On good and bad inhibitions, or, the socially inept pretzel of shame

You want to do a thing. Your inhibitions tell you that thing is BAD. You are a terrible person for wanting it. How could you even consider it? There must be something sick and rotten at your core. Look at that person who would be affected if you did it. Look at their sweet, innocent, unsuspecting face. If they even guessed what you were thinking – if they knew the awful truth about you – they would never speak to you again.

The shame is a set of sharp teeth inside you, tearing compulsively at your guts. Your whole self-concept seems threatened because clearly your idea of your own decency is a comforting lie. By now, if they’re close to you, the Person Potentially Affected can probably see that you’re acting weird. ‘What’s wrong?’, they ask innocently. Nothing, nothing, you say. You tense up and withdraw. Person Affected worries, of course, but can’t draw you out. Their worries become a background hum of something out of joint.

Meanwhile you try to forget you ever wanted the thing. Perhaps at some later stage you get leglessly drunk and it all bursts out in an emotional pus-bomb that splatters everywhere, and you do the thing, or even just talk about how much you want to do the thing, but either way feel like you’re betraying the Person Affected who wants you not to do it (you assume; you may not even have asked them). Next morning you wake up coated in a thick black layer of shame, like an oiled bird, and can’t stand yourself for weeks. And so it goes until the next time.

Or how about this?

You want to do a thing. But wait, say your inhibitions. Look at those people who would be affected. How would it affect them? This inner voice is not shouting. It does not have any sharp teeth. It just asks you. So because you are not seized up and turned in on yourself by the sort of shame-spasm that blinds you to what’s going on, you have a much better shot at imagining accurately how they might feel and what might happen if you did it.

You are calm as you imagine this. You care about the people and don’t want them to come to any harm. But you have a better idea of how much harm might actually be involved. (It might turn out to be quite small, or massive, but at least now you know.) You can also see the long-term harm that might come from unexamined, desperate self-denial. You factor in the needs of everyone involved. You are able to acknowledge that you too are a person who is involved. You weigh it all, talk to everybody relevant as openly as you can, and make your decision based on everything you’ve learned, a decision which will be sustainable for you and for them. Maybe you do the thing, maybe you don’t. If doing or not doing it will result in anyone being hurt, you try to mitigate this as best you can.

This is an idealised situation. In practice it’s hard to do. But it’s more or less impossible to do when you’re convulsed with shame and guilt. I’ve come to the conclusion that not only do shame-based inhibitions not make you a better person, they actually make it considerably harder to be decent and kind.

But what could we do instead? How do you exchange them for better, more functional ones? Can this even be done?

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