All human communities discourage bad behavior by penalizing it. Some also encourage good behavior by rewarding it.
Evidently, the two most important emotional sanctions against bad behavior are shame and guilt. Unfortunately, nearly everyone who is not professionally involved in psychology or philosophy confuses them. Usually they are lumped together as though there were a single emotion called: shameandguilt.
If so many people don't see the difference, I am not going to be able to clarify it in a blog post. Still, as a point of reference, understand that when you commit a crime, the guilt and the punishment is yours and your alone. Your shame is never yours and yours alone. Guilt is for individuals. Shame is shared, almost like a contagion.
Bernard Madoff is paying for his crimes in a federal prison. He was guilty of committing horrifying crimes and he is being punished. Beyond his crimes, he ought to feel shame for having betrayed friends and clients or for having failed to uphold his responsibilities.
But, Madoff was not prosecuted for failing to be a good citizen or a responsible manager. He was prosecuted for breaking the law. He and he alone is paying off his guilt in prison. If he had accomplices, they will hopefully be joining him.
Madoff might have believed that he could shield his family from guilt. He could not shield them from the shame. His family has been shunned and ostracized. His son Mark hung himself from a beam in his Soho loft because he could not bear the shame.
Saturday the New York Times ran a fascinating story about shame. It was not about the shame of a teenaged girl whose latest sext got passed around the locker room. It was not about the shame of the CEO who had led his company into bankruptcy. And it was not about the shame of the politician who led his party to ignominious electoral defeat.
Serge Kovaleski tried a different and compelling angle: he examined the shame felt by the relatives of convicted criminals.
He did not look at the pain felt by victims' families. He did not interview the killers themselves. He focused on a group that suffers shame for the failures of others, through no fault of their own.
Kovaleski looked at how these crimes had changed the lives of the killers' close relatives, of their sisters, parents or cousins. He was showing how, when your good name becomes a stigma, others who bear the same name or who are closely related to you become marked by the same stigma.
Those others did not share your guilt. They were not called to the bar of justice. They were neither prosecuted nor imprisoned. But they did share the shame. Through no fault or failure of their own they were shunned and ostracized. They lost friends and businesses; they were treated as non-persons.
After all, shame is not merely an emotional state. It is a psychosocial condition, one that derives from the way members of your community see you and treat you. When you are being shamed you become radioactive. Others act as though you did not exist.
Of the social sanctions for bad behavior, shame is the worst.
The shame is all the more painful because it has been visited on these people unjustly. There is no real justice in the shunning of the family members of criminals.
We think that criminals deserve to be punished. If you do the crime you should do the time. We also believe that the threat of punishment is a deterrent to crime. If you know the wages of sin this will presumably make sin a less appealing prospect.
But, punishment only deters for crimes. It does not apply to failure, failure to uphold one’s responsibilities or failures on the job.
Punishment is not a very good deterrent either. Some criminals know the risk and are willing to take it. They feel that they can do the time. They know that once they pay their debt to society, or do penance for their sins, they can go out and sin some more.
As a deterrent shame ups the ante. You might be able to do the time, to pay the price for the crimes you are planning, but do you want to see your family, those you love and cherish, stigmatized for your crimes. Do you want to see your children become social outcasts and pariahs? Do you want your wife and parents to be shunned by friends and family alike?
In some cases even shame is insufficient deterrent. Still, it is a stronger deterrent than guilt and punishment or sin and penance.
If we return to the shame experienced by relatives of those who commit crimes, ask yourself the salient question: if such a shunning should befall you how could you overcome it? How do you get behind a stigma that is emblazoned on your forehead?
If you yourself had committed the fault you could apologize and then withdraw from society for a decent interval. But what happens when you did not commit the fault?
I believe that family members of convicted murderers should adopt a similar posture. They should apologize on behalf of the family, express sympathy for the victims, and avoid other people for a reasonable amount of time.
In this case time does heal.
If you should find yourself in that position, you should not pretend that nothing has happened and expect that people will treat you as they had before.
Everyone knows that you didn’t do it. Pretending that you do not will aggravate the problem by producing more and more overt rejection. Proclaiming your innocence will not help. You are not being shunned because you are guilty.
The story about a cousin of Major Nidal Hasan—the perpetrator of the Fort Hood massacre--follows this structure.
But what would psychotherapy have to say about the anguish someone might feel for being related to a serial killer? How would a psychotherapist approach such a case.
Clearly, the classical therapy model will be worthless here. If you are being shunned for something that you did not do, it does not make a lot of sense to try to figure out what happened in your childhood that makes you deserve the punishment.
If you are being shunned because of something your cousin did, looking for the root causes in your own memory bank feels like a fool’s errand. What could there possibly be in your past that will allow you to feel that you deserve what has befallen you? And what is the point of feeling like you deserve something that you do not, strictly speaking, deserve.
And yet, that is exactly what psychotherapy has on offer. Any form of psychotherapy that seeks out infantile antecedents or traumas is pretending that you can overcome your shame by discovering your own personal guilt.
In the past therapy has taken people who feel ostracized from society and allowed them to think that they have done something to deserve their fate. It has taught them to diminish the pain by engaging in self-punishing behaviors… like endless and tortured bouts of self-criticism.
The same reasoning is at play for a woman who tries to overcome her shame by cutting herself.
Obviously, this is a form of self-punishment. It is a desperate effort to connect with other people by provoking their pity or their caring concern. If you have nowhere else to go, you can make yourself into a patient and feel accepted in a clinic or a physician’s office.
Have you thereby dealt with shame?
Not at all. In truth you have simply ignored it, by pretending that it isn’t there.
Unfortunately, if you cannot deal with shame when it befalls you as a relative of a disgraced individual, you will not be able to accept the pride that comes from belonging to a family or a community that has achieved success.
You do not feel real pride unless you feel it as part of a group. Pride that inheres only in your personal accomplishments is going to end up as self-puffery, the kind that the schools and the therapists call self-esteem.
Think if it this way: let’s say that your team has just lost the big game. And let’s say that you played perfectly. Do you think that you should get up and say that you refuse to share the agony of defeat because you bear no responsibility for the defeat?
Being part of a team means that you share the thrill of victory as well as the agony of defeat… regardless of how well you performed. It isn't entirely fair. It isn't entirely just. As long as human beings are social animals it's the way it is.