What you are is suspect. What you feel is embarrassing.
June 20, 2016 7:43 PM   Subscribe

You won’t think that they’re either tough or weak, capable or pathetic, winners or losers. That’s the binary thinking of the shamed. People who live without shame understand nuance. They understand the courage it takes to admit that you’re fragile.

I thought this was a great essay. I was lucky enough to realize I literally did not have the energy anymore to engage in the intense self-shame stuff I was carrying around and boiling myself alive in. I had to just stop, because I couldn't take it anymore. And ever since then, just like in the article, when I can convince myself to do so again, it really does feel great. I realized I could just stop thinking those things and I did. Sometimes they come back and then I just stop again. I know this is not so easy for everyone so yknow I feel lucky whenever I think about it. Just today I was walking down a city street past all these stylish pretty ladies and I was just like "I am also walking down this street and I'm being me and I'm allowed to do this, she has to look at me too, and I'm very comfortable." It was nice.
posted by bleep at 8:00 PM on June 20, 2016 [17 favorites]

Shame for me has really been tied in with social anixety and perfectionism. I very rarely post anywhere online, out of fear of saying the wrong thing. It's this perpetual sense of being wrong, wrong, wrong about every little thing I say or do. It's exhausting. I'll have what are called shame spikes when I recall something I did that was somehow... wrong. I didn't do it perfectly so, fuck it, I'll do nothing. I have the awareness that the wrongness is itself wrong, but there's little helping it when it hits. It's painful, and leads to me self isolating into a very unfulfilled life. I'm still just a kid, so I have hope that I'll overcome this. It's this backspacing over what I write, trying to find just the right words.
posted by Valued Customer at 8:31 PM on June 20, 2016 [42 favorites]

[A few comments deleted, let's start over and address the actual essay rather than just kneejerking about the word "shame".]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 8:31 PM on June 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

I love everything she writes, pretty much.

What gets me out of body shame was realizing that I was thinking of life as a beauty pageant that I had no choice but to compete in. I had to care what randos on the street thought of me, because I was a contestant and if I didn't try to keep up I would lose the pageant. The pageant that every woman is entered into pretty much the moment she is born. That's why they put you in dresses and stick a bow to your bald head when you still look like a flabby slug and poop yourself; you are in a fucking beauty pageant. And every asshole in the world is a judge you have to win over. Until the day you fucking die, and at your funeral they'll talk about the hotness of your corpse.

Well fuck that. I didn't agree to be in this fucking pageant. Nobody asked me if I wanted to care what they thought about my body, in general or in particular. They can fuck right the fuck off.

I say this little spiel to myself on the regular. It's very energizing.

Fuck the beauty pageant, fuck it forever.
posted by emjaybee at 9:33 PM on June 20, 2016 [36 favorites]

I have regretted every single time I've been honest and open with someone. Hell, I regret it whenever the mask slips even a tiny bit, because at best I get back some variation on "your pain is causing me distress". At worst I get back pity. Which makes the turning point of the essay: "You start by noticing it. You look at it. You mention it to your friends." kind of a non-starter. I can't make myself feel better by inflicting my damage on other people, I can't overcome shame by being pitied.
posted by Grimgrin at 9:39 PM on June 20, 2016 [10 favorites]

Shame isn’t just a bad cognitive habit of the psyche — your bad brain telling you that you’re failing or fucking up or falling behind. Shame is an onboard navigational system, one that’s intent on keeping you small and apologetic indefinitely.

I hate spraying out mind-blather comments that are basically just 'this', but yup, pretty much. This. It's hard to develop a critical vocabulary for how you feel when shame has always been coded as a transitory emotion you experience in relation to discrete incidents. It's a big validation-wrapped-in-taffeta deal when someone broadens that template and makes sense of the sickly flush of fear that you're always screwing up in this horrible all-encompassing way. Valued Customer's comment does it way better justice than I do, but, my god, can I relate to the feeling of shame driving you to be constantly apologetic and inhibited.
posted by Collaterly Sisters at 11:13 PM on June 20, 2016 [10 favorites]

Interesting essay. I've been beanplating shame a bit lately; as a parent I actively encourage shame in certain situations. As in "you should be ashamed that you said those hurtful things to that kid, that's not what they needed to hear and that's not who you should aspire to be". And then I fret about whether the situation could have been better handled with some kind of positive reinforcement. And then I fret again about whether I'm cuddling the kids by using too much positive feedback. And I have daily pangs of shame myself for not handling this or that better.

