Privacy and Shame

The secret thoughts of a man run over all things, holy, profane, clean, obscene, grave, and light, without shame or blame.

-Thomas Hobbes

Privacy and shame are not unrelated. Shame is kin to ‘privacy’ or, rather, privacy violated. Without the notion of ‘privacy,’ there would be little, if any, shame. Shame is the exposure to others of that which is preferred, and at times demanded, to be kept private. For example, one may not feel an ounce of shame walking around their home naked (though many do, even to the point of needing to wear garments to bed); but, they may almost certainly feel some shame if in public their clothes are taken away. One may feel overly ashamed of themselves if it becomes known to others that they failed an exam for which they were confident in passing. One may feel shame if discovered by others a failed business venture. The subterranean thought patterns that support shame revolve around the central notion of, in some way or ways, one is not good enough, not measuring up. Other emotions too may arise, such as anger or depression, but the fundamental issue in shame is the undesirable behavior (as so deemed by the norms of the day) is known by others.

The Pre-Indo-European root of the word ‘shame’ is ‘skem’ and translates into the modern tongue as ‘to cover.’ Privacy is rooted in the Latin privatus and means to ‘set apart (from that which is public).’ When that which is set apart from the public, covered up from public eyes, is revealed, there can be shame, especially if that which is revealed suggests inferiority, subordination, failure and, generally, not good enough. It’s one thing to feel as though one is not good enough; it’s another to have others see it. Shame happens when we are perceived as not good enough in the eyes of others. The irony here is that everybody is not good enough in a million things, and only good enough in a few areas. The fault is to equate not good enough in something as not good enough as a person. For example, if one behaves as not good enough in writing a speech, that does not automatically equate to not good enough in all areas of one’s life. How does one measure their adequacy? How valid is the system of measurement?

One of the more entrenched notions of adequacy is ‘independence.’ To be seen as ‘dependent’ can illicit thoughts and moods of shame because independence is viewed as a high value, something one must have, to be anything, in this world. And, yet, independence as it is commonly understood is a sham, a shame, a cover up, because it is unattainable in a world predicated on interdependence. Nobody is independent, unless you write that word as ‘in-dependence.’ Just about everything you have is dependent upon the hands of others. The home you live in, the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the food you buy, the job you have, the vacations you experience, all of that, and more, is dependent upon the hands of others. Nobody single-handedly accomplishes anything. Ignoring this reality of wide-spread, comprehensive dependence upon others in favor of the illusion of ‘independence’ is to cover up reality, bury it, and not let it be seen. To be seen as ‘dependent’ may generate thoughts of weakness and inadequacy, inferiority and failure, of not being good enough, all of which, if considered disgraceful by the norms of the day, would yield feelings of Shame. Perhaps a greater shame is the investment in notions of independence, in a world system which is entirely, completely, interdependent. What is often meant by independence is ‘self-reliance’ and ‘self-sufficient.’ Because the ‘self’ is the product of interdependence, to rely on self as sufficient means to rely on interdependence as the means to attain objectives. Clearly, the most ‘self-made’ man in the world relied on his or her sufficiency to interact with hands not his own.

If to be seen as dependent is shameful, disgraceful, ignoble, dishonorable, inferior, then most all personal and professional relationships are fundamentally flawed in their dependence. Doctors are dependent upon patients as much as patients are dependent upon doctors; teachers are dependent upon students  as much as students are dependent upon teachers; leaders are dependent upon followers as much as followers are dependent upon leaders; producers are dependent upon consumers as much as consumers are dependent upon producers. In a perverse manner, producers go to great lengths to ensure a consumer base, through sophisticated marketing and advertising, persuasion and promotion, for without that base, they are out of business. Such dependence can breed all kinds of manipulative tactics and strategies.

Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets

-Paul Tournier

Privacy becomes a vital factor when it comes to ‘secret’ shame. Secret shame are those behaviors which if seen by others would generate significant turmoil, sometimes to the point of suicide. Secret shame fosters the fragmentation of self in such a way that shameful behaviors (as conceived by the norms and standards of the day), are vehemently denounced publicly, while privately, such behaviors are engaged. For example, if a person is vehemently opposed to homosexuality, and they, in private, engage in homosexual relations, they may present at times as a loud public voice against homosexuality; internally, the conflict is banished away to the dungeons of the mind. But, the conflict remains, and may influence the everyday mind, but it is under the rug, concealed, covered up, set apart in a subterranean compartment. Should that hidden, secret, private compartment become visible to the public, the experience of shame is palpable.

