Shame in Spain

by Carolyn E. Kerr

Recognition of shame in individualistic cultures such as Spain may be crucial to developing effective strategies for evangelism.

Both Spanish nationals and other missionaries often warn newcomers that Spaniards are very proud people. More than sixteen years of observation has led me to a very different conclusion. Far from considering themselves to be superior to other people, most Spaniards have a very low opinion of themselves, their culture and their nation. They are infected not with the excess of self-esteem which is generally called pride, but with shame.

Conventional wisdom says that shame is a characteristic of collectivist cultures, but that in individualistic cultures like that of Spain, people are more motivated by guilt. The matter may be more complex than that. Shame that centers on the family or reference group plays a crucial role in collectivist cultures such as those of the Middle East and the Orient.

Shame in Spain is mostly a matter of the individual; however, it is nonetheless shame. The discussion which follows illustrates how Spain is a counterexample to the usual generalization. Most likely there are other counterexamples. This article is intended to provoke reflection on the part of workers in other individualistic countries. Recognition of individual shame in the cultures may be crucial to developing effective strategies for evangelism.

Both shame and guilt are “moral emotions” which people may feel after a negative event. Those who feel guilt are acknowledging that they have done something bad. Individuals who feel shame are convinced that they themselves are bad. To illustrate the difference, consider someone who accidentally drives the wrong way on a one-way street. A person who habitually responds with feelings of guilt would recognize the error and make a U-turn as soon as possible. Someone who habitually responds with shame would feel pain because the error is evidence that he or she is a horrible person and a lousy driver. It is possible to feel both guilt and shame at the same time, but most people tend to react habitually with one or the other.

People are not born with shame. They acquire it by interaction with others—from being shamed by them. We are most affected by shaming we do not deserve (Smedes 1993, 37-44). If significant adults or important peers tell a child he or she is deficient in some way, the child tends to believe it and assess him or herself and his or her actions accordingly. A boy whose mother tells him that he is bad or is not good at studying will believe himself to be bad and give up on his studies. A girl whose classmates tease her by saying that she is ugly and her mother dresses her funny tends to believe these suggestions. Such beliefs can become habits of thought and influence whether one tends to respond in a negative situation with feelings of guilt or of shame.

Often, a person who feels shame will try to lessen the pain by shaming others. This is how shame spreads in a society. One person heavily infected with shame can eventually infect a whole society.

June Price Tangney has found that individuals develop a habit of responding to negative occurrences with either guilt or shame (2002, 10-25). Guilt motivates people to change and to try to repair the damage done. Habitually responding with guilt is positively correlated with good mental health. Shame, on the other hand, motivates people to try to cover up what has happened, and to continue to feel bad about themselves. Habitually feeling shame is directly correlated with emotional problems and interpersonal conflict.

Probably the most basic result of shame is self-centeredness. Everyone is self-centered, of course, and our tendency to go our own way is the essence of sin. However, a person with a heavy load of shame will be constantly thinking about him or herself and constantly on the watch for possible exposure to more shame. This tendency to concentrate on self reduces the capacity for empathy and limits the ability of the person to love others.

A shame-prone person may eventually develop low self-esteem; however, there are other consequences that happen along the way. Since people acquire a habitual attitude of shame from having been shamed often, they may defend themselves against the pain of being shamed by trying to control other people so it will not happen again. If the person finds that directly controlling others is not effective, self-modification is another alternative. Perhaps the easiest way to avoid being shamed is to act like everyone else. This produces a high level of conformity and a low level of social activism. Those who want to avoid being shamed again end up as prisoners of what they think other people will think.

Most people feel ashamed of the fact that they feel shame and try to keep others from finding out. The way in which people choose to cover up their shame may influence their relationships with others, and ultimately interfere with their response to the gospel. People commonly use two basic strategies: hiding weaknesses and exaggerating weaknesses. Although an individual may prefer one strategy over the other, few people have all of the characteristics that describe one strategy or the other. The following descriptions are exaggerations of what might be found in an individual.

1. Hiding weaknesses. One way to cover up shame is to put on a facade of power and perfection. People who do this, most often men, want to give the impression that they are never wrong, that they are in control and that they can do anything. This self-assertion generates conflict with others who use the same tactics. It also has the effect of shaming others; strong reactors put other people down in an attempt to feel better about themselves. When others are shamed, they also may become shame-prone, and in this way shame spreads throughout society. When people who take this attitude are shown to be wrong, or when their omnipotence is called into question, they typically become furious. This anger is out of proportion to the issue under consideration, and others usually perceive it as unreasonable.