But I've gathered that parenting, shame and self-doubt pretty much go hand in hand. (Luckily with daily highs as well, but it sure is a roller coaster)
posted by Harald74 at 11:28 PM on June 20, 2016 [4 favorites]

This essay is really great and a reminder that I need Man Repeller in my regular rotation of internet reading. Especially if they publish more of Heather Havrilesky's writing.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 11:48 PM on June 20, 2016

Guilt -- I made a mistake
Shame -- I am a mistake

Guilt -- I acted like a piece of shit
Shame -- I am a piece of shit

Guilt -- I did something loathsome
Shame -- I am loathsome


I heard or read that somewhere years ago, and I've carried it with me, using it to try to make sense of the word "shame." It might not be precise but it's the closest I've been able to come clear on it.


When I was a kid, my father, when he got lost in his rage, he'd pull me right to his face and scream "How can you be so stupid? Why? Why? Whatever possessed you to do such a thing? Shame on you! Shame on you!"

It wasn't until years later, and drinking and drugging til it like to beat me to death, then thousands of dollars spent over long years in various psychotherapists offices, it wasn't until then that I came to understand that he really was dumping shame on me. His own shame.

A child is a clean slate, unable to protect themselves from parental lunacy, the perfect dumping ground to get rid of all of the hurts burning inside of the parent.

Except that it doesn't work. The shame does in fact get dumped onto the child; that works quite well, very effectively. But it doesn't free the parent, at all, and in fact just adds more to the weight; they're now carrying more shame.


Along with the word shame, my father also taught me the meaning of the word "humility" and in fact he gave perfect demonstration of it. After the yelling, the ear-twisting, the shaking, the screaming again and again to "Shut up! You shut up that crying or I'll give you something to cry about!!" finally he'd let loose, shove me toward my bedroom. I'd sit on my bed, crying.

Might be ten minutes, twenty -- who knows? Then -- the slightest knock on the door, so light that it was almost unable to be heard, though I knew it was coming. I was faced away from the door, it would open, my father would step into the room quietly, completely heart-broken, and he'd stand by me, by the bed.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I was wrong."

There was no choice, I had to look at him -- it is one of the most human situations that there could ever be -- so I'd turn, and look at him, straight on.


His shoulders were down, his hands out-stretched, dangling loosely, uselessly, on the end of his arms. Our eyes were identical, his just a tiny shade more blue than my own but really, the same eyes, looking at one another, a father and a son.

His face, his posture, his eyes, the defeat -- that's what I've come to understand as "humility."


Philip Larkin -- This Be The Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

posted by dancestoblue at 3:55 AM on June 21, 2016 [24 favorites]

Growing up in a chaotic environment with dysfunctional adults, it starts to make sense for a young child to live with shame. On a bad day I've still got shame, perfectionism, social anxiety -- and part of the root of all that is the old idea that if mom and dad are the crazy sick ones, then I am totally helpless and totally screwed... but if I'm the crazy sick one, maybe there's a way out. I just have to be perfect at every turn, and maybe that'll trick people into treating me sanely and lovingly.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 4:51 AM on June 21, 2016 [11 favorites]

Wow, this article nails how a deep sense of shame can be encoded in a child. Damn.

I think I'd reverse the steps of her suggested fix though:

People who live without shame understand nuance. They understand the courage it takes to admit that you’re fragile. Those are the people you want to know. And that’s how you want to be: Compassionate, open, accepting, free.

I'd say: Be open and compassionate, then dump anyone who tells you that you're doing it wrong.
posted by travertina at 5:05 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Why is it always the "natural" and the "real" that is apparently good?

