Shame – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

This article explores the idea of shame and how it can be healthy or unhealthy.  We attempt to show that shame due to Laziness (and other moral failures) is normal, healthy and, in some sense, even good.  Alternatively, shame due to someone else’s misdeed is unhealthy and should be rejected.  A danger exists in which these two senses of shame can be confused.  This mix-up can form a partly intentional, but partly unintentional support system that perpetuates the unhealthy and unhappy lifestyle of Laziness.

Definitions and Examples: Healthy and Unhealthy Shame

Healthy shame occurs when a person commits a moral violation. In this case, the normal, healthy inner feeling is shame. For example, when a person vandalizes someone else’s property, then, to the extent that the vandal still has a functioning conscience, the normal, inner message from their conscience will be: “I am ashamed of myself.”

Alternatively, unhealthy shame sometimes occurs when a person has a family member or friend who commits a crime or other misdeed. In this case, many people feel a sense of shared or “vicarious” shame on behalf of their friend or family member. It is as if the guilt is spread around to others, instead of staying where it belongs, with the person who actually committed the misdeed. This often happens with children, as in the case where a child feels shame over the moral failings of their parents.  Psychologists have known for a long time that this type of shame is unhealthy and debilitating.  So, in this sense of the word “shame”, we have all been rightly reminded to disregard that feeling when it creeps into our minds.

Healthy Shame is a Natural Motivator

So what is the application to the question of Laziness?  It is normal for an individual to be ashamed of themselves for their own moral failures and, specifically, for their own Laziness.  Ideally, when an individual experiences this kind of “healthy” shame, the pain to their conscience will be an aide to motivate them to change their behavior.  In this sense, the pain of shame is actually a good and healthy feeling.

Meaning #1 has Rule #1.  Meaning #2 has Rule #2.

Unfortunately for the sake of clear thinking, “shame”, like so many other words, can have more than one meaning, as we saw in the examples above.   When a word has more than one meaning, there is always a danger of confusing rules that apply to one meaning with rules that apply to another meaning.  So, for the healthy sense of shame, (lets call this: meaning #1), there is a rule that states: “You should be ashamed of yourself for that moral failure!”.  On the other hand, for unhealthy shame (lets call this: meaning #2), there is a rule that says: “You should completely let go of that feeling of shame, since it is not your fault.”

A Dangerous But Tempting Mixup

So, when someone hears an inner voice saying: “You should be ashamed of yourself for being so Lazy!”, then we would not want to allow a “loop-hole” by which they could fool themselves into disregarding that inner voice, (if it is, indeed, a legitimate pang of conscience.)  By being aware that there are two, completely different senses in which the word “shame” can be used, we will be better able to distinguish which “rule” to apply.  In summary, (for shame #1), we should embrace the pain of conscience as a tool to help us to change course.  Alternatively, (for shame #2) we should ignore the false threat of shame due to second-hand guilt.

This analysis of the topic of shame is an example in which Laziness can be seen as a sickness of false beliefs due to mixed-up thinking.   When a person’s legitimate conscience is telling them them that they should be ashamed for their sloth, (in the sense of shame #1), it can be tempting for them to respond to the voice of their own conscience with the wrong rule, (in the sense of shame #2).   It is easy for a person to fall prey to this mental “switch” since it provides a “way out” from taking the blame.  Additionally, for a person with foggy thinking skills, it can be very easy to confuse these two senses of “shame” when it is “convenient” to do so.

Your thoughts?

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5 Responses to Shame – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. firefox says:

    So, what I get out of this is that there are a lot of lazy people who sit around soothing their conscience by saying to themselves “I am a good person – I should never feel ashamed of myself.” And the TV / mass-media co-signs their BS. Basically, people lie to themselves. And this is just the tip of the iceberg – there are really a lot of different ways that people lie to themselves. The worst part of it all is that, when people live off of govt benefits, but they really are healthy enough that they could be providing for themselves, then it ends up spiraling into a whole series of secondary-effects which are even more damaging to society than the original loss (due to the money wasted on their benefits.)

  2. full_time_80 says:

    That is so true, firefox. I should be ashamed. I put myself in a position of living according to other’s handouts because I did not know how to deal with life on life’s terms. Now I am beginning to find a way out of my own spiraling bs. It’s time to grow up. I’ve had many jobs in the past, but I was too lazy to stick with it. I have to push myself like a person who exercises. The point is to get results, not just to keep spinning your wheels.

  3. rc45 says:

    Things are not just black or white – there are various shades between. There are some who are lazy and live off handouts, but there are others who are working very hard and long but still cannot make ends meet finincially. Admal, what do you mean by moral failure ? I would think it would be a voilation of law of the moral law giver (God).

    • admal says:

      Hi RC45 – Thank you for your comments. I agree that things are often not cut and dry when we look at the question of laziness. Yes, some people are definitely lazy and they take advantage of charity systems. On the other hand some folks work very hard, and they are not at all lazy – but they still have trouble paying the bills. I guess the question that each of us has to answer (inside our own heart) is: “Am I doing a reasonable job to try to pull my own weight?” Our PAL policy is that we never accuse anyone of being lazy (although we do assert that laziness does exist as a phenomenon in our society.) We only accept clients who on their own are willing to admit that laziness is a factor in their lives. In this sense, we see that there could be many variations – starting from the case of a person who is completely lazy and “gaming” the system – progressing to the case of a person who is generally a diligent worker, but still considers themselves to be somewhat lazy (perhaps in that they do not participate in continuing education to advance themselves in their careers.) In any case, the client needs to make that determination on their own. No one else can look into another person’s heart to see what is really motivating them.

    • adpal says:

      You also asked what we mean by the concept of “moral failure.” That is a good question. Many books have been written about the concept of ethics, morality and the law. For the purposes of this article (about the topic of shame), we kind of have to leave the definition of “what constitutes a moral failure” up to the individual to decide for him- or her-self. Maybe the best way to look at is is to ask one’s self this question: “Is the voice of my conscience telling me that I am doing something wrong?”

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