2. Exaggerating weaknesses. The other way to cover up shame is the weak, or soft, reaction. Far from hiding their weaknesses, these people exaggerate them. Women tend to exaggerate their own shortcomings in the presence of other women who believe they should reassure the sufferer. The person using this method of responding to shame may use service to others (whether or not the others want the service) as a way of feeling better about him or herself. This may sound more “Christian” than the way of bullying others; however, other people generally sense it as manipulation, and often resent it. Those who practice it generally cannot conceive of a viable relationship which is not based on the service they have rendered.

Shame is a universal human experience, affecting people in all cultures. However, the description of people infected by shame is also in many ways a description of Spanish society. Experiencing a heavy load of shame is a likely reaction for a Spanish individual. It is not that the average person exhibits all of the aspects of a shamed person—or that there is a “national personality.” However, a large number of shamed people interacting with one another does influence the way the society functions.

Whenever I have suggested to an audience of Spaniards that shame is a basic factor in Spanish culture and identity, the reaction is almost always the same: everyone gets very quiet, very serious and very attentive. They stop taking notes and start solemnly nodding their heads in agreement. After the presentation, the basic comment people make is some variation of, “You’re onto something, sister.” Foreigners, whether from North or South America, Europe or Africa, recognize the problem immediately, often adding their own anecdotal evidence.

Spanish writers, notably Miguel de Unamuno and Antonio Machado, have identified envy, based on shame, as the national scourge. Envy is often at the base of interpersonal conflicts in Spain. Shame-based control is an issue, whether in politics, in business, in the neighborhood or in the church. People want to control others and at the same time avoid being controlled. The Spanish government and the Roman Catholic Church have exercised repressive control over the people, and the society is just beginning to heal. Still, old habits die hard. The level of control most evangelical pastors exercise over their flocks is often a source of amazement and consternation for foreign observers. Beyond the mere copying of the customs of the Catholic Church, however, is the control that pastors exercise to maintain their position of respect in their churches. Many of them suffer deeply from shame, and use the strong, controlling method of dealing with their suffering. Exposing that shame is unthinkable. A Spanish pastor who read a draft of my book about shame in Spain said that he would love to have people in his congregation read it and study it, but only if I would remove the chapter on pastors. He did not want his congregation to know that he felt insecure.

Fear inspired by the historic dictatorship accounts for some of the pervasive avoidance of public originality and the great concern for what other people will think. Nevertheless, these characteristics are also a result of shame, especially in younger people who grew up after the mid-1970s when the dictatorship ended. Child-raising practices have changed greatly in the past thirty years, but it is still too soon to know what differences the suddenly increased level of permissiveness will bring in the character of adult Spaniards.

Those who have lived in Spain for some time will readily recognize the correspondence between the symptoms of shame and the characteristics of Spanish society. However, I wanted solid evidence. Measuring shame is difficult. One cannot just ask people if they are ashamed, for it is shameful to have shame, and they will most likely deny it.

Instead, I asked several hundred people to fill out questionnaires indicating some of the symptoms of shame that they might feel, some of which sound good (i.e., “I have very high standards for myself and I cannot forgive myself when I fall short of them.”) I received help on this project from members of seven Spanish churches, my unchurched neighbors and members of a supporting church in the US whose demographic characteristics are very similar to those of the Spanish churches. (It is correct to say “unchurched” even though most of my neighbors are formally Roman Catholic. Only a very small number of them attend Mass. Most reject the Church, but not necessarily Jesus.)

I found a large difference between American and Spanish evangelicals; indeed, Spaniards always had significantly more shame. I expected to find that there was less shame among the evangelicals than among the unchurched. Instead, the reverse was true. An in-depth look at the results showed that the unchurched admitted to characteristics of shame that sounded good but were actually unhealthy. They often denied any feelings that could be interpreted as negative. The evangelicals admitted to both positive-sounding and negative-sounding characteristics. I have begun research with a different set of questions which should resolve this methodological problem.

I also compared evangelicals who had been raised by believing parents with those who had been converted as adults. This eliminated the differences between believers and unbelievers, since both groups in this comparison were churched. Those who had believing parents had significantly less shame than those who were converted as adults. The good news is that the newer believers seem to be raising their children in a healthier way. The bad news is that the churches are not being effective in helping people overcome their shame.

When I mentioned to one Spanish evangelical leader that shame is a major impediment to the spread of the gospel, he answered that my idea was trivial, that it had long been known that “¿qué dirán?” (“What will they say?”) was a problem. Churches know that evangelistic campaigns that depend on believers being open about their faith get shipwrecked by the self-centeredness of shame. These believers do not share their personal testimonies and when this happens the churches turn to more impersonal methods of evangelism, which usually yield few, if any, converts. However, the results of my survey show that more than ninety-five percent of the people in church were converted through the personal testimony of someone they knew. In other words, fear provoked by shame is keeping the people in the churches from using the methods to which they themselves responded.

