You know those moments in your life when things click into place and you feel like you are right where you are supposed to be? Lately I’ve been thinking about two experiences that happened my freshman year of college that I never would have guessed would be seared into my memory, and yet which have profoundly shifted my thinking about the world and myself. And to think this occurred when I was wearing GAP Fit and Flare jeans (I’ve never looked better) and had truly terrible blonde highlights in my hair.
You just never know when your life is going to change.
Both incidents are my introductions to shame from an academic, intellectual perspective, a relationship to shame that allowed a safe distance, ripe for examination and curiosity: the gift of not being of shame, or in shame, but learning about shame, being removed from it, thinking about shame as how it showed up for other people, and perhaps most reassuringly, how universal it is.
Initially in my first year of college, I deluded myself, like any ripe freshman does, that I would be a fundamentally different person than I fundamentally am, and I attended lectures presented by the college that were just like, for funsies. Like, not lectures as part of my courses, and not even what my college called “convocation,” which I think happened on Wednesday afternoons and mostly involved semi-famous people talking about changing the world in very vague terms and inevitably many, many people asking for specific, step-by-step guidance on how to change the world during the Q&A portion, and being reminded by the semi-famous person that changing the world is a vague process. Convocation was a lot of this and also one time, Ann Coulter.
But this other lecture thing that I went to wasn’t during the day – it! was! at! night! (What was I even doing there?) And I remember some professor, who I think was from the Religion department, talking about shame. Being raised Catholic, I was pa-retty familiar with shame as a concept, possibly even an expert, but the simple way in which this professor explained it (and he was no doubt paraphrasing some famous philosopher) was that guilt was feeling bad about something you did, and shame was feeling bad about who you are.
I had just disentangled myself from a situation that had left me buried in shame, and this definition was striking: no wonder I couldn’t stop feeling bad. Shame made me feel bad about myself to my very core.
Anyway, soon I found vodka and discovered that if I was drunk, I didn’t feel bad about myself. I never went back to an evening lecture (Christ! What a practice) again.
The second incident occurred in my Human Development course, where I fell in love with Psychology as a whole (I mean obviously, the crazy ones always do), and developed a lifelong love for Erik Erikson, who sounds like a guy who plays football AND lands the lead in the spring musical on a dare from his friends, but is actually a theorist.
Erikson, a famed developmental psychologist, presented a number of psychosocial theories inspired by Freud that actually age well (same can’t be said of the Oedipus Complex, amirite? You freaks). He suggested that throughout our life, we are asked to complete (incredibly meaningful) tasks that correspond to our developmental stage. These “tasks” then create our reality, and our world, and inform the belief system with which we make sense of the rest of our lives, and our relationships, and our very being. And unlike Freud’s belief, it has nothing to do with wanting to fuck our dads. So it has that going for it, which is nice.
Erikson states that our very first task, as infants, is to learn to trust the world. Are my needs met? When I cry, does someone come to pick me up? When I am hungry, does someone feed me? Can I trust that I will be seen, heard, and responded to in a way that makes me feel safe, contained, and loved? If the answers to our foundational questions are (more or less) yes, we begin life with the fundamental understanding that this world will take care of us, and that we are safe in this world.
On the other hand, if our needs are not met, or are met inconsistently, sporadically, or conditionally – if we are fed, but yelled at for crying, if we are soothed when we cry but left in the crib for hours without stimulation or engagement with a caring adult – we start to mistrust the world. We start to believe that fundamentally, our needs won’t be met. And this creates the template with which we embark on our lives – that the world is cold, uncaring, perhaps violent. We develop an implicit understanding, wordless, nonverbal, a truth that lives in our body, that we can’t trust ourselves and our impulses, and that we can’t trust others to respond. Erikson refers to this us “Trust vs. Mistrust:” if we learn to mistrust the world, our skepticism and fear stays with us until a healing intervention occurs: either we are re-parented through healthy and loving relationships with different people, or we learn to re-parent ourselves. Our mistrust shows up in behaviors – sometimes disruptive (externalized), sometimes avoidant (internalized). But our foundational and fundamental belief that the world can’t or won’ t meet our needs manifests in each and every aspect of our lives.
Makes sense, right? Love that Erikson guy.
