The word ‘shame’ comes from a word that means ‘to cover,’ that is, to hide. And shame truly is the hidden affect. The parts of ourselves we wish to hide are the shameful parts, and we also wish to hide the fact that we are ashamed. In this way, to use Jungian language shame is strongly connected with the shadow. If we can’t prevent it, we hide it. In common language when we talk about embarrassment, humiliation, or mortification we are talking about shame.
Shame occurs typically, if not always, in the context of an emotional relationship, as shame is experienced both through the actual eyes of the other, and the internalized parental eyes that come from our infancy. ‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself’ and ‘shame on you’ – both exclamations which we have probably all heard at some time, and to which we have reacted accordingly – reacted with shame. Because the sharp increase in self-attention, (and sometimes the increased sensitivity of the face produced by blushing) causes the person to feel as though they were naked and exposed to the world. Shame is a feeling of loathing and condemnation toward oneself, about the state and nature of one’s whole sense of self. Shame motivates the desire to hide, to disappear. We cringe, shrink, wish to disappear at the thought that these ‘facts’ about ourselves might be observed by another, and thus shame characteristically leads to concealment, to hiding, and to deception. Loss of face, disgrace, and dishonour are close relatives in the family of shame. Shame can also produce a feeling of ineptness, incapacity, and a feeling of not belonging. And so we defend strongly against shame by withdrawal, avoidance (which can take many different forms), attacking others, and attacking the self.
Deep shame is primarily an inner experience that comes from an internalised sense of being unacceptable, unlovable. We might even be enjoying some good fortune when seemingly out of nowhere comes the knowledge of our unworthiness, this previously unthought inner reality. We don’t deserve to be here – who do I think I am? Who did I think I was? There’s no one to hide from, nothing to hide from, nowhere to go, and certainly no going back. That person is mortified, dead: what do people say: ‘I was so embarrassed/ ashamed I could have died.’ This is existential shame that implies fear of total abandonment and a fear of psychic extinction.
There’s a powerful description of spiritual shame in Thomas Merton’s autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain where he writes of a sudden realisation that he was living ‘as if God only existed to do me temporal favours’. From this arises deep unease and memories of his past; Merton calls this the ‘false humility of hell’ and ‘an unending, burning shame’ of what he calls ‘the inescapable stigma of our sins’ and ‘it is pride that feels the burning of that shame.’