We celebrate when wrongdoers are shamed and cringe at shamelessness in public figures, yet too often suffer with our own private burden of shame. What are we to make of this powerful, confounding emotion? Is shame good or bad? In For Shame, author Gregg Ten Elshof brings clarity to shame and rediscovers the unexpected virtues hidden within it.
Shame is bad. Too often it cripples and silences victims of other people’s shameful behavior, and research has demonstrated clearly the damaging effects of shame on our emotional wellbeing. In recent years a mini-industry of bestselling books, TED Talks, and popular therapies has emerged to free people from deleterious shame.
And yet, a place for shame remains. Some behavior is shameful, and sometimes we ought to be ashamed by wrongs we’ve committed. Eastern and Western cultures alike have long seen a social benefit to shame, and it can rightly cultivate virtues both public and personal. So what are we to make of shame?
In For Shame, philosopher and author Gregg Ten Elshof examines this potent emotion carefully, distinguishing between it, embarrassment, and guilt and carefully tracing the positive role shame has played historically in contributing to a well-ordered society. While casting off unhealthy shame is always a positive, Ten Elshof demonstrates the surprising, sometimes unacknowledged ways in which healthy shame is as needed as ever. On the other side of good shame, he argues, lie virtues such as decency, self-respect, and dignity–virtues we desire but may not realize shame can grant.
So perhaps shame is good–or better put, a certain kind of shame can yield unexpectedly good gifts.