The second stage, less well known and referenced but even more prescient, in my opinion, occurs when we are toddlers. Erikson theorizes that our primary task during our toddlers years is “Autonomy Vs. Shame.” We are asked to develop a sense of separate self in the world through our play and exploration; we assert our independence and start to take ownership of our bodies, through potty training, through heightened risk, by demanding that “I do it! I do it!” over and over again at our exasperated caretakers who just don’t want us to spill the water on the floor for the 80th time, OK?!?! We do this at this stage because cognitively, we have become newly aware that we are separate from our caretakers – that we don’t exist as a part of them – and we realize that we have, well, autonomy, over our own bodies. Toddlers are supposed to be defiant and independent and stubborn to assert their individuality – but lets’s be honest, it’s ANNOYING AF For everyone involved, it’s a very trying and frustrating period of development, which is why this stage is called “the terrible twos,” or, now, “threenagers” because everyone parenting toddlers these days swears that 3 is sooooo much worse than 2 (it turns out that they are right).
But what Erikson was so goddong right about is that because this stage is so trying for caregivers, it creates the perfect storm for toddlers to develop a sense of shame, to start to feel bad about who they are. In our very early life, particularly in the infant and toddler years, our whole sense of self is defined and created by our relationships, specifically with our primary caregivers. The ways in which we are responded to (by those we interact with most) writes the story of who we are, of how we come to understand ourselves. If our caregivers are constantly scolding us and telling us “no!” or to stop!, we start to think that our instincts and emotions are wrong, and toddlers, as we sometimes painfully know, are all instinct and emotion. Toddlers don’t have the cognitive ability to rationalize, or to understand that their caregivers might be reacting with the best intentions, or due to a safety concern: if they are constantly met with resistance, they don’t have an abstract analysis of the situation or a sense of nuance: they start to think that they – and their instincts to differentiate, to be who they naturally are – are wrong.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t set limits on your kids (Christ, no, we definitely don’t need anymore wealth defenses) or that you’ve done fucked your kid up forever if you lean towards the strict side. But if you are constantly berating your child for being who they are supposed to be at this stage, then you probably have your own wounds that deserve to be examined, and deserve to be healed.
This is why I almost called this post “Just Go to Therapy Already.”
We shame toddlers – sometimes intentionally, because we want them to stop their behavior (i.e. “what is WRONG with you?”), and sometimes unintentionally, because we want them to stop their behavior – but we shame so many other people in our lives – on an individual and group basis – for being who they are, too.
Shame and addiction are extremely close: best friends, maybe sisters, possibly tortured lovers. Wherever addiction exists, you can guarantee that shame is not far behind, and usually shame has lead the way or at least is underneath it all. I recently heard someone sum it up as: “addiction is a habit of shame, and a shameful habit.” To be clear – this is not to suggest that one should be ashamed of their addiction, but that addiction – and the associated behaviors, erosion of spirit, and loss of control – results in more shame, and more betrayals of self. Shame begets shame, and addiction lights the whole thing on fire.
Brene Brown is a social worker and a researcher on shame – her catalogue of books on shame (and it’s antidote, authenticity) have significantly informed the way that we as a culture talk about shame, whether we individually realize it or not – whenever I use the word “authentic” in a training or teaching a class, invariably someone asks me if I’ve heard of Brene Brown or tells me that I sound like her. NOT TRUE, BITCH. I MADE THIS SHIT UP ON MY OWN.
But in all seriousness, Brene Brown’s research on shame resonates so strongly with so many because it’s almost a universal experience – and I say almost universal because I’ve heard Pema Chodron speak about the concept of shame not being understood or experienced in the same way in some Eastern cultures – and also because, as I understand it, Brene Brown’s research is mostly done with (American) participants, and so we can’t apply her findings to all other cultures.
And let’s be honest, we Amerians have a lot to be ashamed of – both because of how we treat others, or because others have tried to make us feel ashamed of who we are.
I can only speak to my personal experiences of shame, and the broader experience of shame as I have been trained to understand it through research on trauma done mostly in the Western world, by Western researchers. But since getting sober, and talking more and more about shame both in the recovery world and outside of it, I think that it’s safe to say that most of us know exactly what shame feels like – for me, it’s this sense of wrongness in the pit of my stomach, the beast in the belly, a terror and knowledge that there is something wrong with me, that I am defective. Shame is a deep wound, possibly one of our deepest, because its implications get right to the heart and soul of it all: that we are, in fact, bad, that we deserve the pain and suffering that we are experiencing, that we asked for it, that it could be avoidable if we were good, if we were different: if we were good and different.
