• author
    • Debra DeAngelo

    • September 30, 2012 in Columnists

    What is this thing called ‘shame’?

    by Debra DeAngelo

    Shame. What is it — that’s what I want to know.

    Shame is all the buzz at the moment, with the Sept. 18 release of “Dancing at the Shame Prom,” a collection of the works from writers who’ve overcome the shame of talking about their shame. I’ve been following this book’s evolution for months on Facebook as co-editors Amy Ferris and Hollye Dexter shared their progress and asked people to share their stories. Oh, how I wanted to shout, “Me too! Me too!”


    I don’t have any familiarity with this “shame.” It’s like that little test at the optometrist’s office, where you trace the green line of dots amongst the orange to detect color blindness. I can’t see the green shame line. Just orange dots.

    But the line’s bright and clear to many others. Women rushed to the Shame Prom, where they could safely talk about their shame, purge it, and start healing. The topic is so hot, “Dancing at the Shame Prom” was featured on the Huffington Post within two days of its release. Clearly, Amy and Hollye touched a collective sad, tender nerve. And I’m so curious about this. Intrigued. What IS this emotion that shackles so many souls?

    All this shame talk prompted me to ponder this concept over and over, and stare as I might, I still can’t see the green line. Back in the days when I was trying to make sense of growing up in an alcoholic household, I discovered lecturer John Bradshaw, who was instrumental in helping me to understand why I was so viciously self-protective and exceedingly untrusting. “Dissociation” or “flat affect”? I’m a master. I can shut down all visible emotion in a snap. You’ll be staring at stone. I’ll offer no clue about my internal state. That was Survival Tool Number One in my childhood. But “shame”?

    Bradshaw described shame as “that feeling when too many eyes are upon you, when you’re too little to have too many eyes upon you.” I get that. But I call that feeling “terror” or “panic” or “anxiety” — three of my closest friends. Not shame. Bradshaw further explained, “Guilt is what you did. Shame is what you are.”

    There’s the sticking point. Shame means that you, the person, are bad. Rotten. Evil. And yes, there are people in the world who are bad, rotten and evil, and usually are the ones who feel the least shame about what they’ve done. What irony.

    Guilt, however, that’s a feeling that comes from something you did. Or didn’t do. I’m quite familiar with guilt, kissing cousin of regret, and often indulge in it while self-flagellating about the many ways I fell short as a parent. We’re not talking “Mommie Dearest” moments, just little things — storybooks unread, family vacations not taken. In darker moments, I’ll beat the crap out of myself for the things I wish I’d done for my kids. But even then, I don’t confuse what I did, or didn’t do, with what I am: a good (albeit perfectionistic) person who fell short.
    This seems to be the prerequisite for experiencing shame: You must accept the “given” — “I am bad” — to solve all the equations of your pain. But, all the solutions ultimately twist back to the same answer — “Because I’m bad” — like an emotional mobius strip. Once you accept your intrinsic badness, you can move on to shame. Me, I don’t accept that given, and never have.

    Despite my tumultuous childhood, I was never told I was bad. I never heard “shame on you” — a phrase that curdles my ears, it’s so offensive to me. How dare someone assume the authority for imposing shame on someone else!

    I was also never exposed to another key shame element: religion. I was raised blissfully religion-free — possibly the only thing my parents got right. My recovering Catholic husband tells me amazing childhood tales of guilt, shame, fear and blame. His stories are as wild and wacky to me as a stroll through Wonderland. Religion is a gateway to shame, which itself is the perfect institutional tool for obedience and loyalty, making sure you’ll keep coming back each week to have that shame massaged. Because it hurts so good. It’s a pretty sick arrangement, if you ask me.

    Although I wasn’t shamed, I never felt loved either. Yes, this made me exceedingly sad. But I compensated by making myself happy, creating my own inner magical world, where I was not bad, oh no. I was Queen of All Things. I became my own protective parent, and stopped looking to my parents for stability or reassurance, let alone love.

    John Bradshaw sums up what I’d always known: “You are the only person who will never leave you, and never forsake you.” True, that. But, if you believe that person is bad, what then? The green line starts to emerge, I guess.

