Sounding Human: The Grace in Shame

Shame. Such an intimate word. A reflection of our soul. A whisper of regret. A powerful tool for maintaining social norms and ensuring conformity within groups. Shame can impact our self-esteem and self-image, influencing behavior and decision-making. In my latest podcast episode of Sounding Human, we explore the complexity of shame and how it relates to our collective humanity. So I want to use this blog post to dig a little deeper into the subject, because it plays such a powerful role in our relationships with each other – and with ourselves.

As we move forward, a key question I want you to continue asking yourself is: what is shame? In truth, there is not just one shame definition, but several. And with each definition, the deeper you explore it, the underlying shame meaning becomes more complex and complicated.

Also, thinking beyond the question “What is shame,” I want to explore the impact it has on our society. What role do corporations, cultures, the media and individual family dynamics play in the promotion of or lack of shame? Shame is often seen as a negative emotion, but I believe we can find grace in the darkness. By embracing and understanding our own shame, we create a powerful thread of compassion, transforming our shared human experience into a tapestry of growth, resilience and love.

Shame meaning and impact throughout history

Shame has been used across various societies to enforce social norms and maintain order. The ancient Greeks considered shame a significant virtue that restrained people from committing dishonorable acts, while feudal Japan’s samurai class followed a strict honor code called bushido. In Native American cultures, public shaming rituals were used to punish individuals who broke community laws or customs. Indigenous cultures worldwide also link shame to communal values and the need to maintain harmony within the community.

Shame is often used as a moral compass in religion. Christianity sees original sin as a form of inherited shame that requires moral and virtuous behavior for redemption. Islam emphasizes “Haya,” a sense of shame or modesty, as an important characteristic of a believer. Hinduism associates shame with the concept of “karma” and the belief in reincarnation, stating that actions in this life determine future lives. Buddhism emphasizes mindfulness and self-awareness, helping individuals recognize and overcome feelings of shame.

But what about today? Our society? Our children? Our media and the content we consume? How do we balance shame and freedom of expression? What about family dynamics and traditional principles?

Before we can answer those questions, we need to step back a moment. To understand the balance between shame’s negative and positive connotations, it helps to look at some of the varying shame definitions I mentioned above.

Shame definition: the basics

If you look up the definition of shame in any dictionary, you’ll find a few different entries. The most notable difference between the two primary shame definitions is that one is an internal emotion and the other is an outward act levied against others.

Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines it:

  • shame (noun): the painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonouring, ridiculous, or indecorous in one’s own conduct or circumstances (or in those of others whose honour or disgrace one regards as one’s own), or of being in a situation which offends one’s sense of modesty or decency.
  • shame (verb): To make ashamed, fill with shame, cause to feel shame.

See the difference? The first shame definition (noun) refers to an emotion that is felt, while the other (verb) refers to the act of controlling how others feel.

The two versions often play a reciprocal role in society. But one does not always have to accompany the other – and that’s a fundamental difference. A person can feel shame without being overtly shamed by another. You can feel shame in your actions – and learn from it, and evolve, and grow as a human being – without someone shaming you into the emotion.

Another complexity is the second half of the first definition, which mentions how the emotion can arise “in those of others whose honour or disgrace one regards as one’s own.” In other words, you can feel shame on behalf of others – much like a parent might feel ashamed for the actions of their child.

This brings me to my next point: what shame means to me and how it has impacted my personal perspectives and growth over the different stages of my life.

What is shame to me?

In my adolescence, my mother was the strongest proponent of being wary of shameful acts. She was my guiding light in having respect for myself and others and incorporating principles of compassion and kindness. I often found myself unwilling to commit a shameful act just out of sheer fear of having to explain it to my mom. I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes that have resulted in shame. A few things I’ve done still have residual effects, but as long as I was willing to allow shame to transform me, I became a better human and added value to society as a whole. I also remember what it was like to be shamed. Boys would shame me for my feminine traits, while girls would make fun of me for being fat. Yet, it was that very shame that was a catalyst in helping me change my attitude toward food, exercise and overall health in general as an adult. Pushing me to become a better version of myself.

However, as an adult, I’ve observed that social media, politics, culture, music and movies—as opposed to traditional family principles and values—have greatly increased their influence on what is shameful and what is not. Today, shameful acts of dishonesty and corruption, as well as prejudice and discrimination, continue to afflict our societies. Political ideologies and cultural norms often dictate what is considered socially acceptable or shameful, leading individuals to conform out of fear of being shamed for expressing their true beliefs or identities. With the rise of cancel culture on social media, a single misstep or offensive comment can quickly spread, resulting in immense public shame and potentially lasting damage to one’s reputation and career.

What about corporations? Some promote unattainable beauty standards that subconsciously promote feelings of shame and inadequacy in order to profit from them. While others make an effort to spread body acceptance and diversity, hoping to give people more power and lessen shame. In the end, it is our duty as parents and guardians to teach our kids about shame while highlighting the value of moral integrity, respect, and empathy.

Shame vs. guilt: what’s the difference?

The terms shame and guilt are often used interchangeably, but there are important differences between the two.

Guilt is the emotion we experience after an action, behavior or belief that is outside our values. To feel guilt, each of us needs to already have a moral compass – an understanding of right and wrong. We are guilty of doing wrong, and we feel awful about it. That’s the emotion of guilt.

Shame goes deeper than that. More than a reaction to a single act, shame hits us at the core. It defines our character. When we experience shame, we feel awful about who we are as a person.

Both emotions can lead us to positive behavior changes, but in slightly different ways. Guilt can be a warning sign that we’ve done wrong, helping us to guide us back to our moral compass. Shame can reorient the entire compass. It can make us question ourselves, our beliefs and our place in the world.

The negative component of shame—being outwardly shamed by others (the people around us, the media, etc.) can keep us stuck in the secrecy of it all, and the self-doubt. But when we actively look inward and identify how our actions affect others, shame can be a guiding light for making a positive impact.

So, how do we actually find grace in shame?

We become aware of and build our own personal relationship with shame. We do this through the acts we witness and commit.

Shame allows us to put up the mirror. It’s a powerful force that, if reflected on, can help us make better decisions. When we feel shameful, we can exercise self-compassion and compassion for others, thus giving us a healthier relationship with shame.

By taking the lessons from various cultures, political views and religions that still place value on the principles of shame, I believe each individual can empower themselves, and we can encourage our children to embrace shame as a way to seek harmony and balance, ultimately finding our grace in the chaos of life.

Go deeper: explore more in my podcast Sounding Human

If you enjoyed this post, I invite you to check other episodes of my podcast, Sounding Human: The Art of Finding Your Voice. Sounding Human is a podcast that celebrates the human voice. We explore the dynamics of voice acting, philosophy, poetry and spoken word, as well as insightful interviews with acclaimed speakers, artists and communicators.

Listen online, or find Sounding Human in your favorite podcast app.

Subscribe to our YouTube channel for more tips from professional voice over artist, poet and philosopher Kabir Singh.

Find Kabir’s Voice on YouTube & Social

If you enjoyed this spoken word poem and are looking for more samples of Kabir’s Voice, please subscribe to his YouTube channel and follow him on social media. You can also listen to his Poetic Philosophy Podcast for more inspiring content.