I’m fascinated by the explication of human emotions. This excerpt from Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process isolates the clandestine character of shame. Clandestine because shame (real morbid shame) follows from some behavior on our part that conflicts with the values of our intimate community of friends and family. Yet, why do we disguise the feeling of shame, when it’s actually a human response that illuminates our understanding of moral values, rather than an unfeeling abandonment of them?

“[T]he anxiety that we call ‘shame’ is heavily veiled to the sight of others; however strong it may be, it is never directly expressed in noisy gestures. Shame takes on its particular coloration from the fact that the person feeling it has done or is about to do something through which he comes into contradiction with people to whom he is bound in one form or another, and with himself, with the sector of his consciousness by which he controls himself. The conflict expressed in shame-fear is not merely a conflict of the individual with prevalent social opinion; the individual’s behaviour has brought him into conflict with the part of himself that represents social opinion. It is a conflict within his own personality; he himself recognizes himself as inferior. He fears the loss of the love or respect of others, to which he attaches or has attached value. Their attitude has precipitated an attitude within him that he automatically adopts towards himself. This is what makes him so defenceless against gestures of superiority by others which somehow trigger off this automatism within him.”

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