Why are we ashamed

Why We Are Ashamed (Podcast 165)

Today is about shame. Have you ever failed to get your stage fright under control in front of a larger audience? After visiting a public toilet, pulled a three-meter-long strip of toilet paper behind you? Or even dreamed that you were taking the bus and suddenly noticed that you were naked? Even if you are one of the lucky people who have been spared these experiences: Everyone knows how you feel in such a situation. One would like to sink into the ground, but instead just the opposite happens: the heart beats faster, the blood rushes to the face, and instead of becoming invisible, one attracts everyone's attention now, of all times. Knowing.de author Alexandra Mankarios explored the question of why we are actually ashamed and what kind of situations it is that arouses this uncomfortable feeling in us.

Shame - what is it actually?

Shame has many faces. It lurks behind every faux pas, strikes when we are caught with gaps in knowledge or lies, it peeps out when clothes slip in summer. In milder cases we are just embarrassed and can pull ourselves out of the affair after a few minutes. But sometimes the shame goes much deeper. Many people who suffer from serious illnesses feel ashamed. For alcoholics, for example, shame makes it particularly difficult to get out of addiction. Victims of abuse or torture suffer from an almost existential shame, although they are not to blame for the violence inflicted on them.

No matter how big the shame is: The desire to sink into the ground or simply to seek the distance is inextricably linked with this primeval human emotion. The root of the word shame shows that people used to be no different in this regard than we are today. Linguists suspect that it comes from the Indo-European word "Skem". Skem means something like "to cover oneself" or "to hide". So there is no question about it: with shame there is always a reflex to flee.

Shame is a strong feeling

Psychologists count shame as an affect, just like love, disgust or anger, for example. The triggers of such affects are fundamentally different, but they all have one thing in common: It is difficult to defend yourself against these sudden sensations. And they go deep under your skin. How powerful the feeling of shame is can be seen, for example, in the fact that it has been used as a punishment for centuries. Anyone who had violated the moral rules of the community, for example, was publicly pilloried and had to endure the ridicule of passers-by, who not infrequently threw bad eggs after being punished or spit in his face. The public defamation was a deep humiliation and shame of the punished, usually also a total loss of face. At least most.

The English writer Daniel Defoe, however, succeeded in 1703 in turning the shame of a pillory punishment into a triumph. When the brave author of the adventure novel Robinson Crusoe was sentenced to a stake sentence for his satirical writings, he simply turned the tables. Before he began his sentence, he wrote his famous "Hymn on the Pillory", in which he made fun of his punishers with biting satire. When he performed his hymn from the stake, he won the sympathy of the people in no time at all He gave him flowers and instead of insults he received thunderous applause. Defoe's experience, however, remained an exception, most of the convicts suffered greatly from the public exposure.

Fortunately, the pillory was abolished in Europe around 1850 as a deep violation of human dignity. In the USA, however, some judges have increasingly relied on public humiliation of criminals again in recent years. Under the term "creative sentencing" - for example, "creative sentencing" - US judges have recently been forcing shoplifters, for example, to pace up and down for hours in front of the scene of their offense - with a sign around their necks: "I am a thief. Me stole at Walmart. "

Why are we actually ashamed?

Wouldn't life be a lot easier if we could just get rid of that annoying feeling of shame? But shame isn't that easy to shake off. And there are good reasons for that. "Shame is a social feeling. It reminds us that we are social beings who need and should look out for one another," says the Hamburg professor of psychology and shame researcher Wolfgang Hantel-Quitmann. "Without shame, we would be selfish and narcissistic restrained - in a word: anti-social. ”And because it is about togetherness, it usually takes two people to be ashamed: One who, for example, deals with nose cleaning in the supposed privacy of the car, and one who happens to look through it the car window falls and hits that of the nasal drill.

