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Psychology: shame

The driving force behind most of our behaviour is survival. However, much of our survival depends upon our ability to work together. We are social animals; we do things together. We have rules of behaviour that controls the way we behave towards one another.

Some of these rules are learnt, but we do seem to have a natural tendency to be sociable. This makes us the most progressive and successful of all the animals. We control the world and shape it to our needs.

We seem to have an emotion that we feel when we break those social rules, even accidentally. It’s one of shame. We can feel ashamed of all kinds of things. It all relates to our behaviour. We can feel ashamed our our homes, because it’s not clean or tidy enough.

Feelings of shame are quite strong and can give us nightmares. People dream of being improperly dressed or even naked. They dream of forgetting an item of clothing and finding themselves in a social or work situation  without their shoes or some socially important item of dress. There is a behavioural code and there is a dress code.

The social circle can vary the code. What is acceptable in one social circle may be totally unacceptable and shameful in another social circle. This leads to racial and class divisions. Very basic emotions like anger and violence are considered antisocial in many social circles, but perfectly acceptable in others. There are cultural divides within society.

There are criminal social circles where law breaking and rule breaking is seen as an act of bravery and is socially acceptable within that social circle. In some social circles, many aspects of behaviour that the general population frowns upon, are acceptable. There is no shame in violence, drunkenness or other normally socially unacceptable behaviour. It is even applauded.

There is often a desire to break the rules and to have rules that are the antithesis of the norm. Some people see themselves as superior in some way, stronger or more adventurous. Their behaviour often contradicts what they are really feeling and is just bravado in the face of discrimination by society in general.

It is this discrimination against anyone who behaves differently; who breaks the social rules, that drives the emotion that we call shame. It is an emotion that we don’t like to feel and so a reaction to it of bravado and a pretence of not caring for the social rules is common.

This dismissal of the social rules is seen across the class structure of society and across cultural divides. It is seen in the antisocial behaviour of the ‘working classes’ and the drunken behaviour of the elitist members of the upper classes. Alcohol is often the excuse for breaking all the social rules that restrain us and make us the social animals we are.

Most of these social rules have made us the success that we are as a species and we ignore them at our peril. They are rules of social behaviour and subject to change. We challenge the world we live in, because we progress through adventurous exploits. It seems reasonable that we should challenge our social conventions just to see which are needed and which can be improved. We are becoming more tolerant in our behaviour towards one another. This makes us more civilised, but provokes the sense of shame a lot less.

Should we a always be more tolerant or should we point the finger and provoke a sense of shame? What do you think? Please use the comments box to air your views. You can also follow me on Twitter.

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