Shame is so much more pervasive than I’d ever realized. It’s everywhere.
When we think of shame, we think first of behaviours others have done that they “should” be ashamed of. Choices they’ve made, actions they’ve taken, that at the time were obviously “bad” (for some definition of “bad”).
It’s not always the case that they were obviously bad at the time, but certainly in hindsight it’s clear, and from that hindsight, we see shame.
Unfortunately, shame also applies when individuals make honest mistakes.
They did the best in the moment. Only in hindsight does it appear like a poor decision.
The result is shame for the decision made even though it was the best decision — perhaps the only decision possible — in the moment. “I should have known better” is the common refrain. You didn’t. You made the best decision possible with what you had to work with at the time.
People often conflate shame with embarrassment.
We’re feel shame for what we did not know that caused us to behave in embarrassing ways. “I should have known…”
We’re ashamed of what others said about us, even though it’s completely out of our control.
We’re ashamed for not meeting some external criteria we never signed up for, and probably never really completely understood in the moment.
Shame often comes not from mistakes, but from how we internalize the values and expectations of others. In the worst case, we’re ashamed of some aspect of what we are, even though that judgement comes from others. In reality, we have nothing to be ashamed of.
The key to dealing with shame is to acknowledge where came from, but then be honest and accepting of who you are, what you knew, the decisions you made, and any external criteria by which you were judged. To the extent you can, learn from it and let it go.
That can be an incredibly difficult process.
Perhaps, even, the work of a lifetime.
2 thoughts on “On Shame”
You say: The key to dealing with shame is to acknowledge where came from, but then be honest and accepting of who you are, what you knew, the decisions you made, and any external criteria by which you were judged. To the extent you can, learn from it and let it go. That can be an incredibly difficult process.
It is not difficult for thinking people, who have learned to accept the world and themselves as they are. You live a reasonable life in a consistent world. Of course, some facts, like our biological heritage, are not matched well to our contemporary societies, to new conditions of life, as E.O. Wilson wrote, we have willingly-nillingly jumped in.
Thank you, Leo.
Acknowledging and speaking about shame is crucial to self-development and self-actualization.
You write that “In the worst case, we’re ashamed of some aspect of what we are, even though that judgement comes from others. In reality, we have nothing to be ashamed of.”
This, from my experience, is possibly much more pervasive and damaging. When we speak about shame in this context we speak (need to speak) about Stigma: Societal stigma, and the self-stigma that we adopt due to the societal stigma (internalized stigma). I write from experience of the stigma of stuttering. Key to living is recognition that “the problem is not the problem”. Stuttering, and many other neurological, physical and mental differences (differences, not disorders) is accompanied by stigma due to ignorance of the topic at hand. Knowledge is freeing in these cases, as is Community. Find your community. Reject the stigma. Identify your own values instead of being subject to “the values and expectations of others”. And find the “power in vulnerability”, as taught by Dr. Brene Brown.
Thank you, Leo.
Comments are closed.