Healthy vs Unhealthy Shame

Developing self-respect

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, argues that humans are unique in our capacity to feel shame:

And what are we by nature? We are free, honorable, and self-respecting. After all, does any other animal blush or feel shame?

Discourses, 3.7.27

This may be surprising because, on one level, shame is a negative passion.

The Stoics see shame as the fear of disgrace. When we’re ashamed we want to hide what we've done from ourselves and others. The fear of public humiliation keeps many from acting virtuously. Its prevented many from living the life they want to lead.

Neither must we value the clapping of tongues, for the praise which comes from the many is a clapping of tongues

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.16

And yet the judgment of others is an indifferent. We cannot control it. It’s not what ultimately matters.

So, there’s an unhealthy aspect of shame – one that keeps people from living freely and honestly. Life isn't about chasing applause or running from embarrassment. Whether or not we are praised or humiliated by others is external and not up to so. So, we cannot let it determine how we live.

But shame can also be healthy, like when it helps you cultivate self-respect. Epictetus uses this fact to motivate his students all the time. He often accosts his students for showing off their book learning, without embodying Stoicism in their actions:

But if what I prize is just the interpreting itself, haven’t I ended up as a literary critic rather than a philosopher, with the only difference being that I explicate Chrysippus rather than Homer? So when someone asks me to expound some passage of Chrysippus, I blush at my inability to show him that my actions reflect and are consistent with the words I’m reading.

Handbook, 49

Epictetus shows his students that their self-image does not line up with reality. That should motivate them to be better. Reforming and reinforcing our self-image is a part of the project of shaping our character. Our self-image is something that we must reflectively cultivate with our decisions and judgements.

Many are dependent on others' approval. But the self-respecting person is free. They set the standards for their own behavior and are only dependent on their self-image.

When you fail to live up to your standards, some amount of blushing is appropriate. Use that as fuel to act better next time. Let the discomfort of not meeting your standards guide, not guilt you, towards embodying a better self.

🎯 Action

Think of one specific and realistic action to do today to cultivate self-respect.

🔗 Links

🎧️ One of my favorite recent Stoa Conversations with Michael is on this very topic. We did not think talking about shame would be motivating, but it was:

📔 Strictly speaking, I can’t say whether humans are unique in our ability to feel shame. Maybe dogs feel it too, like when they seems guilty and tuck their tail between their legs.

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