Writes Eve Tushnet, who figured out the answer from reading "Middlemarch."
What? You're ashamed never to have read "Middlemarch"? I'm not, because I have read it, not that I remember the part about shame.
I remember one thing about the book: Some lady was hugely supportive of her husband's writing, but then — spoiler alert! — after he dies, she gets a good look at his supposed magnum opus and it's no damned good at all. Did I get that right? I read it decades ago, and though I've seen it listed among the top books that you're supposed to read — at least if you want to be considered a reader of serious literature — I don't think you need to read it. You're off the hook — in my book — for not reading it. So no need to approach this discussion with any shame about that. And I'll just leap to what's so bad about shame that reading "Middlemarch" made Eve Tushnet capable of articulating. Then we can discuss what's so bad about shame. (You can also discuss how "Middlemarch," specifically, elucidates things, or how reading serious literature enables us to fathom complex concepts.)
Tushnet looks at "what I was like in the year or two before I quit drinking":
During that time, when I knew that I had a serious drinking problem but hadn’t yet quit, shame completely corroded my moral sense. It isolated me. I felt like there was nobody I could trust or talk to. I had no hope of change and no sense that there was any way out. I was able to imagine taking actions to hide what was going on, but stopping was completely unimaginable....When people try to shame you, you might "just get angry... and totally reject their judgment... and decide to make [your] way in the world while paying them as little attention as possible."
Shame is closely allied with disgust, and we attach it to things like poverty at least as often as to actual wrongdoing. Few people feel guilty for smelling bad or getting their period in gym class; plenty of people feel ashamed for those things. This makes shame inherently a more suspect tool. It’s also inherently more tied to outside opinion than guilt is. This is part of its usefulness – like I said above, shame forces you to see yourself through other people’s eyes, which can be a powerful corrective – but shame does involve a kind of outsourced or socialized conscience.