Here’s how it works: You grow up, and everything natural and real that comes out of you is greeted the same way: “Stop that.”

Why do these articles never distinguish between "feeling" feelings and "acting on" feelings"?

Shame springs from the belief that people who feel their feelings are weak and pathetic.

Why do they gloss over the fact that there are all these other menacing, violent, "dark" impulses that we also feel. Feelings that are just as "natural" and "real": like Anger, disgust, hatred, desire for power, domination, distinction.

Guilt and Shame are two of the "technologies" societies have developed to manage feelings of individuals and to create a more stable, managed environment. What if you can't have society without shame? What about morality? These hard questions are completely ignored by this sort of article.
posted by mary8nne at 5:33 AM on June 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

The author makes no distinction between "shame" as a kind of technique, a tool, and the "wielding of the tool", the use or misuse of the tool. I think you can agree that some parents do use instill in their children an excessive sense of shame, just like people who only own a hammer might use it for everything. It doesn't mean that hammers are bad.
posted by mary8nne at 5:40 AM on June 21, 2016

[One deleted. If you find yourself making a comment that's attempting to shame the author, and don't recognize the inherent irony, please just give this thread a pass.]
posted by taz (staff) at 6:06 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

So how do you address all of your shame, and get rid of it? You start by noticing it. . .

Once you’re honest with yourself about how much shame you feel, and how much you built your social life around that shame, you can start chipping away at it.

I didn't see anything in the piece that discussed how you would go about "chipping away at it,"

Apparently, awareness is the first step--which you achieve by being more cognizant of the trait or habit that's a problem for you.

Then step two is to get rid it. OK, but how do you do that?

There's considerable detail about what your life will be like when you do it: you'll feel lighter, you're more compassionate, you understand nuance, you'll care deeply about the world and the people in it. But the path from awareness of shame to the glories of shame-free living appears to be missing from the article.
posted by layceepee at 6:44 AM on June 21, 2016

Shame springs from the belief that people who feel their feelings are weak and pathetic. Shame is also the sensation that everything you do is wrong, no matter what. Shame is the sense that you’ve never understood anything, and you never will. Shame is the result of hearing the same message for years: Everyone else knows better than you what you should be. What you are is suspect. What you feel is embarrassing.

I am grateful just to see the devil named.
posted by skrozidile at 6:48 AM on June 21, 2016 [8 favorites]

I just finished reading Rising Strong by Brené Brown and this talk of shame and how to combat it factors heavily into her work. I almost thought she had written this! I am not fond of pop psychology, which is why I found myself pleased to actually read a book about resilience, shame, self-awareness that actually had an author who spent the time and did the research, instead of spouting off those Lululemon-like platitudes you usually see paired with a picture of a beach or something.

I like this essay too.
posted by Kitteh at 6:54 AM on June 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

What if you can't have society without shame? What about morality? These hard questions are completely ignored by this sort of article.

It's a short article so we have to read between the lines. The opening paragraphs frame the discussion as being about feelings of shame specifically related to superficial things that are quite apart from more significant moral issues. The part about how this inappropriate shame is instilled by parenting, it seems, should be read in that context: I think she is critiquing over-parenting that focuses on the surface features of a child's looks and behavior. The difference between "you are a bad person" and "you committed a hurtful action" is also rather important, but I take it that she is referring instead to "you look/sound/are embarrassing."
posted by TreeRooster at 7:14 AM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Great article, thanks for posting it. But I wish it wasn't on a site where the first two menu picks are Fashion and Beauty.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 7:33 AM on June 21, 2016

Grimgrin - I tend to agree. I think very selective and occasional unburdening can be helpful. I don't buy this idea that "everyone responds well to vulnerability because it's authentic". Opening up to the wrong people is definitely a mistake, ime; "oversharing" with the wrong person isn't positively regarded. Even your closest friends don't know what to do with that kind of thing, always, and agree, it isn't fair to ask them to hold it.