An important ingredient in reaching shamed people for Christ is showing them love and acceptance—even appreciation. The shame-filled person is basically egocentric, focused on defending and promoting him or herself.

This is true whether the person is a believer or not. Thus, the unbeliever needs to be loved and affirmed, but the believer who is “witnessing” to this person may want to appear superior, whether intellectually, morally or some other way. The person transmits the message that he or she has the truth, and that the unbeliever needs to change and be like him or her. This superior attitude essentially shames the person that he or she is attempting to evangelize. Far from positively influencing the unbeliever, this often drives him or her away. Jesus gave us an example of how to deal with a shamed person in John 4 when he asked the Samaritan woman for a drink. He did not immediately show his superiority to her, but became dependent on her for what she could do for him. Offering to help someone can be essentially a declaration of superiority, since it implies that the receiver is poor and needy. This can be perceived as shaming. Believers who suffer from a heavy load of shame have difficulty being dependent on anyone or building anyone else up. This leads them to opt for the helping strategy, which has often proved ineffective.

For the unbeliever, shame also raises some important barriers to receiving the gospel message. It is very difficult for people who cover up their shame to respond to the gospel. They can never admit to being wrong. Even if they are inwardly convinced of the truth of the good news, it does not sound like good news to them. It is difficult enough to have to admit they were wrong about the truth of the gospel. Add to that the fact that they must repent of their sin. We cannot change the requirements of admission to the kingdom, but we can be patient and loving with those who are struggling with this issue.

People who cover their shame with a soft reaction struggle with relating to God on the basis of unmerited favor. They need to feel they have earned what they receive. They cannot accept grace. Although they may know that salvation is by grace, not by works, they nonetheless operate on the works principle. Very few churches would deny a person from cleaning the toilets, mopping the floors, cooking the church suppers, giving sacrificially or teaching Sunday school. Since these people work so hard, it is assumed that they are doing so as a response of gratitude to the Lord—not as a means of gaining favor with God.

Jesus has already done what is basic to resolving our shame. In the same way that his physical suffering and death provide the solution for our guilt, he endured the cross, despising the shame, so as to free us from our shame. As with guilt, however, experiencing this freedom is not always automatic when someone comes to Christ. People need to know about God’s love and acceptance as they come to him. They also need to experience this love and acceptance from believers. To be able to love others, believers need to be freed from any excessive self-centeredness. Churches must help their people to receive by grace their inheritance as sons and daughters of the king, and to relate to others in a non-egotistical way.

To help free someone from shame, one needs to have dealt with one’s own shame first. Otherwise, instead of ministering healing, the tendency is to increase the level of shame in the other person. It is very important, therefore, for national pastors to help each other to freedom from shame. They may not be comfortable receiving ministry for this from foreigners, but they can help each other. They will then be able to minister freedom to their congregations. As a result, the people can be free to spread the gospel to their family, neighbors and friends.

In a country where less than .5 percent of the population is evangelical, there is probably still a need for foreign missionaries. However, missionaries who come to Spain should be aware of the dynamics of shame and make a conscious effort to overcome their own shame so as not to unwittingly add to the problem. As they interact with Spaniards they must remember that what looks like haughty arrogance may be evidence of deep fears. The missionaries must keep in mind that many Spanish pastors feel shamed by the mere presence of foreign missionaries, because of the implication that they are unable to do the job themselves. This can lead to serious conflicts if the missionaries are unwise in the way they present themselves and what they have come to do. Someone with a heavy load of shame may perceive an offer of help from abroad as an insult. Spain has a very high turnover rate for missionaries. One very important motivation for missionaries giving up and going home has been lack of acceptance by national evangelical leaders. Attitudes of humility and respect toward national leaders will go a long way toward helping missionaries fulfill their calling.

Evidently, collectivist societies are not alone in experiencing shame, although the shame found in an individualistic society is quite different from honor-based shame. It may be that some long-standing assumptions need to be questioned. The above remarks are about Spain, but the discussion may well apply to other countries. Many countries in Western Europe and South America may have similar cultural dynamics. This kind of shame might even play a major role in a country where the honor-based kind of shame is found. If reacting with shame to situations is a likely individual response among a certain people, it could be profitable to investigate the power of shame as a cultural ingredient. Taking shame into account when planning evangelistic strategies may help improve the efficacy of the work.

Smedes, Lewis. 1993. Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don’t Deserve. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

Tangney, June Price and Ronda Dearing. 2002. Shame and Guilt. New York: The Guilford Press.


Carolyn Kerr has been a missionary with the Latin America Mission for thirty-two years, first in Costa Rica and now in Spain. She has a doctorate in clinical psychology from Fuller Graduate School of Psychology.

Copyright © 2007 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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