So, continuing the discussion on shame… now there’s a fun time, huh?
We have this joke in our family. I’m not sure when it started; pretty sure it was Sarah. We jokingly told her off for something, and she hung her head to hide her grin and said, “You’re right. I did bad and I should feel bad.” This became an oft-repeated in-joke and it is kind of funny. But it shines a light on the problem with guilt and shame—the difference between you did bad and you are bad—and it’s something I’ve been trying to unravel for years, with some minimal success, but not enough. So hang with me while I unpick it, and let me know what you think.
Guilt is feeling bad over something we’ve done; shame is feeling bad over what we are. Guilt you can do something with; it’s based on action, so you can take action to wipe it away. You can apologize, you can do better next time, you can learn, you can grow, and the guilt goes away.
Shame is sticky, it attaches to your legs, giving extra weight and effort to every step, and the best you can do is beat it back so that it’s just on your ankles, maybe, but eventually it climbs back up, covering you until it’s way over your head. You can’t do anything with shame, because it’s not on you, it’s in you. It’s who you are.
I can see the argument for the value of guilt; we need to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes. But a lot of people think shame has a positive role in society, too, and of that, I’m not so convinced. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” we say. “I can’t believe you did that. Do you have no shame?” But recent research shows that shame is all bathwater, no baby. It doesn’t work as a motivator. It inhibits and paralyzes people. Shame might motivate people to change some things in the short run, but since the shame doesn’t wear away through action (the shame remains no matter what you do) eventually the shame consumes any energy the shamed person might have to make changes. If the shame is supposed to motivate you to change, because then the shame would go away, but the shame doesn’t go away, what’s the point of making the changes? It’s a de-motivator in the long run.
Fat shame. Gay shame. Female shame. (Yes, just being a female in this society means you will be shamed simply for having ownership of a vagina, no matter what. You’re either a slut or a prude; pick one.) Some of us can let that shame roll off our backs; we were raised by people who taught us better.
Some of us… not so much.
All these years, I thought it was guilt I was feeling, but the fact was, I was feeling shame. Whenever there was a situation in which anyone could possibly see me as being wrong (which, based on perspective, was pretty much every situation) I would feel this inner torment which I defined as guilt, but I don’t think it was. Guilt is about doing something you wish you hadn’t, and then taking action to rectify it. Shame is what you feel when you fear that it’s not what you did, it’s what you are. That there’s no escape; you actually are a terrible human being. And all it takes is one moment in which you have done something which someone could possibly perceive as the wrong thing.
That’s everything. If I buy sugar cereal for my kids, I could be seen as the best mom in the world (by the kids.) But someone at the check-out line could see me and not realize I never buy them sugar cereal, this is a one-time thing. That person might tsk and judge, and since they can judge me, they confirm my fear that I’m a bad mother, triggering huge shame.
The only way to avoid shame is being perfect on every level. As such, when I’m in shame (as Brené Brown puts it), I am vulnerable in those areas where it’s impossible to be perfect. I’m overweight, so my weight is a huge source of shame for me. I am obviously lazy, stupid, selfish, unhealthy. My mothering is a huge shame trigger for me, because sometimes it’s just impossible to be the mother I want to be. During the divorce, I had a few years of solid crazy and I did my absolute best for the kids, but every now and again we joke about how Sweetness ate nothing but bagel bites and pizza for two years, and it triggers my shame. Money is another trigger; a good person can support herself and her family. So when I was in financial ruin after leaving my husband, that was horrible. Every day, the same tape ran in my head.
It’s true. I’m awful. There’s no escape.
I’m just a bad person.
The other night, I was talking about this with Alastair, and I posed the question: Why is it so important to be a good person? Because that’s really what it comes down to with shame. The shame itself is supposed to work as some kind of emotional antibiotic; it kills the fear that we’re bad people, because if we really were bad people, we wouldn’t feel so bad. Therefore, the shame reminds us that we’re not awful people. It serves a purpose, and that’s why we hold onto it. Without it, we might not be good people, and that would mean…
… what, exactly? That’s where I’m sticking right now. I do care about being a good person, but I’m not sure I’m going about it right. I set impossible standards for myself, standards to which I would hold no other human being on this planet; I fail to meet those standards because they’re impossible; and then I torture myself about it. All just so that I know I’m not a terrible human being.
So… what if I stop placing so much importance on being a good person? What happens then? Do I become a monster? Will I be a worse mother? Will I make less money? