Shame is an underrated emotion whose impact has been diluted in the last 40 years, all done with the best of intentions, and with cascading unintended consequences. What is shame? A dictionary definition would include:
A painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace.
In Psychoanalytic terms, the template for shame is the feeling that is produced when the infant or young child desires and needs the approval and love of their parent and fails in their attempt to elicit the desired response. If the failure is pervasive and repetitive, the young child develops an organizing fantasy of being not only unloved, but unlovable. In the clinical setting, this is often a major impediment to progress in therapy; patients who feel they are "bad", that is, unlovable, will feel undeserving of anything good. This makes it difficult for them to make changes that are in their own best interest. Their unconscious question becomes: how can I love myself and treat myself well if I am unlovable? Furthermore, since they are deeply convinced they are unlovable, they are also convinced that anyone who would know them well would inevitably reject them. As a result they are extremely sensitive to any negative emotional response from significant others.
People with parents who are not "good enough" (D. W. Winnicott) or are abusive or neglectful, tend to have more than the usual narcissistic vulnerability to slights because the chronic and severe failures by their caretakers of empathic understanding of what the child needs has caused disruptive levels of shame. Shame leads, defensively, to rage, which is disorganizing for the young mind and leads to severe personality distortions (but that is a subject for further exploration at another time.)
Shame is the affective concomitant of narcissistic injury. For more on Narcissism, Dr. Sanity has started a series of explications of Narcissism and Society, and I have written a series of articles on Narcissism, Malignant Narcissism, and Paranoia: Part I, II, III, IV.
In the more usual situation, children feel shame when they have behaved in a way which elicits disapproval from their parents. This is especially related to loss of control over themselves and their bodily functions. For example, a child in the midst of toilet training will be ashamed of himself when he has a urine or bowel accident. He will feel diminished in the eyes of his disappointed mother and father. Since shame is such an unpleasant feeling, it serves to powerfully motivate the child to gain better control over his instinctual impulses. All of us have felt shame at one time or another and it is manageable, though intensely distasteful, and exerts a strong civilizing influence on our behavior.
I have written about religion as one of the pillars of society. The laws and customs of a community are a second pillar. Law and community mores are essentially an external buttress for the functioning of society; that is, they are generated outside of the individual's mind and impinge upon it. Religion has some attributes which are external as well, but insofar as the individual has a personal relationship with his Deity, there is an internal dimension (usually internalized as part of the conscience or super-ego.) Shame is a third pillar of civilization. It is the pillar which is most dependent on the internal structure of the personality.
My premise is that if any of these pillars are weakened, the structure of civilization that is built upon it is weakened. My greatest concern is that all three pillars have been and continue to be, under attack. I think this is the core of what many refer to as values, and will continue this line of inquiry in the next few days.