Shame and Shameless

Shame and Shameless: An Apologia

Shame and Shameless

Shame is a very difficult word and emotion to define and describe. Unlike other basic emotions like love, anger, sadness, etc., where the emotions are well communicated with corresponding actions, shame doesn’t have a definite display of emotion as it varies across different people and cultures.

This, I presume, is fundamentally due to the the underlying meaning of shame. The word shame comes from an older Proto-Indo-European word that means “to cover” or “to hide.” In essence, you cannot explicitly explain something that is designed to hide, can you?

One of the best definition of shame I have come accross is that of Dr. Brene Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston. She described shame as an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”

Shameless on the other hand seems to have become a misunderstood concept. I largely attribute this to the complexity of the English Language however. In English, most of the words ending with “less” means to be without the root word. Take for instance the following words –

  • wireless means without wires
  • homeless means without a home
  • helpless means without help
  • hopeless means without hope.

By default, we would think that shameless would mean without shame. However, this is totally incorrect. I should note that a quick dictionary check will prove me wrong as most of them define shameless to be without shame or having no shame.

So, I will rely on the origin of shame to defend my position on what shameless mean

The Origin of Shame.

From an evolutionary perspective, shame is hypothesized to have evolved because of the need to follow the rules if there is going to be any safety at all. The community thus come together to make different rules to guarantee their survival against the hostile and terrific forces of nature. So, shame was a tool used to enforce law and order. It was rather very difficult to survive in isolation and once you are excommunicated from a tribe, hardly any tribe will want you in theirs.

Because these tribes were small and highly dependent on one and the other, members depended on other tribe members to see them as valuable enough even during bad times. So, if someone doesn’t see you as valuable, your survival is at risk and value is associated to how well you are able to keep to the tribal laws.

Hence, it was critically important to think through every action and its possible outcome. For instance, before you steal from a person, you need to be sure it has a higher return compared to how much value you will lose before tribe members if you are caught.

the intensity of anticipated shame people feel is an internally generated prediction of just how much others will devalue them if they take a given action. Moreover, if this feature was part of human nature, it should be observed everywhere – in every culture.

Researchers at the University of Montreal and UC Santa Barbara’s Center for Evolutionary Psychology (CEP),

They went on to argue that, “shame, was built into human nature by evolution because it served an important function for our foraging ancestors.”

“shame, was built into human nature by evolution because it served an important function for our foraging ancestors.”

According to Brene Brown, one fundamental truth about shame is that it is universal. In her book titled Dare to Lead, she says, “Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. The only people who don’t experience shame are those who lack the capacity for empathy and human connection.”

Hence, shame is an emotion and like every other emotion, it cannot be separated from man. Can you separate anger from man? or sadness? or other emotions? Practically impossible. The best that could happen is man learns to manage such emotions. A person that does not have these emotions is an anomaly and can be defined has sick, in need of a doctor.

So, what does it mean to be shameless?

At this point, we can agree that shame is inseparable from man. It is a part of us like every other emotion. This immediately nullifies the idea that shameless means to be without shame and to be without shame means that you are in need of a doctor.

Shame is transactional in nature. It is given and it is taken – be it actual or perceived. In my article on Shame as a social emotion, I argued how that shame is usually as a result of the society either directly or indirectly.

For instance, if it is against the norm to drink alcohol, and you do it and you are caught on scene, you become the talk of the town. Everyone sees you as a drunkard, and every prying eyes is executing judgement on you. Also, if you do it secretly, you feel a sense of shame for having gone against the norm and also scared of discovery. You begin to second guess everyone whose eyes are fixated on you thinking they have found out your dirty little secret even if they have no idea

This shows how shame – a product of the society – is distributed or given. It is now up to you as an individual to decide what to do with that shame that has been given. Do you want to accept it and feel shamed or do you want to reject it and be yourself?

In one of my interviews on the Shameless Podcast with Cynthia Adekanye, she defined what it means to be shameless flawlessly.

“…your action must have led me to express certain kind of emotion. The emotion it has on me which is my experience and how I handle it is what will determine if I’m being shamed. That’s why we say, you can’t shame the shameless. It’s not that the shameless don’t particularly feel shame, but they choose not to experience it. I don’t know if you understand what I’m trying to say? It’s like you feel it, of course, you do because we’re human beings. We feel stuffs, but what determines your shame is your experience, and how you choose to handle it. I personally think, shameless people doesn’t mean that they don’t feel it. I can only be shamed if I’ve an expectation of you…

Exactly. People give, but it is left to you to take it or not. It’s left to you what you do with it. When people say being shameless is bad, I say being shameless is not bad. It’s actually nice to be shameless. Yes, shame is unavoidable. You can’t avoid it, even when it is so unnecessary and uncalled for, it happens. Just throw it away immediately. Don’t say, I don’t want to be shamed, so I won’t do this. When it happens, take it as it is and move on. No hard feelings”

Cynthia Adekanye on The Shameless Podcast explaining – What it Means to be Shameless

Hence, shameless means the ability to make the best use of shame and shaming.

to be continued…

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

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  1. Wow!!! A great exposé on shakelessness and shame. I have learned a lot and filled my garden of knowledge with more understanding.

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