Shame


“Can Horses Feel Shame?”
This was a question posed by a friend who is both a horsewoman and an equine therapist. We discussed the question at some length over lunch, sharing our different perspectives or slants on the topic, while agreeing on the answer.

The short answer is “No.” Or rather, “Probably not.”

Why not?

First, what is “shame”? Is it merely an emotion, or is it something more complex? If it is merely an emotion, then horses and other mammals should be able to feel shame, because all mammals share the basic limbic brain structures that regulate emotions (including the relevant hormones). This includes humans, so at the basic level, humans feel the same emotions as other mammals.

However, humans have something that other mammals lack, language, by which I mean not merely communication but the ability to organize and elaborate abstract thought (concepts), particularly on a cultural rather than individual level. Language itself is a cultural rather than individual trait, which is why children must learn their native language rather than being born able to speak it instinctively. Through language/culture, we abstract and reify all our experiences, including our emotions.
We can consider the emotions as the substrate or foundation of our linguistically/culturally organized feelings. Fear, for example, can be seen as a foundation of shame, as suggested by the body language of shame, which looks much like the body language of fear (head down, tail tucked, a pulling in of the limbs, looking away from the, for example, threatening dominant animal, etc.). But shame elaborates fear, mixing it with other elements, into an abstraction, a concept which can vary markedly among cultures and situations.

Emotion fades with the withdrawal of the stimulus as the hormones clear from the body. An animal confronting a threat feels fear and reacts, but when the threat is removed, the fear abates and the animal returns to normal. Of course, if a threat is continually repeated over time, the animal will either become skittish and wary or, if it learns that the threat is actually not a threat at all, will come to ignore the stimulus. But generally, the animal’s reaction is in response to a concrete, perceived, and present threat.

Shame, however, does not fade with the removal of the (social) situation that triggered it. Because it is a concept rather than purely an emotion, shame can be recollected at a later time, when the threatening situation is long since removed, and trigger an emotional response—including the release of the associated hormones. We mull over the experience, reliving it as if it were in fact unfolding in the present, and re-feeling the emotions we experienced during the actual event. In fact, we can make the experience and the attendant emotions worse by these mental re-enactments. In so doing, we also can turn shame (as well as guilt, joy, love, etc.) from responses to motives for future actions (or inaction—it can prevent us from engaging in actions which we anticipate will bring shame upon us). Shame might cause us to plot revenge, for example, or guilt may prompt us to apologize or make it up to a person we have wronged. And that person may decide to forgive us or to punish us. For humans, all these social emotions are a two-way street, or perhaps more accurately multiple streets of many ways.

Shame can only be experienced when we feel ourselves to be negatively judged by others or by the norms of our society. We feel that we have not measured up to the expectations of others or that we have acted or thought in ways that society would disapprove; we can feel shame for actions or thoughts that no one else has seen. But first, we must have learned what our society considers shameful—this knowledge is not instinctive. Shame also, and crucially, involves empathy or a theory of mind, the ability to recognize the subjectivity of others (akin to “mind reading,” etc.).

It is likely that sociopaths do not feel shame or guilt, no matter how culturally/socially adept they may be. It is the sad situation of the sociopath that points to the positive aspects of shame, his/her pathology being precisely of the social kind—without shame, the sociopath visits misery on everyone he comes into contact with, depriving both them and himself of the joyful experiences of social life. Too much shame, or shame imposed on us by totalitarian persons and regimes, results in neuroses, but too little shame causes a lack of restraint and consideration of others. A person who feels ashamed of having been rude to another is less likely to act rudely in the future; a political leader who is not likely to anticipate his feelings of shame (perhaps because he cannot have them) will not hesitate to kill millions to achieve his ambitions. To repress appropriate feelings of shame to protect one’s reputation or self-image will condition one to continue his/her bad behavior. Thus the popular idea that one should not feel shame (often expressed as an I-don’t-care-what-others-think attitude) has serious drawbacks. We cannot be successful social creatures without caring what others think.

The existentialists recognized the central importance of shame, as a form of self-consciousness. Sartre’s classic example of a man suddenly aware of being looked at, caught picking his nose, underscores the self-consciousness of shame; Sartre held that such self-consciousness was crucial to developing an authentic sense of self. He writes, “Nobody can be vulgar all alone!” We must be seen picking our noses in order for that act to be vulgar and to feel ashamed of our vulgarity (though as mentioned earlier in this article, we can relive and/or anticipate the shameful situation). Sartre also writes, “I am ashamed of myself as I appear to another” and “Shame is by nature recognition,” both as oneself and as an Other to another person—that is, a “self which is not myself”. (The sociopath may feel irritation or anger at being perceived negatively, perhaps precisely because he does not want to be known at all, but he will not feel shame.)

This realization of our own Other-ness to others is particularly important. Not only do we feel subjectively ourselves, and not only do we recognize the subjective existence of another person (empathy, theory of mind), but we also become aware that to that other person we are Other, in the full sense of being a subjective being in our own right. Perhaps it is in this sense that the greatest joy of love is experienced. For if as the Beloved, I am more than merely an object to the Lover (a blank screen perhaps on which he/she projects an image of himself), then I am truly loved, rather than possessed. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “to love him genuinely is to love him in his otherness.”

All this takes us a very long way from the simple emotions. Whether or not one agrees with Sartre and de Beauvoir, or any other thinker on the subject of shame, what is clear is that to human beings, through language/culture, shame means a great deal more than a momentary hormonal response of fear.

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