Tuesday, December 27, 2011

the good shame.

like so many things, shame is a two-sided medal. its negative aspect is well known to everybody. psychologists even talk about introducing a new condition in the dsm called 'shame-based trauma'. everything that we are not guilty of, or that characterizes us but is not negative per se (like being poor, muslim, black, gay, etc.) should not make us ashamed. however, societies frequently target such characteristics as being shameful, and people struggle how to come to terms with what they are on one side, and what the society values on the other. i cannot bear the blame for historical mistakes of my montenegrin people or of my croatian people or of the people of the town of niksic where i reside. a german should not be blamed for the historical tragedy of the holocaust, or a russian for the communist genocide. we should be ashamed only of the things we ourselves have perpetuated or supported. if there is shame, it's a good sign. it can have a cathartic effect. what is shameful is shamelessness.

however, i would like to point out another positive aspect of shame that is not frequently talked about, and that i was reminded of by viktor frankl. it is the so-called protective function of shame. the things within us that are profound, intimate, genuine, are always shielded off by a certain dose of shame. we reluctantly recount to larger audiences in detail how much we love someone, what excites us sexually, what our relationship with god is, etc. those are private things that feel debased if shared with the world. since we own them deep within our private realm, we want to keep them there. whenever people expose their privacy in excess (and some people neurotically do), i cannot but suspect their genuineness. it is only the things that we don't own that we can shamelessly expound on.

being personal is another thing, which i value greatly. it means to show the rest of the humankind that we are persons like everybody else, neither better nor worse, so that they can empathize with us. i am greatly disinclined to unspontaneous, machine-like behaviour i can see so much of here in montenegro. i prefer it much more when personality shows. but private things should remain private, sheltered, silent. as soon as we start talking about them their essence evaporates.

so, don't ask me what i believe in and don't tell me what you believe in. don't ask me how much i love the people i love and don't tell me about your loves. don't ask me what i am like as a person, and let me see for myself what kind of person you are. some things are better left unsaid, and shame helps us keep them to ourselves.


  1. Very nicely said. I can't agree more :)

  2. so the onclusion would be that the shame is actually positive :)

  3. or more precisely - it has a positive side :)

  4. Another very interesting thought, Janko! Thanks for sharing this. It provoked a lot of reflection, and interestingly I feel that I am at a very different position to you on this. I hope you don’t mind me expressing my view on your blog (please feel free to delete it if it’s distracting or irrelevant); this is by certainly not meant to demean your insight, but simply to highlight a juxtaposition.
    You see, I notice that I share different levels of detail with different audiences. And I do indeed go into great detail with some individuals, but not with others. Certainly I have discussed those things that you listed would prefer to be kept internal with friends/loved ones. I don’t see shame as being absolute; for me, it is a relative, and inextricably based on context and cultural definitions. It is very difficult for me to label any individual trait or thought or act as so ‘personal’ that it’s not appropriate for sharing in a given setting. We should have no shame telling our doctor about a ‘shameful’ disease; poets have had no shame expressing their profoundest loves; the prophets have expressed their connections and fears with their gods. And if I don’t discuss physical intimacy in great detail, it’s not out of shame, but out of respect for the privacy of my partner. To talk about a ‘private’ thing for me does not destroy or remove its intrinsic nature for me much like a painting of a landscape doesn’t steal its beauty. I think I have far less shame than the average person, and if I limit what I say, it’s for the benefit/protection of my interlocutor than for me because their tolerance is lower than mine. And hopefully I wouldn’t be considered neurotic about it because I am sympathetic to, and conscious of, my audience
    All the best to you!

  5. not that i don't mind you expressing your positions, but am more than happy to hear them. your inputs are always so valuable - they make me think and modify my ideas :)

    i think we don't really stand on too different sides as it might appear at first.

    what i would like to point out is the distinction between 'personal' and 'private'. people often keep personal facts to themselves for no reason. we're all human and we have so much in common, so why be ashamed of it.

    the most intimate feelings, however, are to be felt, not talked about. there's a zen saying that essence talks when we are silent and is silent when we talk. it is not the point to always keep private things to ourselves, but to sometimes share them with others by verbal or better still non-verbal means. the problem is when they are shared with 'large audiences', because if there is no shame in exposing one's private emotions, then i wonder whether they lack subtlety and genuineness.

    i completely agree with what you said about artists, the relativity of shame, and the 'different levels of detail with different audiences' is fantastically put. the only difference is that i would still prefer to keep the idea of a separate 'private' department, unlike you, who are disinclined 'to label any individual trait or thought' private. well, perhaps you are right here, too, because i did not have traits or thoughts in mind so much as emotions.

    when you come over i hope we'll be able to talk about these things - but what made me think about the necessity of the protective role of shame are people i sometimes meet who so enthusiastically and grandly talk about their poems, or their religion, or their nationality, or their children, that i cannot but see it as fake, as hollow inside, and as a means to manipulate others' perception of them. this is why i think there are things not to be traded with (and i am certain you agree with this, too).

    if you have time share your reflections on this, i'm sure we're on a more similar page now :)

  6. I'm glad you didn't mind! I'll keep this one shorter. :)

    I understand what you are saying about private feelings now. Apologies: I interpreted what you were saying as they should never be talked about. We are certainly swimming in the same lane now!

