetime.

This leads to all kinds of insane behavior.

Consider the problem:

Humans are taught that they ought to be perfect.  If they fall short of perfection, they should feel bad about themselves; they should feel ashamed.

Some pursue physical perfection, others pursue perfection through achievement, others through the acquisition of wealth, others by being perfect parents, others try to attain moral perfection according to their religion.

When they inevitably fall short, they feel ashamed.  And this feeling makes them angry and unhappy.  So — they attack other people, trying to make themselves feel better by pointing out the worthlessness of others.

It is all very crazy.

Some would say that it is important to teach shame because it is the basis of the social order.  Things would devolve into anarchy if it weren’t for shame.

This is partially true.  Often it is shame that keeps corrupt societies and systems going.  Slave-owning American Southerners believed that black people were intrinsically inferior; their children were taught that treating blacks as equals was shameful.  This kept their society going.  Germans in World War II were taught that feeling compassion for Jews, homosexuals  and other “undesirables” was shameful.  Hitler was trying to create a perfect society, you see.

As for morality: it is entirely possible to teach children not to behave destructively toward themselves or others without teaching them that they are “bad boys” or “bad girls.”  It is entirely possible to model healthy behavior for children, and not teach them that they are broken and defective if they do not meet certain standards according to their particular culture.

It is entirely possible to set boundaries and say “no” without shaming someone.

But what about “remorse”?  What about feeling bad when you have wronged someone?  Isn’t that feeling necessary?

The quality of compassion in humans arises naturally when people release destructive habits — including shame.  The more peaceful you are, the less likely you are to harm or attack others.  When compassion arises, it is natural to wish to acknowledge or make amends to those one has harmed in the past.  But this is different from what people normally associate with shameful remorse.  There is no sense of brokenness, defectiveness, or wrongness around this feeling.

Compassion for others cannot arise without compassion for the self.  When someone carries around a lot of shame, usually that person is also very judging and blaming toward others.  Humans treat others at they treat themselves, you see.  Outward attacks always indicate inward attacks.

True compassion arises without attacking yourself inwardly.  It can involve clear-eyed observation of your behavior — seeing, perhaps, that you behaved destructively toward another because you were not in your right mind.  But clear-eyed observation of behavior is not the same as shame.

This is very challenging for humans to understand, because human society is so deeply rooted in shame.  A culture that is not based in shame may seem very alien to most humans — almost “inhuman.”

But it is very possible to live this way.

For example, take someone who wishes to lose weight.

Most people do this from a place of shame.  They are ashamed that they are overweight.  They attack themselves, and fear that others will attack and judge them.  They believe that something is wrong with them: either they are bad because they eat too much, or something is defective with their genes.

What if it were possible to approach one’s physical appearance without shame?  What would this look like?

It would look like the desire to be healthier.  A person just wants to feel good in his body, and do what is healthy for his body.  There is no shame here, just a clear-eyed observation of what feels good and healthy for the body, and what does not.

Someone who carries the simple desire to create greater health in his body will, over time, naturally adopt healthier habits.  Weight loss may occur as a result of this, but there is no shame here.  Rather, action is coming from a place of self-love.

Who do you think will be more successful at maintaining a healthy body weight?  Someone who is full of shame and self-loathing?  Or someone who loves himself and wants to be healthy?

This is true of all things — including morality and “knowing the difference between right and wrong.”  Who is more likely to treat his fellow man with kindness and compassion?  Someone who is full of shame and self-loathing?  Or someone who loves himself?

Herein lies the great fallacy of shame-based morality.

Teaching people that they ought to be ashamed of themselves when they do something wrong, according to their culture’s standards, does not make people more moral.

If it did, you would not have so many supposedly pious religious people committing so many destructive acts toward other humans.

Shame does not make people more moral.  It just makes them hate themselves, and in turn hate others.

Rather than focusing on what is right and wrong, good and bad — focus instead on what is healthy for you.  Ask, “Is this behavior healthy for me?  Is what I’m doing right now healthy?”  Try to observe the situation clearly, without listening to the internal voice of judgment, shame, and self-attack.

Do what is healthy, and you will naturally create greater well-being for yourself and others.  Shame has nothing to do with it.