    Want to make it fade? Don’t believe what other people say about you, whether it’s good or bad. Make up your own mind. View other people’s opinions of you as erroneous. Sometimes pleasant, sometimes painful, but essentially erroneous. Take my columns. People attempt to shame me over my columns all the time with all sorts of colorful insults. I interpret this “You’re ugly and your mother dresses you funny” belching as a clumsy way of saying “I disagree with you,” from people too inarticulate to explain why. They call me this, they call me that — they may as well call me a bunny or a teacup. Their belief doesn’t make it true. I don’t have a fluffy tail or a handle, and never will.

    Learn to deflect the hallucinatory opinions of others with this simple word: “Whatever.” I suspect that this word is unfamiliar to people struggling with shame. They don’t say “whatever.” They say “ouch.”

    That’s my theory, anyway. I’ll let you know if I’m right after I read the book.

    (For more information bout “Dancing at the Shame Prom, visit www.theshameprom.com)

      • Hollye Dexter

      • September 30, 2012 at 10:26 am
      • Reply

      I know there are many who feel like you, Debra. I love opening up the conversation. To me, shame is found in the stories we don’t tell. Any time we feel small, less than, not good enough, there is shame at the root of it. Sometimes self-imposed, sometimes inherited, sometimes so deep in the subconscious we don’t even know we’re dancing with it.

      And then some (like you) are solid in who they are and just don’t have it. Lucky!

      • Hollye, I LOVE that you opened the door to communication and healing. The topic is HUGE. Thank you for providing a safe place for talking about shame, even it it’s not my particular issue. Now, if you and Amy want to do a “Dancing at the Mommy Doesn’t Love Me Prom,” I’ll be first in line!

    • I so agree with you Debra. I have never felt shame either. Some people I also feel have no ability to be happy and like the drama of shame so they keep it around in their lives. It gives them identity. It gives them a purpose, a reason to keep on going. It saddens me when I meet people like this as you can see in their spirit that they are beaten down. And like you, I never turned anything done to me into shame. I read the book and some of the stories actually made me wonder why anyone would feel shame for what they wrote about. But, since I don’t live in it I figure that is their reason debt and it gives them something deep inside to rally for and eventually, hopefully, heal from. I rather dwell on the positive and live life to the fullest. Just a different way of traversing through this complicated life. I am sorry for those who live in shame. It must be so terrifying.

    • I think people are wired differently and that some of us are affected by childhood events that even forty years of therapy don’t entirely erase.There was a story I dreaded telling in my memoir. At first I buried it in the fifth chapter. The day I decided that it had to be the first chapter was the day that I finally let go of the residual shame. I had been living an upbeat life, but writing brought me face to face with something that all those years of therapy never entirely got rid of.

      • Matt Najmowicz

      • September 30, 2012 at 5:34 pm
      • Reply

      Once day I will fully realize that me trying to chase another person’s approval is a fool’s errand. I never asked myself if I was ok with what I was doing. Maybe this is my shame? Dunno. However, thank you for writing this and making me look inside a little bit.

      • Kevin Grace

      • October 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm
      • Reply

      Whatever!!! I often refer to myself as a recovering Catholic accountant. I was fortunate however to have parents that were less Catholic than me, other than them having 8 kids, so I was rarely guilted into anything. Oh sure I felt it, but I was relatively safe from it at home. There were issues but in the end, all quite overcomable. Thanks mom and dad for giving me the ability to say “whatever” and to not fall prey to the lowest common denominator of the mainstream. Great article!!!

      • DB

      • October 1, 2012 at 4:54 pm
      • Reply

      Unmm, you do have a fluffy tail. I’ve seen it. Not that it is shame related or anything! :O)

      • Kelvin

      • October 1, 2012 at 8:35 pm
      • Reply

      I love this. I really love the conversation that it has sparked. For me, it’s such an individual thing. There were many stories in the book where I couldn’t relate. I didn’t understand why they felt shame. But that just tells me that we all have different life experiences and react differently to events. You can have two kids raised by an alcoholic parent. One becomes an alcoholic and one becomes a teetotaler. Some people react to divorce by becoming depressed while another embraces their new freedom. Other stories I totally related to and they inspired me.

      One of my best friends, Chumly, would never experience shame and he would never experience guilt. He is difficult for most people to be around because he’s brutally honest. Tactless. He doesn’t secondguess himself and he doesn’t spend much time with introspection. I guess most people would think he’s an asshole. They wouldn’t be that far off the mark but I get him. I understand him. We’re all wired differently.

      • I also love the CONVERSATION! Just that it gets people talking about their pain! I have LOTS of pain… not this particular one…. but I love that Amy and Hollye opened the door to a safe place to talk about it!

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