There has been a great deal written about shame and its effects on people, including its contributions to severe psychological distress. At the same time, shame itself is a prosocial emotion. That is, shame is the response of uncomfortable self consciousness in the face of the experience that we have done something that separates us from our important relationships: our community. Being able to feel, in a visceral way, when we are off track is incredibly valuable in an evolutionary sense. We need our communities in order to survive. And that means, shame is an extremely valuable emotion to be able to experience.
In fact, our basic affective systems all function to ensure our survival and success in the environments in which we find ourselves. And, because human beings are animals capable of symbolic thought, these systems are defined uniquely by the cultures and families in which we develop. Our early relationships socialize us into very fundamental understandings of what our feelings mean, what is reasonable as causes of our feelings, and what is the appropriate way to express those feelings. In other words, what might be culturally inappropriate emotional behaviors in one place might be culturally appropriate in another.
So really, our growth toward free and healthy self knowledge and self expression is not so much a matter of avoiding feelings we do not want to have, but more a matter of reflectively recognizing whether our feelings are accurate, helpful, and proportional. We gain by respecting our emotional experience and using it to give us information about ourselves and our world. In a study of two different ethnic communities in Nepal, anthropologists Cole, Tamang and Shrestha showed that in the Tamang culture where compassion and social grace are prized, the caregivers rebuke the angry child but reason with and yield to the ashamed child. But in the same location, Brahman parents, who value performance and respect, reason with and yield to the angry child and ignore the ashamed child. [“Cultural Variations in the Socialization of Young Children’s Anger and Shame; Child Development (2006) vol. 77; no. 5]
The functioning of social groups, like a jigsaw puzzle, is made up of many pieces of information and procedural knowledge which work together to ensure the success of the community. As children develop, caregivers socialize them in ways to behave, what different experiences mean, and how to function well in the social group they inhabit. It is true that there are situations where children are unnecessarily restricted, harmed, or miseducated when parents cannot take care of them well. And those types of early experience lead to unnecessary emotional pain, which is greatly helped by therapeutic intervention. The important point here, however, is that feelings are not bad and feelings are not the problem, it is unskillful understanding of feelings, misattribution of feelings, and dedicated avoidance of unwanted feelings that often misleads us in our management of our emotional lives.