Only in a few cases are we ashamed and spectators in personal union. This happens whenever we break our own principles. This can affect the nature lover who accepts a well-paid job offer from a pharmaceutical company for reasons of existence, or even some spouse who is having an affair at the same time. Most of the time, at least two people are involved to create shame. One who violates a social value or a norm. And a second to witness this incident. The psychologist Hantel-Quitmann identifies a total of seven types of shame. They differ mainly in the kind of values ​​that the person ashamed violates.

The most popular form of shame: The intimacy shame

Shame of intimacy is firmly anchored in Christian culture. The very first couple of all time fell victim to her: no sooner had Adam and Eve eaten from the tree of knowledge in Paradise than shame struck for the first time. The first book of Moses reports this delicate moment: "Then their eyes were opened and they saw that they were naked, and they plaited fig leaves together and made themselves aprons."

Since then, the blush of shame has risen in our faces with the greatest reliability, whenever we unintentionally expose more of our body than planned, whenever someone gets a glimpse into our intimate sphere without our consent. Maybe Janet Jackson felt the same way when Justin Timberlake accidentally ripped off her bra at a live televised concert in 2004. In any case, the unforeseen sight of Jackson's nipple piercing in the form of a small sun triggered a storm of indignation among the television viewers, Jackson was assumed to be absolutely shameless. The musician and the television station CBS were able to fend off a judicial conviction for violating good morals. But it has still been customary in the USA since the incident to broadcast larger live performances with a delay of a few seconds in order to be able to quickly interrupt the transmission in case of doubt.

By the way, Janet Jackson's stage accident went down in history under the name "Nipplegate." Piercing manufacturers then recorded a boom in the demand for breast piercings.

Peer pressure creates adjustment shame

When alcoholics or the long-term unemployed feel ashamed, the psychologist Hantel-Quitmann speaks of adjustment shame. It occurs when someone feels they are not meeting community expectations and fear of being left out. Even great minds are not free from this kind of shame. It is said of the philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example, that he intentionally used complicated box sentences so that his style of language would not expose his lower origins.

Anyone looking for victims of adjustment shame today can certainly find some on social networks such as Facebook, says Hantel-Quitmann. He noticed a great deal of pressure to adapt, especially among young people. He believes that by no means everyone is willing to present themselves publicly and to reveal private information about themselves of their own free will. But if you are not there when your circle of friends meets online, you can quickly be seen as an outsider and risk being bullied, embarrassed and excluded.

A new kind of shame

A whole new kind of ashamed has been experiencing a boom in the last few years: the shame of others. In 2009 the term was included in the Duden and thus officially in the German language. In 2010, "Fremdschämen" was even named Word of the Year in Austria. The special thing about this type of shame: It occurs without you having done anything embarrassing yourself. And unlike any other shame, it even gives some people a certain sense of wellbeing - at least when we do not know the person responsible for the shame of others personally.

The tabloids would be deprived of an important source of income without foreign shame, broadcast formats such as casting shows or afternoon talks owe them high ratings. If someone is embarrassed in public, if an ambitious young singer doesn't hit the right note or Boris Becker retreats into a broom closet with a stranger, then the audience is paired with indignation, sensationalism and shame.

Dumbbell-Quitmann knows why that is so: "There is a psychosocial mechanism at work. We stand up to the failure of other people, their inability puts our own deficits into perspective." The psychologist observes with concern that more and more people are ready in the media age to accept humiliation for a public appearance. "Obviously, your narcissistic gain outweighs your shame," the psychologist suspects. He fears that we will become more and more used to crossing the boundaries of shame and that in doing so we will also risk many important social values ​​such as respect, compassion or responsibility.

What to do when the shame comes

So it has its use, shame. But the fact remains: being ashamed is not a pleasant feeling. But what can you do when you stand in the middle of the grease bowl and the blush of shame rises? "Learn from this," advises Hantel-Quitmann: "The shame shows us very clearly when we have to keep our inner wild boar in check. We should listen to that. ”This knowledge can help to better endure future shaman attacks - if they cannot be avoided: They are simply part of being human. Or in the words of the knight Gurnemanz in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival: "In order to feel noble, do not let shame fade from the soul."