Privacy is an arena in which one is much less constrained by social norms and cultural paradigms. It is often held that what one does in private, alone, or with others by consent, is of no concern to anybody else. Privacy is also protection against shame. But, shame itself is a cognitive distortion which places too much emphasis on the perspectives and opinions of others, too much reliance on external standards, codes, regulations, rules and laws, too much dependence on being told what to do, and not to do. The ultimate shame is the revelation by ourselves of our own inadequacy in being true to ourselves. The contamination of one’s authentic, genuine, coherent, congruent, integrated self is ever likely in a shameful world.

Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.

-Ayn Rand

Privacy is a relatively new option and has generated a division between the ‘public self’ and the ‘private self.’ This division is just another manifestation of the dependence of polarities upon each other. The private self is the individual. The public self is the collective. In the same way that good guys and bad guys define each other, the dynamics between the individual and the collective is a vital process of development, for both. Typically, the collective exerts pressures upon the individual to conform and maintain status quo; the individual exerts pressures upon the collective to transform and go beyond status quo. Clearly, progress is predicated on moving beyond the known.

Individuation is a process of separating from unconscious, conditioned, programmed patterns of thinking and living. It is an overarching developmental task throughout the lifespan. Perhaps the most potent example of this task, and the inevitable conflict between the individual and the collective, is ‘sex.’ Understandings about sex are passed down generation after generation for ages such that individuals within the current collective are imposed upon by traditional socio-cultural models of sex. If sex is considered to be sinful, disgraceful, dishonorable, disgusting or in some way ‘wrong,’ it can contribute to shame. For example, if masturbation is considered wrong, and such behavior is exposed, revealed, uncovered, made to be seen by the eyes of others, that could generate feelings of shame. Consensual sexual intercourse between two people in public would be considered shameful and disgraceful. Shame, and privacy, may be one of the characteristics that separates human beings from all other animals for, indeed, no animal is ashamed of public sexual activity.

Shame is not without it’s positive influence. It can reveal aspects of one’s personality the revelation of which can support development of individual integrity. Individual fragmentation occurs when, for example, sex, a natural, organic, biological life function, is understood as sinful such that the engagement in sexual activity is then sinful, in some way wrong or bad. If populations of peoples accept as premise traditional models of sex, as sin or something shameful, validation and verification of that perspective will be expressed. Societies in which pornography, prostitution, rape, molestation, trafficking are visible signs serves as verification of the premise – a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy.’ In other words, if I see myself as bad, I behave badly, to validate the premise that I am bad. A person who sees themselves as bad and behaves badly is at least congruent; a person who sees themselves as good, and behaves badly, is fragmented. Bowel movements, and urination, also natural, organic, biological functions, may too be experienced as disgusting. To shit on the pot in private is generally pleasant; to have those walls removed and to shit in public, is another story. To acknowledge that one behaves in disgraceful disgusting ways, even in private, can bring about shame; even more so when the privacy of those disgraceful disgusting behaviors is removed. Shame can also act as limits on behavior dependent upon one’s own internal system of values, and their congruence. One may entertain the notion of sleeping with one’s spouse’s sibling, and yet not act on that for concern over being ashamed should it become known to others.

Shame may restrain what law does not prohibit.

– Lucius Seneca

Shame can be demoralizing; as a volatile and dynamic aspect of one’s own psyche, it is worth understanding as a way of countering the debilitating effects. Shame is not an intrinsic, inborn, innate characteristic of life. It is a learned psychelogical fabrication, embedded in generational memory, which, if confronted and addressed properly, can be a path away from individual fragmentation and towards individual integration. The difference is that the former is predicated on alienation between the public self and the private self, whereas the latter is an understanding between public self and private self.

Politeness, n: The most acceptable hypocrisy.

-Ambrose Bierce

Useful sites:

Healing Shame

Shame Resilience Theory

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