Is Shame a Bad Thing?

If you read the summary post on Original Nakedness, you might have been surprised at the way John Paul talks about shame. Is shame a bad thing? The modern answer is usually that shame is bad, and we should liberate ourselves from it. As a new mom, I’ve read a lot of parenting philosophies recently, and many of them emphasize that you should take care to avoid giving your small child a sense of shame about any part of his or her body. This means that you teach the proper names for all parts, you don’t act like you’re bothered by changing his poopy diaper, you let him watch you use the toilet, etc. As children get older, we are encouraged to teach children as young as six or seven about the anatomical details of sex, again emphasizing that it is not bad or shameful. Our teenagers should feel free to experiment however they would like, without being ashamed about it, and every passing sexual attraction should be encouraged, emphasized, acted on, and treasured as an important part of their personal identity. Girls should not be required to cover up in any meaningful way, because you wouldn’t want your daughter to be ashamed of her body. Adults are still encouraged to cast off shame with suggestions ranging from co-ed bathrooms to “sexting.”

To help clarify the matter, let’s distinguish some different forms and meanings of shame.

Shame as guilt: “I feel so ashamed of the way I treated him.” In this sense, shame basically means a guilty conscience, which is bad, because it means you’ve done something wrong, but as long as the guilt is proportionate to what you did and goes away after making a confession, apologizing, making it up to him, and letting a little time go by, it’s a healthy reaction.
Shame as public mockery: “He was shamed into leaving.” This sense of shame refers to a whole group of people punishing an offender with verbal insults, exclusion from the group, and other practices that vary with the culture. In modern America, it is probably most prominent in social media and has been known to make teenagers (and probably adults) commit suicide. This kind of shame is wrong.
Shame as self-loathing: Shame sometimes refers to a psychological condition of intense dislike for yourself or some of your features, physical or mental. It’s especially likely to be referred to the sexual, which causes confusion when we discuss the next type of shame.
Shame as modesty: This is closest to what John Paul means when he talks about shame. In this sense, shame means awareness of the potential for another person, especially of the opposite sex, to undervalue or objectify you when they look at you. It’s self-protective. It inspires people to wear clothes. It is positive and healthy, because it comes from a recognition of your own value and a desire for others to acknowledge it, too.

Now that we have that cleared up, are the examples of shame I gave earlier good shame, or bad shame? Well, if your child thought his or her sexual body parts were bad, that would be bad shame. But if he thought he needed to wear clothes so that strangers didn’t see them, that would be good shame. If your child thought that sex was bad or dirty, that would be bad shame. If he thought that it was a private affair between a husband and wife, that would be good shame. If a teenager felt guilty for sexual attraction, that would be bad shame. If he or she felt comfortable having sex with other teenagers, that would be an unhealthy lack of good shame. If your daughter thought that she was unattractive and needed to wear a muumuu, that would be bad shame. If she thought that she was beautiful and dressed in a pretty and modest way to prevent boys from lusting after her, that would be good shame. If an adult felt deep embarrassment over going to the bathroom, bad shame. If he felt perfectly fine going to the bathroom in front of a stranger of the opposite sex, not enough good shame. If he was uncomfortable being naked in front of his wife, bad shame. If he’s comfortable sending naked pictures to women who are not his wife, not enough good shame.

I think you get the idea.

Accompanies: Original Nakedness: Adam Sees Eve

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