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?

If you’ve been highly inhibited most of your life, in ways more like the first scenario above than the second, your first impulse when you’re allowed to think for yourself is probably to tear off the whole fucking lot and fling them in all directions, then charge with a full-throated whoop into the fray of whatever it is you’re doing.

And there is a lot to be said for sometimes letting yourself be a rampant id. In fact, I think societies and communities are healthier when they provide places and times for people to let rip for a while.

These bursts of rampant idness are usually contained quite strictly within those places (like nightclubs or festivals) and times (like carnival season or Saturday night). This containment does often seem tied up with social control. I have a lot of opinions about the policing, restriction and domestication of spontaneous fun by The Powers That Be, which would be a massive digression here. But even in a political utopia we couldn’t be completely disinhibited all the time; we’d still need to be able to filter our own behaviour on the basis of consideration for others.

So far, so obvious. The problem is that surprisingly often this issue is discussed as if it was a binary choice between puritanical shame/guilt-based inhibitions and wild, alluring-but-destructive Hell in a Handbasket. The original bit of grit in the oyster that eventually led to this post was a Livejournal entry by indie pop singer-songwriter and pontificator Momus (anyone remember him?), way back in the deep noughties, in which he praised guilt as a prosocial force that helped hold communities together (presumably by keeping people out of said handbaskets).

The problem with that is not just that guilt is deeply unpleasant. It also doesn’t work. If what you want to do is contribute to creating a more cohesive, happier community, guilt is a really shitty tool for that job – so if it’s the main driving force behind your decisions, you’re making yourself miserable for no good reason.

Apart from you weirdos who had happy, supportive childhoods away from any toxic belief systems (how does that even work?), I suspect it’s common for the set of behavioural rules we were given as children to be unfit for purpose in a whole range of ways we don’t notice because they feel normal. Here, for example, are some of my own, which I carried around for years down in my semi-conscious before unearthing them one by one, staring at each one and going ‘jesus fucking christ, this is some bullshit’: Always distrust your instincts; they come from the Devil and will lead you to disaster. If it feels good, you probably shouldn’t have it. Your body is trying to sabotage your life plans and must not be listened to. Other people know better than you about pretty much everything, so keep quiet. (This one conflicts in endlessly entertaining ways with another old life axiom of mine, which isn’t an inhibition but is just as powerful: you are worthwhile if and only if you are being the Clever Kid as loudly and obviously as you can.) And it’s always better to be angry with yourself than someone else.

None of these are any use whatsoever in my day-to-day urban adult life; in fact they’re actively counterproductive (yes, even the anger one, which has tied me up in some seriously baroque knots over the years). Traditional, inherited behaviour rules – which are often bound up with big forces like gender, class and religion – tend to focus on the wrong things at the expense of other areas. If you were a woman in the Middle Ages, ‘virtue’ was almost entirely about keeping your sexuality under iron control, while any other virtuous qualities a human might possess faded into the background. This is just one example of a traditional inhibition which was for the benefit of some other group you weren’t in, rather than yourself or people in general. A distressing number of them amount to ‘shut up and be ashamed of yourself’. They restrain you from doing things you need to be doing, or that there’s no reasonable problem with doing, while often not restraining you enough in areas where you do need it. (See, for instance, religiously conservative politicians banging on about morality while merrily laying waste to developing countries.)

The sort of rules and inhibitions I’d prefer to have, but don’t have enough of, are ones which would help me coexist happily with other humans at close quarters and be considerate towards them (for instance, some kind of mechanism to stop me bumping into people while zoned out to music). But here’s a thing: when they kick in, shame-based inhibitions can actually obstruct your efforts to develop rules and habits like these, and learn to be more sensitive and considerate to others. I’ve seen a bunch of psychology studies which found that people who felt embarrassed and self-conscious picked up fewer social cues from the people they were interacting with, and remembered less about the interaction afterwards, especially the other people’s attempts to connect with them. Shame does not make you a nicer, more socially engaged person. If anything, it does the opposite.


When I wrote the first bit of this, several years ago now, I had just done A Thing which I’d been ranting at my friends about not being able to do for ages (thereby might hang another post). I’ve never regretted the fact that I did it, and it would have been a very bad idea to continue as I was; but there were still bits I might have been able to handle better and more kindly if I hadn’t kept turning into a shame-pretzel at intervals throughout the process. On the whole, I’d like to reconstruct my inhibitions on sounder principles, and then fit a set of handles so they can be lifted off when it’s OK to do so and put back on at will. I don’t know how to do this systematically and deliberately, never mind advise anyone else on doing so, though I’ve stumbled on healthier ways of looking at things on various occasions over the years and some of them have stuck. But looking closely at the ones we’ve got – and considering whether they really are the universal moral truths they claim to be – seems like it might be a good place to start.

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