On shame

A Facebook conversation has inspired me to write about shame.

To avoid repetition, you can insert the phrase ‘to varying degrees of success’ after just about everything I say here!

I reckon we are all tortured by shame, to varying degrees depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in at any given time.

I reckon what’s going on a lot of the time is that we humans are acting out ideas of maturity and adulthood, while subconsciously we are traumatised toddlers. We’re all trying to conform to myriad stereotypes that we believe others expect us to conform to and feel guilty when we don’t, while simultaneously demanding that others conform to ours and feeling aggrieved when they don’t. We spend our lives judging and censoring ourselves in order to ‘fit in’ and be accepted by others.

Some people don’t manage to pull the act off very well and are accused of all sorts of labels deemed socially undesirable: immature, irrational, emotional, pathological. They get told to ‘grow up’ (aka ‘C’mon, dude, toe the line – pretend you’re a grown up. I’m having to do it – why shouldn’t you? My screaming inner toddler doesn’t get any lurve – why should yours?’).

I reckon managing our way through our social landscape is, by and large, management of the hiding of our shame, and that makes us self-conscious and fearful. I reckon A LOT of effort goes into hiding our shame. I reckon a lot of successful relationships are only successful because the dynamics between the people mean they can easily pull off the act and keep the little beasty hidden (the ignored elephant that accompanies the majority of relationships in the Western world).

In childhood, our minds get filled with cultural memes that inform us about what we ought to think, how we ought to feel, who we ought to be and how we ought to act. Its primary method of control is humiliation, the mother of guilt and shame (ie: we allow ourselves to be convinced that we have brought our humiliation upon ourselves as a consequence of our wrong-doing). Almost all people in positions of authority use humiliation to enforce these ideas with the intention of getting us to conform. But it’s not just authority figures: peer pressure heaps humiliation upon us, too. So does the media, the government… the whole shebang. Basically, the whole of society colludes in our education-by-humiliation and we, too, play our own part in its perpetuation by instilling humiliation in our peers and our children.

By conforming to it, we collude in its continuance and condemn our descendents to relive our misery. Reading the writings from the earliest records available to us, it looks as if mankind has been struggling with the issue for millennia, so I don’t hold out much hope for change in my lifetime!

So, our childhood cultural education causes us to feel the agony of humiliation and fills our minds with the agony of shame memes. Then what?


Then I think we become ashamed of our shame. We’re taught to believe we’re supposed to be ‘competent’, but how many of us really feel competent in any area of our lives? How many of us feel we’re secretly winging it the whole time? How many of us believe we’re THE ONLY ONES winging it? There’s a lot of talk about being ‘authentic’, but how many us believe we’ll get into trouble (BIG trouble) by being honest? The thing is, we probably WILL get into trouble.

So, I think part of the reason for the silent agreement to keep schtum is because we fear the consequences. And quite rightly too: the punishments can be severe – loss of love, loss of respect, loss of a job. But, to add insult to injury, we’re not supposed to be fearful. So, we become ashamed of our fear of our shame.

Blimey! No wonder it’s all such a mess.

We don’t want to be tagged with the socially undesirable labels mentioned above, but you know what I reckon? I reckon the best label for a person filled with shame, considering they’ve had their minds shaped within this pathological society is: NORMAL. I reckon our pathologies are normal responses to the pathological psychic environment we are forced to adapt to (and I’m including in this the most extreme transgressors). And if anyone tells us we’re being immature, irrational, emotional, pathological or a.n.other ‘insult’, we can retort with: ‘No shit, Sherlock… I’m a human.’

Also, most people don’t want to be reminded of their own shame by being exposed to others’. That’s why it’s so popular for transgressors to be persecuted and for people to be fond of saying ‘You should be ashamed of yourself’ (the implication being that the person isn’t feeling sufficiently ashamed and is therefore being insufficiently tortured!).

