Discretionary and Disgrace Shame

I promised a while ago to make some comments about different types of shame.  So here is a first stab at doing so. Authors talk about healthy shame being of two different types – discretionary shame and disgrace shame. Most of these notes are available in my MA Dissertation from 1999. You can find the references at the bottom of today’s post in the bibliography on the Dissertation page of this site.

Discretionary-shame “is a fundamentally positive quality.”[1] It “concerns itself with the protection of the private sphere of human activity so that public scrutiny is precluded,”[2] and “recognises what is the proper attitude, the fitting response.”[3] So, for example, it regulates self-disclosure; ensures the proper covering of nakedness; delineates appropriate boundaries in the care of the terminally ill. It protects development and growth:

“For what is sheltered is not something already finished, but something in the process of becoming – a tender shoot. Like a darkroom, shame protects against the premature exposure to light that would destroy the process. It functions like the protective cover during the period of gestation, until the embryo – whether seed or soul – has come to full term and is ready to emerge.”[4]

“Preoccupation with disgrace-shame has left the issue of discretionary-shame forgotten in the shadows.”[5] Most theological/psychological literature has focused on disgrace-shame.[6] Developing any understanding of shame requires both positive and negative aspects to be acknowledged.

Disgrace-shame “is about exposure of some discrediting fact or quality,”[7] “a painful experience of the disintegration of one’s world. A break occurs in the self’s relationship with itself and/or others. An awkward, uncomfortable space opens up in the world. The self is no longer whole, but divided. It feels less than it wants to be, less than at its best it knows itself to be.”[8] “Feelings of failure and violation of pride associated with shame are inhibiting and repressive and shake people’s confidence in themselves, their abilities, and their worth.”[9]

In most cultures disgrace-shame was/is the antithesis of ‘honour’.[10] It operated/operates as a social sanction controlling behaviour[11] – misdemeanours brought/bring shame on the individual/family/social group.[12] It could operate as an internal sanction through fear of disgrace,[13] or externally as a powerful disciplinary measure.[14] We will need to come back to the dynamics of shame and honour later in this book.

In the West disgrace-shame has been a more individual phenomenon[15] often associated with a narcissistic perspective.[16] A self-involving/self-focused anxiety[17] or an attitude of self-contempt.[18] Nonetheless, whatever its dynamics, disgrace-shame is painful and disorienting.[19] It involves contempt, disgust and a sense of inadequacy/failure.[20] It fears and/or results in desertion/ abandonment, dishonour/’loss of face’,[21] and loss of social position.[22]

Although often associated with guilt, disgrace-shame does not always have a moral content.[23] People experience shame within a society for being different/defective (physically, emotionally, socially, or even spiritually),[24] through defilement by others (particularly in cases of incest and rape),[25] and sometimes over other events outside their control.[26]


[1] Schneider:1977:p21.

[2] Albers:p14.

[3] Schneider:1977:p20.

[4] Ibid., p37.

[5] Albers:p8; see also Thomas J. Scheff; “Shame in Self and Society;” in Symbolic Interaction, Vol. 26. No. 2 (2003), p239-262.

[6] Bechtel:p48-53; Berke:p319f; Capps:1993:p84; Neyrey:p118; Stockitt:p112; Wong:p55f.

[7] Schneider:1977:p36.

[8] Ibid., p22.

[9] Bechtel:p49f.

[10] Albers:p47ff; Bechtel:p52f; Burnett:p112; Chance:p148f; deSilva:p433f; Matthews/Benjamin:p11;

Musk:p156-161; Oylan:p202,217.

[11] Bechtel:p48ff; Piers/Singer:p63ff; G.Taylor:p54.

[12] Burnett:p99,112; Stockitt:p113; Wells:p165f.

[13] Piers/Singer:p64ff; Wurmser:p68.

[14] Bechtel:p57ff; Piers/Singer:p63ff; Stockitt:p112.

[15] Capps:1993:p33ff,74; Wells:p167.

[16] Nathanson:”Shaming…”:1987:p250; cf.Note.8.

[17] Capps:1983:p85; Capps:1993:p74,79; G.Taylor:p67.

[18] Albers:p35ff; Capps:1983:p88; Piers/Singer:p28f; Schneider:1977:p35f.

[19] Lewis:p107; Rayner:p82; Schneider:1977:p22.

[20] Albers:p36ff; Rayner:p82.

[21] Albers:p42ff; Nathanson:”Shaming…”:1987:p250; Neyrey:p118; Wong:p18f.

[22] Bechtel:p50; G.Taylor:p54f.

[23] For an excellent discussion of the moral relevance of shame see, Jennifer C. Manion; “The Moral Relevance of Shame;” in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 39, No. 1 (January 2002), p73-90.

[24] Albers:p50ff; Berke:p319; Nathanson:”A Timetable…”:1987:p27f; Wells:p136ff.

[25] Albers:p63ff; Capps:1993:p95.

[26] Goldingay:1995:p8

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