The Thinker

Circles of shame

It’s been a long while since I wrote about shame. I come back to it after so many years because of a book I have been reading, which I alluded to a month or two back. In that book the author provides a fascinating, if somewhat dense insight into white privilege. The root of white privilege comes down simply to shame and how we cope with shame.

Shame is basically toxic guilt. Shame is the result of our inability to acknowledge the dichotomy between who we actually are and who we project ourselves to be. When we cannot acknowledge our failings to ourselves so that we are causing ourselves to suffer dysfunctionally, shame becomes toxic. Shame cannot be seen but is very real. Moreover, shame is extremely powerful. Shame even made the news recently when a 12-year-old girl was cyber-bullied to the point where she took her own life. Twelve-year-old children of course are not equipped to deal well with threats by their peers about their worthlessness. Her peers projected an image of what a child her age should be like and Rebecca Sedwick was judged as incapable of living up to it. She was a projection of their insecurities. Moreover, she could not handle the dichotomy, so she took her peers flawed advice, who basically told her to kill herself, and leapt to her death from a concrete plant.

From the book I am reading, I am learning that shame is an outcome of child development. A certain amount of shame may actually be unavoidable and probably is necessary. To survive, an infant is completely dependent on his or her parents. The infant senses this, and thus does everything possible to live up to their expectations. This of course pleases the parent. In real life most parents have no one that see them as role models, so it is flattering that their children do by instinct and gives them a feeling of self worth. This serves an evolutionary purpose, at least for a while. It keeps the infant alive and gives the parent incentive to take care of them. The child though is not the parent. Over time it senses that who it is is not the same as its parents. The dichotomy at some point is either expressed as rebellion or is buried deep within where it can grow cancerous.

Good parents will accept these differences and find ways to discipline their child that do not involve hurting them physically, mentally or spiritually. Good parents though are human beings, and are the product of being imperfectly raised too. Raising a shame-free child is probably impossible. Even if it were possible, most of us live such shame-based lives that such a person would probably be outcasts among us.

The root of shame though is really the feelings associated with our inability to be perfect, however we choose to define the word. We all measure ourselves against some gold standard, usually a parent. In my case, I measure myself against my thankfully still alive and active 86-year-old father. He set a particularly high standard since he has always been highly moral, highly religious and patient, basically a grown up Boy Scout. To the extent I cannot meet his standard, I feel ashamed because I feel that if he could do it, I should be able to do so as well. And yet my father too is a projection. There is no way I can say with certainty who he is on the inside and what inner demons he may be dealing with. I assume he is the man he projects, but that is almost certainly a false assumption.

Arguably it is much more mentally healthy to project the person you actually are rather than a false image. The person I actually am would probably be a lot less likeable than the one I project. This blog is a good example of my projection. For the most part it projects the person I aspire to be. Occasionally a less inspirational side of me creeps through, as witnessed by occasional vitriolic attacks on Republicans and lampooning of posters on Craigslist’s casual encounters sections. Arguably, my blog would be more faithful to the real me if I had more posts like the latter, and fewer posts like this one.

One thing is clear from the research: shame is toxic by definition. We all carry around certain amounts of shame, some more than others. If you have to look for a meta-explanation of why our world is so messed up then shame will do it. Since we know innately that we are internally inconsistent, but few of us can state their inconsistencies publicly, we tend to project this anger at people we don’t like. In the case of Rebecca Sedwick’s Colorado peers, they projected their feelings that maybe they were not on quite the same level as their peers onto Rebecca. She is dead and now those who bullied her are dealing with their own feelings of shame. They will likely feel shame because their actions are now exposed to public view. They would probably do better in the long run to acknowledge their failings publicly, because if shame can be acknowledged publicly, it can go away. But it’s more likely (particularly since they are children) that it will be hushed up and come out to clinical psychologists if it is expressed at all, and not to their peers. As they move into adulthood and have children of their own, it’s likely they will project some of this shame on their children, who will have to instinctively try to navigate around it in order to survive. They will probably carry their shame forward too although they may not be able to articulate the shame simply because they cannot name it.

If shame will not go away, it’s not clear how society can minimize it. Certainly good parenting should help. Parents can also let their children know that they too are imperfect and it is not only okay to be imperfect, but imperfection is also a product of being a human being. Perfection is an ideal, and no ideal is ever completely achievable, which in some ways suggests it is folly to try. My sense though is that income inequality promotes rather than defeats shame. Republicans in particular want poor people to feel ashamed of being poor. This in turn promotes a feeling of self-righteousness, because they are (generally) not poor, and thereby must be doing something right. This attitude promotes more shame. Tragically, people seem to live up or down to how they believe society judges them. It might also help if we as a society could stop insisting on measuring worth based on impossibly high standards, such as how much money you make or how well you model the perfect politician/actress/basketball player.

There is a powerful antidote to shame: compassion. If we could all learn to be more compassionate, we would also spread the value that it’s okay not to be perfect, that we all stumble and fail from time to time, but even when this happens it doesn’t mean that we have less inherent dignity and worth. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to be compassionate. It is easier to be compassionate with people in our peer group, but much harder with those that are not. For example, I find it hard to be compassionate toward Republicans. Most of us find it excruciatingly hard to be personally compassionate toward the very poor and homeless. To the extent though that we can say regularly and to all kinds of people “you are my brother” and “I feel some of your suffering and I am so sorry,” I believe we can make significant strides toward building that world and ending the multi-generational poison of shame.


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