The following selections are from an interview with philosopher Marcin Fabjański by Natalia Waloch. The original appeared in Polish in the weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in June 2018.
Natalia Waloch: When was the last time you felt ashamed?
Marcin Fabjański: Quite recently, in fact. I wrote an overly judgemental email and although my criticism might have gone unnoticed, I felt ashamed of my bad intentions. What’s more, I realized a few days later that my hurtful opinion was based solely on my beliefs, and not on the facts. I waited for a response and the opportunity to apologize, but it never came.
NW: So you’re stuck in purgatory.
That’s right. And no chance for redemption. How about you?
NW: In fact, only yesterday. I was picking up my son from kindergarten. The weather was windy and he was playing outside without a hat, so I pointed that out to the teacher. Later, I felt that I might have sounded rude.
Have you drawn any conclusions from the incident? Was the feeling of shame helpful?
NW: I think it was. Next time I’ll try to be more polite.
And that’s how the feeling of shame can have a positive effect on our life -- pushing us towards moral development and helping us build healthy and meaningful relationships with other people.
One of the foremost Stoic philosophers of the Roman Imperial period -- Musonius Rufus -- argued that shame and wisdom were the two fundamental tools of self-control.
Rufus believed that people should be ashamed of anything keeping them from virtuousness. Therefore, shame can be defined as the feeling that prevents us from defying moral principles. That is why shame can give us an opportunity to self-reflect and, hopefully, become better people.
NW: What do other philosophies say about shame?
Buddhism considers shame to be an extremely powerful and beneficial spiritual energy which can tell us that something is not right and drive us towards self-improvement.
NW: That sounds wonderful, but I have a feeling that things are regarded in a bit more superficial fashion these days. Somewhere along the way we stopped worrying about the rightness of our actions and instead became ashamed over material things. How did that happen?
It’s a result of our society's focus on personal gratification. If we can get more likes on Youtube, we don’t hesitate to take off our clothes and make a video. The fact that we have swapped our initial shame over character flaws or taboos for complexes about unfashionable clothes or cheap cars stems from Protestantism. This new form of Christianity attached a religious dimension to wealth and declared that material prosperity was a gift of God. If you were rich, then you were obviously virtuous. This approach has contributed substantially to the emergence of modern capitalism.
The connection between wealth and self-esteem has consequences. Watching children’s self-confidence being shattered at school because of their parents’ financial situation is truly heartbreaking.
NW: Despite major cultural and societal changes over the years, some of the healthy part of feeling shame has remained within us. People still feel embarrassed about confessing to lying or stealing.
I can’t imagine a society being completely devoid of shame. It's an integral part of every culture, just like norms, traditions or taboos. It’s the inner voice preventing us from breaking certain agreed-upon rules. What worries me today, is that instead of listening to that voice, we’re persistently urged to either ignore it or fight against it.
NW: It also happens to be a common and cruel method of dealing with children. The “shame on you” we repeatedly heard at school still wakes me up at night.
Adults often come to the conclusion that they can control children by embedding the feeling of shame deep within their minds.
When I was a child I had a friend who was very good at drawing. One day after school we went back to her house to do some drawings together. For some reason, her picture turned out worse than mine, even though I was terrible at art. Her mother became really irritated and started humiliating the girl in front of me. It was dreadful. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for parents to treat their offspring as an extension of themselves, and view their child's failures as their own.
NW: Is there any sense in feeling ashamed of others?
If you see your spouse or child as an extension of yourself -- as my colleague’s mum surely did -- you obviously feel embarrassed. Many parents tend to treat their child as a smaller and younger version of themselves. They stubbornly try to impose their own ambitions or interests on the child and if the result is not satisfying, the parents feel ashamed. It’s worth emphasizing that a parent’s self-glorification based on a child’s achievements is as equally unjustified as their embarrassment over a child’s failures. They’re two ends of the same stick -- both are an unhealthy psychological projection onto another person.
NW: Have also you noticed how often victims are made to feel ashamed? Victims of domestic violence cover up their bruises, victims of rape feel ashamed of being attacked, those who are bullied are reluctant to admit it...
Musonius Rufus describes a situation in which one man insults and attacks another. Seemingly, he has emerged as the victor from the conflict, but Rufus reminds us that the one who should be ashamed is the attacker, not the victim.
NW: What also strikes me is the amount of other things beyond our control that cause us shame: our appearance, ancestors, illnesses...
A healthy, positive shame among ancient peoples was optimally directed at moral growth and virtues, not at the size of one’s nose or their social status. According to Marcus Aurelius “There is nothing more shameful than a perfidious friendship.”
NW: Patricia and Ronald Potter-Efron, psychotherapists and authors of Letting Go of Shame: Understanding How Shame Affects Your Life, claim that shame is an emotion powerful enough to lead to a spiritual crisis.
Self-esteem and shame are inextricable. In our society we cling to the idea that human existence revolves around money and fame. A person who fails to comply with these standards inevitably starts to question the meaning of their life.
Philosophy can be an invaluable aid to people at these moments as it helps illuminate the truth of our existence.
The only antidote to a destructive feeling of shame is careful self-reflection. If people tell you that not owning a luxurious car is embarrassing, you should first evaluate their opinion.
Philosophy offers one universal diagnosis to most problematic matters: Conscious Life vs. Automatic Life. You either observe, question certain rules and establish your own hierarchy of values or you thoughtlessly swallow all signals and notions from outside and blindly follow the crowd. If the shape of your body doesn’t measure up to the socially accepted model and you’re not strong or brave enough to challenge this "norm", you’ll end up feeling ashamed of your physique.
Obviously shame can become a dangerous tool of self-imprisonment but, if it is reasonably managed, it can also improve your life.
NW: Is there any way we can nurture a healthier outlook on life?
There are many philosophical exercises and tools that can give a person a better perspective and understanding of themselves:
First is the Stoic contemplation of treating every human as a tiny particle of the universe. It takes the pressure off our shoulders and eliminates the grounds for toxic shame as it eases our feeling of uniqueness. But at the same time we still feel dignified as children of the Creation, surely brought to life for a reason.
The second technique is detaching ourselves from all the thoughts running through our head and instead connecting with the living world and its natural rhythm. In other words, we attempt to silence mental processes and enter a higher level of spiritual sensation.
The third exercise is the development of virtues. Practising forgiveness, leniency and kindness gives us great satisfaction, a feeling of stability, and internal peace. People focused on nurturing their ethical development are less prone to self-pity and low self-esteem issues.
Marcin Fabjański is a philosopher and writer. He founded the Apennine School of Philosophy of Life in Italy (www.selfoff.com)
--Translated from the Polish by Martyna Kardach