Let’s start here.
Something is said, something happens. Your head and neck slump, your eyes lower or turn away, your upper body goes limp, your face (and sometimes neck and upper chest) become red, and all communication with the other person is lost for a moment. Cognitive shock.
You are experiencing shame-humiliation. Nobody can think clearly in that moment of shame. You might feel as if your head is being severed from your body. The room shrinks. You are alone and rejected, frozen, incapable, smashed to pieces inside.
This is how the body experiences mortification, the hanging head, the blush, the wanting to be swallowed up where you stand, to disappear from sight and cease to exist.
What has happened? You have been rejected. You are told you have failed, You are accused of theft. You are found out. You are told you smell bad.You have scars, you have amputations, you are no longer whole. Your skin is the wrong colour. You are too poor to have nice clothes, you look cheap or shabby or old. You are told that everyone thinks you are stupid. You are told that you are unloved or unlovable. You are made to feel you are not sexually attractive. You are told you are sick or ugly or pathetic. You are told you are dirty, worthless, useless. You are beaten or sexually abused and treated like dirt. You don’t matter. You might as well be invisible.
What happens next?
You want to forget the shame. You want to undo what happened. You decide you will succeed in another area so as to erase that shame of failure. You will become famous and nobody will ever shame you again. You will prove that other person wrong. You will win him or her back. You will make sure he or she suffers as you have suffered. You are filled with shame but also with shame-rage or shame-fury. You hate the person who caused you shame, who made you feel so ashamed of just being you. You hate yourself for being shamed, for being shameful, for being shame-filled. You feel hopeless and defeated and you call this depression.
Let’s talk about escape. How do we make the shame go away? This of course is where alcohol, the fabulous dissolving lubricant, comes in. The smoke-and-mirrors magic of drugs. You are someone with disavowed shame, and that shame is not felt until you are told you are an addict or an alcoholic. Which compounds the shame. You want to forget, and sobriety means remembering all the hard, angry, shameful stuff.
Other ways to make the shame go away, other escape mechanisms. Unending competitiveness with others, showing you are better than others, you are unique, you are special, you come first. The constant search for excitement, extreme adventure,dangerous distractions. Promiscuity,. If you are a man you may take refuge in machismo, the pumped-up exaggeration of being a real man and physically dominating other men, demanding submission from the woman in your life, exerting control over your children. The small shamed boy is nowhere to be seen. There is sex addiction and the mindless pursuit of pleasure. There is over-spending, so you can make yourself feel luxurious and pretty on the outside, to mask what it feels like on the inside. What it feels like? Who is it? It is the shamed and disowned you, me, the self.
Let’s talk about attack, making others feel the shame instead of us. We attack others and shame them as we were shamed. We mock our own faults in others. We label them as we were labelled. We bully those we see as weak, we humiliate others sexually, we hit and batter those who cannot defend themselves against us. We dismiss those who don’t agree with us. We tease or torment animals, we act out in sadistic ways, We have sex with people we despise and let them feel our contempt. We laugh at people who are mentally ill, we mock the disabled. We threaten others with firearms or verbal threats, we feel a need to see them cower and cringe. So long as we are not arrested or confronted, this works for us. We are able to feel that the shame is out there, not in here.
And what was once acute shame (that cringe-making agonising moment of shock and anguish) is now chronic shame, the stain that won’t come out, the tinge of habitual self-loathing. It is what we do to escape or suppress shame (the avoidance, the withdrawal, the attacking) that creates ongoing shame. Our compensatory behaviours and compulsion to humiliate or criticise others make us ashamed of ourselves. We cannot escape the cycle of shamed and shaming behaviour.
Shame can be unlearned. I found this out when I was able to find a safe place in which to talk about shame in therapy, in a boundaried and caring environment. In recovery meetings in a nearby city, I know of one long-sober woman who recommends that men and women who have been sober a couple of years go for assertiveness training classes in order to learn affective ways to recognise, name and challenge patronising behaviour or humiliating put-downs. Many of us didn’t acquire useful social skills in the drinking years or in families where domestic violence was the norm. There’s a place for owning past behaviours that harmed or offended others. There’s also a place for being able to see the shaming tactics of others, the prejudice or insults, for what they were, that they had nothing to do with us. For telling the secrets around incest, speaking out against racism, denouncing homophobic prejudice, not blaming the poor for their poverty
Shame-humiliation isn’t the only dynamic (I don’t want this to sound like a single-issue narrative, as if locating and overcoming shame was the answer to everything) and there are many other complexes or tensions (that hollow rage of the narcissist where grandiosity is the defence against inner emptiness). Yet shame, the patterning and echoing of shame at many levels and in many contexts, is something that can stay with us all our lives and it thrives on secrecy and displacement. Shame out in the daylight is just another bogeyman.
And it is a cultural practice, this too. The parent makes a small child ashamed of playing with herself in the bath, slaps her hands and tells her that the place between her legs is dirty or forbidden. What was innocent and natural becomes forbidden, unnatural, secretive. The urge is still there, the pleasure is still there. But so is shame, the conviction of indecency, that I am a bad little person with a dirty body that doesn’t really belong to me. The shame compounded by the image of a God who spies on children to see what they do when nobody is watching. How do you honour a parent who has no concept of honour, who is intent on shaming, who is ashamed?
And there are different cultural approaches. this shaming is not something hard-wired into human behaviours or physiology. In Zulu tribal society, sexual play and exploration is encouraged in children. All too often in Western society we are split from our bodies and emotions and sexuality in early childhood, even before we can speak. The intrusive prurience of the curious parent. The lack of boundaries in the family that stops an adolescent from being able to claim privacy. The excessive need of the shamed parent to derive gratification and unfailing love from the child. What the son or daughter feels when they read blogs written about them without their consent, without space to voice their own truths or arguments. The voyeurism on Facebook (Stalkerbook) with so many contrived and retouched images, snapshots, close-ups, so many comparisons around vanity or ugliness or not-pretty-enough shaming, so much bullying from strangers who sit next to you in class or who don’t tell you they are predatory adults. Moral vacuity in every area of our waking lives.
There aren’t any easy answers. We talk sometimes in recovery circles about experiencing ‘ego deflation at depth’, a useful analytic concept in a certain context, but all too often, there is no stable ego, there is only the false self, the facade hiding the shamed and deficient not-quite-self. The person who never became. What we encounter in ourselves and others is the depression and rage of the shamed and broken person. Too fat, too much in debt, too disgusting, too mentally ill, too bipolar, too eating disordered, too dishonest, too hopeless a case. How to touch someone who believes he is untouchable? How do we embrace in ourselves what we hate and fear in others?
And behind all the posturing and vanity there is only this, a small child covering her face in the darkness and wishing she was dead.