In the Facebook post, my friend implied that she felt guilty for being depressed because nothing is ‘wrong’ in her life [NB: she says not, that that is my perception of what she said, but I’ll keep this anyway]. I think yet another of the problems is that we’re taught not to be an imposition on others and saying we feel unwell implies an expectation that others will respond to us in a particular way, that they will look after us, and the expectation is that there ought be a jolly good reason for making such a monumental request. I don’t think very many people are particularly good at being generous with their love because under the mask of their ‘adult’ persona they are traumatised toddlers in desperate need of love and nurturing themselves.

I also think a problem is that people feel guilty about being unhappy because it’s an implicit accusation against their parents or partner. This represents yet another unhelpful meme: the ones that says you’re supposed to be grateful to your parents, even when they’ve been bastards. In our society there is a popular idea that, just like customers are always right, parents are always right, and any kid who disagrees is the one who’s out of order because their parents are paragons of virtue. After all, they did their ‘best’, right? Of course, many parents may feel differently inside (and many will be in denial about the psychological and emotional pain they’ve inflicted on their children), but they have a public persona to protect, the crumbling of which might lead to censure for their perceived inadequacies. And parents deserve a little slack, because the practicalities of living in this society force them to be cruel to their children. I think it’s unavoidable. And there’s a whole new shovelful of shame to add to the compost heap.

I’m not a big fan of this sentimentalisation of the parent/child relationship, of this belief that parental love is unconditional. No, it isn’t. It’s conditional upon children conforming to behavioural expectations so that a) they’ll be as little of a nuisance to parents’ lives as possible, and b) parents can cultivate their public profile of a ‘good’ parent, ie, by owning well-behaved children. Yes ‘owning’, because it is a slave/master arrangement that is imposed upon us by a society that expects parents to ‘control’ their children. In other words, parents are conferred the task of taming the wild beast they have spawned, but most are ill-equipped for this task because they themselves are only pretending to be tamed, even though they kid themselves that they have transcendended their animal natures. I think most parents are horrified by their children’s raw wildness. I think most parents are horrified of the raw wildness their children inspire in themselves.

Then we carry this slave/master ideology of relationships into adulthood, except that in adulthood we are simultaneously slave and master – after all, it’s meant to be an equal partnership, right? We also carry into our adult relationships the acquired attitude that we must ‘perform’ certain behavioural expectations in order to earn/deserve our partner’s love. We are not incorrect to anticipate rejection as a consequence of our failure  to perform, because the reality is indeed most likely that we will be deemed unworthy of love, and unsuitable as a partner. Whether we like it or not, people DO judge our worth as a human based on our behaviour, and treat us according to how they have judged us. But we do the same to others; even if we don’t want to, we somehow can’t help it.

Love, in our society, is by no means unconditional.

Yee gods, I’m bored with it all. But I reckon I’m in the minority. I think we’d all be better off if we admitted to our lunacy, but nearly everyone is in denial about it, so I might as well be wishing on a sunbeam.

I reckon childhood, in our society, is brutal and traumatising (not at all like the pink fluffy-cloudness it’s portrayed as). Many children are fortunate and have parents, or other adults, to whom they can turn for comfort. Many are not so fortunate.

I reckon it’s perfectly understandable – normal, even – to feel aggrieved.

Is there an answer? I think an answer may lie in not allowing ourselves to be intimidated by our own shame. This means standing up to our acquired memes. It means telling them that we will not allow them to control our thoughts, our feelings, our sense of who we are and our behaviour. But first, I reckon we need to believe that the problem is not our shame, but the attitudes of our society that have filled our minds with a truckload (or rather, a convoy of  trucks, tied together and dragged behind our sorry one-horse butts) of shameful thoughts.

I’m a fan of Brene Brown’s TED talk, ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, which is about shame and our fear of our own shame.

I think my friend is very brave to publicly admit to feelings that are, by and large, unpopular. Most of us are too ashamed to show our shame to the world, but I reckon the only ones who will be free of it are the ones with the courage to expose it and who are prepared to sod the consequences.


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