Rethinking shame

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the juxtaposition of mental health, eudaemonia or flourishing in the classical sense, and the sort of “mental health movement” that’s a heavily marketed form of online content — not to be be confused with actual professional help.

I’ve been noticing that people who go all in on “mental health content” are miserable. The gist of the narrative is that you’re a victim, everyone else is toxic, and that indulgence of some form or another is the key to happiness. Even when they take bits and pieces of respected spiritual traditions, it’s in the most self-indulgent way possible. My mindfulness practice reinforces obsession with my feelings, my needs to the exclusion of anyone else.

In contrast to online mental health content, Buddhist philosophy sees shame as part of each positive mental state. Here’s the definition of shame (hiri) from Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma:

Shame has the characteristic of disgust at bodily and verbal misconduct…[its] proximate cause is respect for self and respect for others.

This is not unlike the Abrahamic traditions, where “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

Whether we’re talking about shame or fear, it’s often understood to be a negative thing, whereas in reality they’re rooted in respect, love, and humility.

To put it more concretely: I won’t drink today because I respect myself. I respect the person who’s going to wake up energetic and feeling good tomorrow morning, and I don’t want to sabotage that. I respect my wife; she shouldn’t have to put up with the annoyance of me drinking. I respect the sacrifices my parents made to bring a healthy child into this world and raise me.

And this is why I think so much “mental health content” fails. Every wisdom tradition paves the way to flourishing with restraint, concern for others, understanding yourself in the greater context of society, and balancing how your actions affects those around you. That’s the exact opposite of self indulgence.