    I wonder what it is about talking to large audiences about private matters that makes it sometimes sound crass and lacking in genuineness? Most things are celebrated and/or appreciated when they are shared on a large scale (knowledge, insights, revelations, jokes, stories, news, etc). Expressing private matters can help to encourage intimacy with someone else, but why are we repulsed when we see someone trying to bond with many people, or with people they don't know very well (your notion of them 'trading' on their private concerns is a fantastic way of putting it!)? We see it as desperate and, well, neurotic! I wonder if it is possible that this could be done with a genuine desire to connect, without the need to elicit a reaction or feed an insecurity?

    I would love to explore these things when I am there, Janko! Start writing up a list of subjects! :D

  7. see, i told you we'd agree on this one :) i probably didn't explain it well in the original post.

    can there be 'a genuine desire to connect, without the need to elicit a reaction or feed an insecurity'? i really like your question and i am suspicious about such a possibility. why is it so? suppose you are having a garage sale, and you are selling your brand new flatscreen tv for five quid. can i buy it without doubting its regularity? hardly. the same can be applied to a student who hands in an assignment three weeks after the deadline, with an explanation that her mother was sick and she couldn't have written it before. if it were true, or if she was emotionally engaged in it, she would not trade such information for some three exam points. that sometimes happens here. when people try to manipulate others emotionally, i always doubt the genuineness of their emotion. talking about very private things to everybody looks more like manipulation than like sharing of heartfelt experiences.

  8. I think there is still something fundamental which we haven’t addressed, though: we say that publicising private things is shameful, but I don’t think we’ve satisfactorily explained why.

    So, let’s turn all of this on its head. A different perspective might be useful. :¬) I’m intrigued to understand what the nature of the ‘essence’ is that we say evaporates when we talk about such things? What you express in your post and your latest response is that you find it difficult to accept such behaviour; you ‘feel’ that these private are debased; you ‘suspect’ and are ‘suspicious’ their genuineness; you ‘doubt’ the seller of the cheap TV; these things ‘look’ more like manipulation. This is intriguing language, which is entirely about your perception and emotional reaction, and very rarely about the fundamental nature of declarations or the declarers themselves. We haven’t satisfactorily said why such actions or proclamations are shameful because intrinsically they may not be…

    Please, don’t get me wrong: your friends above seem to share your reaction to people who don’t obey the rule that “some things are better left unsaid”, and indeed so do I. But we have all made judgements on the person who transgresses this to arrive at those reactions.

    Who is more tasteless then: the over-sharer or the judger? :¬)

  9. a different perspective is always useful. thanks for this.

    "what the nature of the ‘essence’ is": i'd say that the nature of the 'essence' is numinous - or holy - or mystical - in a non-religious way, of course (though not necessarily excluding religiosity). it belongs to a level of existence which, i believe, is profounder than the conscious level. the experiences at that level are taking place in a dimension that is difficult to render in words or even pictures. it's similar to the inability of satisfactorily describing a dream that we had - our language is inadequate to recreate in others' minds the exact richness of our dream, its visions, emotional connotations, personal symbolism, etc.

    however, the problem is not our desire to share our dreams, or our private lives (such a desire is, i should say, universally present). we share these things in certain settings, with certain people, when we are confident in our collocutor to the extent that we can overcome our shame and talk about our intimate things. such moments can have cathartic effects, even though our innermost experiences are never perfectly translated into words.

    the problem arises when a person has no compunction to talk about intimate things to other people, assuming a kind of certainty and unflinchingness about them. the ease of putting those experiences in words does not leave an impression of authenticity, because these things are not easily talked about. the convictions expressed are also doubtful, because the deeper we plunge into ourselves the more paradoxical our inner world gets. facial (micro)expressions can also give a hint about whether what a person says is felt or just acted out, like like when we doubt that someone is telling the truth. the psychologists have come up with a series of facial movements that are employed when we are lying. it is for these reasons that i doubt the genuineness of easily shared private feelings - simply because the one who has had the real thing expresses it in a certain way and in certain circles and circumstances, while the one who pretends to have had it does not know about the subtleties of private experiences and is talking from the head, not the heart.

    oh my, i got carried away :) i have to reread what i've just put down and see if it makes any sense :)