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)