One of the great problems in the world is
also one of the most invisible, because – by
its nature – it asks to be hidden and saps
our ability to spot its symptoms. But, to
generalise grossly, few things so undermine
human well-being as the sickness of shame.
The guilty feel bad for something specific
they have done; the shamed feel wretched simply
for being. The affliction lacks borders. As
shamed people, we don’t connect the myriad
ways in which our behaviour and feelings are
driven by a base conviction of our own abhorrence.
We just take it as a given that we are disgusting.
We lack the capacity to imagine that our shame
has a history and therefore, perhaps, a future
that could be curtailed. A first step in untangling
ourselves is to get enough distance to spot
and name the problem. We might make use of
a little questionnaire. Out of 10, rate how
true the following statements feel: – I
don’t deserve to exist – I am defective
– I am unworthy of being known and loved
– I am a mistake – I deserve to be abandoned
– I should not be Anything over an eight
starts to indicate the problem, but if there
were an option, most of us in the shamed camp
would want to award ourselves a hundred or
more. This is the windswept barren land of
shame, where many of us have been living all
our lives, often without enough mental wellbeing
to know this is where we have been relegated.
We should probe at where our shame collects.
Take the outline of a human figure. Image
resultWhat are we ashamed of? – our mind
– facial appearance – physique – genitals
– anus We were not born ashamed. We should
summon up the voices that gave us our legacy
and which we have then internalised and blended
with our own: You’ll never amount to anything
You’re the family idiot You disgust me.
Others may wonder why people around us behaved
this way. The answer is clear enough to the
shamed: because we deserved it. We wouldn’t
be truly shamed people if all it took was
a few simple questions to shake us from our
conviction of our detestable identity. We
were shamed because we were and are defective.
Our caregivers weren’t mean; they were – above
anything else – perceptive, even brilliant.
They could spot things that later, kinder
people cannot. They had the true measure of
us. Shamed children don’t blame their guardians.
We protect them for a weird but logical reason:
so as not to feel entirely alone. We prefer
to think well of our caregivers than to take
on board how badly we have been let down – with
all the convulsive rage and sadness that would
The consequences of
shame are written across our lives. We don’t
allow other people to get too close to us;
they would only be appalled if they knew the
true us. We’re not so good on physical intimacy.
We get scared all the time (bad things happen
to bad people). We don’t like parties (why
would anyone be pleased to see us?). We have
a lot of secrets, for most of what we are
is unacceptable to other eyes. We go in for
addictive behaviour to escape our self-hatred
– then feel even more ashamed of ourselves
for the unholy things we’ve done. What is
the way out of shame? The sane popular answer
is to tell ourselves that we are beautiful
and good. But that won’t easily convince.
There may be a better, more oblique strategy
to bypass the defences of the shamed. We should
stress not that we are wonderful, but that
every human being who has ever walked the
planet is in their own way radically imperfect
and broken when observed from close up. We
may be a bit wrong, but so – blessedly – is
everyone else who is and has ever been. We
can be stupid, perverted and uncouth, but
that is wholly normal. Rather than implicitly
upholding an ideal of goodness by telling
ourselves that we do after all measure up
to it, far better to throw away ideals and
all notions of achievable purity and goodness.
This is where the problem started. Better
to accept that we are, as a group, entirely
crazy and ill-tempered, wicked and odd, but
then to stress just how much this is a reason
for mercy and kindness (rather than censure
and condemnation). Let us stop judging ourselves
and others by unreal standards, that is how
we made ourselves ill; let us laugh and comfort
each other for the absurdity and horror of
existing in human form. The primary sin of
those who made us feel ashamed was not so
much that they spotted our flaws, it’s that
they forgot their own awfulness – and then
had the gall to blame us for our own. We should
give up on fascistic perfectionism in order
to make a generous home for our cracked reality
in our own and in the collective imagination.
That’ll be the start of our way out of the
problem of shame.
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