In the year leading up to getting sober, I was trying to meditate regularly, and I listened to a talk on dharma on some podcast, in which the speaker said something about integrity that petrified me: he said that having integrity meant that you never worried that you were going to caught, being when you have integrity, you are always the same person in every situation. I was suddenly buzzing with terror at the realization that I was constantly worried that I would get caught – that people would start to realize that I was fundamentally bad, that at my core, I was a piece of shit. It wasn’t that I was afraid that I would get caught doing anything in particular, it was that I was afraid I would get caught being me: my deep, pervasive knowing that I was bad at my core seemed to be the truest truth that I knew.
As Erikson suggested, we start to develop a sense of shame when we are toddlers, before we have a robust language or vocabulary to create a narrative of our lives. In the glamorous social work biz, we refer to this as “pre-verbal.” So many of our deepest wounds – the sense that we can’t trust the world, the sense that we ought to be ashamed of ourselves, the way that we attach to other people and do a dance of hurt and abandonment over and over again – are pre-verbal wounds. We didn’t, and don’t have the language or sophisticated cognition for them – we just feel them. They are relics of our pre-historic period: they were born before our verbal or written story of ourselves, and they woven into the emotional fibers of our being, and we don’t always know how to separate how we feel from who we are. Therefore, we think that our shame, or mistrust of the world, are the facts of who we are, and the facts of life. We think that this hovering, unwavering, underlying sense that we are wrong or bad or deserve bad things to happen to us must be true, because it’s been there for as long we can remember, for as long as we have been.
As children, we feel shame for so many things. If we are abused – sexually, physically, verbally, emotionally – and we don’t have a caring adult to help us make sense of the abuse, or to stop the abuse, we start to think that we are doing something to incite the abuse, that we are being abused because we are bad. Often, the people perpetuating the harm are the people who are supposed to take care of us: our parents, or other relatives, a coach, a teacher, a priest. Harm perpetuated by parents is particularly distressing and traumatic because as children, we have to rely on our parents for our basic survival. As young beings, we are loyal and loving and we don’t know a life that is different; we think that our circumstances are normal. When we start to realize that wait, this is not normal, that other people’s parents don’t yell or scream or hit or touch inappropriately, we don’t start hating our parents, because we won’t survive if we do. We start hating ourselves. Self-loathing and shame are not that different from one another, and feed one another, egg each other on to see how low they can make us go.
Many of us develop a sense of shame even without overt abuse in the home. If, when we are children, we aren’t seen for who we are: if our caregivers are too busy, if they are alcoholics, if they struggle with their own mental health issues and don’t seek treatment, if they think we are too loud, too sensitive, too needy, too whiney, too much, if they ask us who the hell do we think we are and leave us to infer that we are wrong and forever misbehaving, if they never apologize, if they never admit they are wrong, if they make us responsible for their feelings, if their expectations are too high, if they are always disappointed, if they always make it about them, if they gaslight us, if they hate women, if they hate gay people, if they hate their own bodies, if they hate each other … and there is never any attempt at repair, never any healing on our caregivers’ part, never any amends made or apologies issued, we can easily start to think that all of our caregivers’ misery is our fault. Kids are self-centered because they lack the cognition to be anything other than that until puberty: kids think that they are responsible for everything that happens to them, and assume that if their parents are miserable, it’s their fault.
Quick pause to say that none of us are perfect parents, and I yell at my toddler more than I would like to (which ideally, for me, would be never, but I’m tragically human). But if we are genuine in our apologies to our kids when we lose our shit, and own our mistakes, we model for them the opposite of shame: we model authenticity, and vulnerability. We tell them that we made a mistake, but we are still whole, that we regret what we did, and that we aren’t perfect, and that is ok not to be perfect and it’s ok to make mistakes. And then we give them the gift of being allowed not to be perfect and being allowed to make mistakes.
A lot of us didn’t get that. And a lot of us didn’t get that because our parents never got that from their parents, and you can’t give what you don’t have.
(Another aside – I am talking a lot from the perspective of being raised by one’s biologic parents, but of course kids who are separated from their biologic parents for any reason can also develop a strong sense of shame as a result of the separation, especially if it happens pre-verbally, because again, they don’t have the language or cognition to make sense of their loss, and often children separated from their biologic parents are not allowed to grieve their loss, being asked to instead focus on building a relationship with their new caregivers).
