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David Coles

Dec 13, 2022

“Shame comes in two flavors: episodic shame and existential shame. Episodic shame can be habit-forming; it can turn into existential shame.”

Shame is one of the most powerful of all human emotions…and perhaps the most pernicious. Other emotions are directed, at least in part, at things outside us. We fear ‘something’; we are angry at ‘someone’. Not so, shame. My shame is directed solely at myself, by myself.

I only feel shame in the context of an outside observer, actual or potential; but

the observer does not ‘shame me’. I shame myself. Furthermore, I cannot feel shame unless I allow myself to be shamed, so, end of day, I cannot be shamed by anyone else but me.

When we were kids, our father used to threaten us, “I’ll shame you!” And he did, or at least he tried to; and he succeeded, but only because I let myself be shamed.

I looked at myself through his eyes. I internalized his disgust. Likewise, I didn’t know then that shame was optional. I didn’t know that no one could be shamed by anyone but themselves.

Example: I’m 10 years old and on my way to school I see a friend being balled-out by his mom in front of several of our classmates. Figuratively, I ‘feel his shame’; literally, I feel sorry for my friend, but I don’t feel ashamed, not really.

Now reverse roles. It’s my mom, and I’m the boy on the receiving end of the stick.

Of course, I’m ashamed, but why? What’s changed? A boy is being shamed in either case. In either case, I’m sorry that it’s happening. It’s wrong in both cases.

(Shaming is always wrong, regardless of the provocation.) But in neither case am I the boy ‘being shamed’. I’m watching myself be shamed, just as I watched my friend being shamed; but there’s no reason for either of us to feel shame either time.

We didn’t do anything wrong, or at least we didn’t do anything shameful. The only people in this story who might legitimately feel shame are the two moms, but even then, only if they allow themselves to feel shame, which I’m guessing, they won’t. Self-righteousness is a powerful protection against self-criticism.


So, let’s review. IRT, I watched my friend… from the outside; IRT, I watched myself from the inside; now I’m watching the moms, but from my memory, i.e., outside of real time. Different scenarios, no doubt. But it’s still me watching. It’s the same me. I haven’t changed. Hint: I never change; I am ageless and timeless.

I’m watching, always watching, watching me, watching you, watching me watching you. Watching is what I do, ‘watching’ is what I am. Observo ergo sum.

Shame is an instance of Alfred North Whitehead’s ‘Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness’, which itself is just another way of saying ‘Idolatry’, the first sin condemned in the Torah and throughout Judeo-Christian-Islamic history. When I feel shame, I mistake myself for myself. I confuse something ageless and timeless, me watching, with something time bound and aging, me being watched. I mistake the perpetually perishing me for the eternal me.

Fear and anger erupt, often in response to outside stimuli, but always from the inside out. On a camping trip, I hear a bear outside my tent. I am terrified. My fear is my response to the bear-threat. The bear ‘occasioned’ my fear, but she did not cause it. Fear was my response to a well-intentioned bear innocently looking for a midnight snack.

Plus, if I am afraid, I’m afraid whether anyone knows it or not. Shame is totally different. It is imposed from the outside. Shame presupposes the existence of a judgy observer. That could be a loved one, a neighbor or a casual passer-by; it could be your pet or even ‘God, his angels, and his saints’. Nor does this potential external observer need to be present IRT. The anticipation that a present act may be uncovered in the future is enough to trigger shame if we let it.

Shame comes in two flavors: episodic shame and existential shame. Episodic shame can be habit-forming; it can turn into existential shame. You begin to identify with your shame; you allow yourself to become ‘shameful’. You feel you deserve to feel shame, not just once in a while, but all the time. You’re no longer ashamed of what you’ve done; now you’re ashamed of who you are. You’re a fish out of ontological water, and somehow, you always manage to turn up naked.

So, congratulations, you’ve graduated from episodic to existential shame. Now your Christmas goose is truly cooked. All we’re waiting for is Tiny Tim…but if he’s otherwise occupied, you could try spending a year with a Harley Street therapist instead. Or, if all else fails, just remember who you are…and who you are not.

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- the official blog of Aletheia Today Magazine. 

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