(Also there's the thing of, if someone is then moved to offer advice after being exposed to your shame-filled vulnerability - which they're likely to be, people like to help things by fixing them - they're often disappointed (and a little judgy) if you don't act on it forthwith. There's definitely a cap on the number of exposures people feel good about hearing before they decide you should probably get over it. Ongoing (or thorough) fragility isn't seen as courageous, imo...)

The bit about coolness, and winning and losing - I wonder if the flavour of shame the author's talking about might not be particular to people working in culture industries, and other fields in which reputation (and your last best work, and your various affiliations) matter greatly.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:42 AM on June 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

I need to book an hour to read this article and cry.
posted by Annika Cicada at 8:16 AM on June 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

(and that whole site is refreshingly badass, I did not know it existed, thanks for posting!!!)
posted by Annika Cicada at 8:23 AM on June 21, 2016

Hmm, thinking more - I think a person who is, and is seen as, largely secure, accomplished, etc. - i.e. has visibly met some minimum number of basic social standards in most of the domains people judge others by - can afford to be publicly vulnerable in a certain way. Showing a little softness through a fairly substantial armour is one thing - this may be appealing to others, in that it's humanizing.

But I think people who are actually (and more completely) vulnerable and insecure (economically, etc.) have less to gain by losing face. People in that situation often act tough because they feel it's necessary to get by, and it may be.

(For getting past shame... I think acknowledging it is good, and [somehow] no longer giving a shit is really good. I don't know how that happens, practically speaking, other than tiring of it.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:51 AM on June 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

As someone who realized that her life was ruled by shame and perfectionism and anxiety and moved past it (through therapy, and constant reminders to herself that one should never be ashamed of who one fundamentally IS), this article struck a deep chord. It also reminded me how much traveling can bring back the constant fear of saying the wrong thing, and the joys of making connections. Which highlighted for me how much of this stuff is just trying to fit in, be accepted, and that by accepting our flawed selves we can make a huge step in the right direction.

Because once we accept our flawed selves, we get better at accepting the flawed people all around us for who they are, too. And then connections can happen and we can truly begin to feel like maybe we Do belong.
posted by ldthomps at 2:05 PM on June 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

This was great.

She says that shame is the sensation that everything you do is wrong, but at least for me it's really the uncertainty that anything you do is right. It's the sense that you may be wrong, but you don't even trust yourself to know the difference. The only way to know is to test it out (write a comment online, for example), and if it falls flat, so do you.

My mental health diagnosis was recently "upgraded" to something more severe. I read this essay and wondered if it's talking about one of those universals that everyone can relate to on some level ("let go of your burdens"), and if that means I'm just blowing my own problems out of proportion. Diagnosis is all contextual, isn't it (see: hysteria)? That's what I mean about uncertainty: I don't even know what to make of something like this.

Anyway, this seems to be the thread for admitting that you hate writing comments, and I've certainly written too many comments like this on this site.
posted by teponaztli at 6:26 PM on June 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

I really appreciated this framing, teponaztli; it's the neat before pic in the before/after 'Shame: the Collaterly Sisters Image Gallery' series: ' ...it's really the uncertainty that anything you do is right. It's the sense that you may be wrong, but you don't even trust yourself to know the difference.'

It's hard not to hear the shame klaxons crescendo when something you tested out falls flat. One of the more successful ways I've found of getting past that sensation was advice I read in a comment here actually. I wish I could find that comment again -- I don't seem to have favourited it unfortunately -- but to paraphrase what was said: learn to relish, not just negatively visualise but savour, screwing up. It takes a lot of the sting out of the deflation you experience otherwise, without being so rewarding as to prevent you from learning or giving a challenge another go. Like all advice, it's easier said than done, but I've found it's really helped me. I'm grateful to the person who wrote it.
posted by Collaterly Sisters at 7:02 PM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Also, my being gay had a lot of shame tied in with it too. Bad experiences in high school, being called a faggot, having long hair, spending as much time as possible in the library.
posted by Valued Customer at 12:45 AM on June 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

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