If we grow up with a sense of shame strongly intact, then as adults, we continue to stockpile our shame, lumping experiences that are simply just bad luck or life just being life into things that are happening to us because we are bad and we deserve it: when our shame is activated, we are stuck again as helpless kiddos, thinking that everything is our fault. If we mess up at work, it’s because we suck at being alive. If we have a bad day, it’s because there’s something broken within us. If a boy doesn’t text us back, it’s because we’re unworthy of love. When shame is running the show, we don’t have the perspective, the compassion, or the ability to be gentle with ourselves, because we haven’t yet figured out how to differentiate a feeling of shame from the spirit, the essence, the soul of who we are.
As you probably know, this can be overwhelming – and depressing – as fuck.
So, we try to mute it or mutate it. We drink, we eat, we make out with randos (I can’t say f*ck because my mom reads this and also because I’m a virgin). We seek external validation to disprove this gnawing sense that we are bad. We become addicted to not feeling our shame – we use substances that disconnect us from ourselves or give the impression of a sense of connection with others, we become perfectionists or workaholics, we never say no, we don’t create boundaries. We give ourselves away or we fill ourselves up or we destroy ourselves all to avoid this terrible, horrible, no-good feeling that we are bad and defective that we assume to be the truth because we never learned a different language of what it could mean, we never learned this feeling was different than who we are. We disconnect from ourselves and beg people to love a version of ourselves that we think is lovable – a version of ourselves that we think we don’t have to be ashamed of: a thin version, a hard worker version, a person who never makes anyone else mad – and we completely lose ourselves in the process.
Of course we get addicted to booze and drugs and social media and food and shopping and relationships and men and women and and and and. Of course we get depressed and anxious. We are totally disconnected from who we are, because we falsely think that the shame we feel is our deepest being.
The truth is, we are good and loving and we came into this world wanting to express that and wanting to be reminded of that. And when we don’t get that, it’s a shock and a trauma and it deserves healing.
And the spoiler to this whole thing (if you go to therapy or embark on a different healing journey) is this: the shame you feel just wants to protect you from getting rejected again, from feeling the heartbreak and grief that little tiny you felt when you were abused or neglected or hurt or misunderstood by the people who were supposed to love you without conditions. Shame is misguided, but has good intentions: shame has just never matured into an adult, and is pleading with you not to be yourself, your glorious, messy, human self, because shame thinks that if you are yourself, you’ll be punished for it, like you were when you were a kid. Shame doesn’t know that we all grew up.
I’ve been thinking about shame within our culture, and wondering if many of the sickest societal ills that we infect and spread to one another are a reflection of our individual, possibly collective, secret shame. So many of our social norms – that is our capitalist, patriarchal, white supremacist, heteronormative, misogynist norms – are about punishing and disallowing and shaming what is different from those who hold power, what the cultural majority characterizes as “other.” People are meant to feel shame because they are not white, because they don’t identify as being a gender binary, because they are not straight, because they are not rich. So much of this is designed to maintain power for those who have it, but on some level, it seems that this power serves to protect people who want power from facing their own horrible shame, from facing their own terrible wounds.
Think of how fiercely and violently our society punishes people who are different from the cultural majority (and by that I mean the people in power), historically, and now. We are told that racism and prejudice exist because those in power think that other groups will take material goods away from them, but I think it’s because those in power think that others’ differences will take away their precariously placed peace of mind and sense of “rightness”. We are taught, implicitly and explicitly through our country’s history and current laws and policies, that to celebrate the uniqueness, perspective, and light of those who differ from the cultural majority is wrong, or perverse, or against family values, or un-American. Perhaps the popularity of the “Make America Great Again” captured the racism and misogyny of American, but perhaps that racism and misogyny is a re-direction of shame for people who were told that they could achieve the American dream if they just worked hard enough and dismally failed. The American myth of individualism is in itself utterly shaming: if you can’t make it here, it’s because you, individually, personally, specifically, didn’t have what it takes.
There’s a part of me that wants to burn all of our systems down and start over. But lately there’s been another part of me that wants to focus on eradicating as much shame in myself as possible as a form of social action, as an act of radical resistance. And maybe that’s the next chapter in our conversation about shame.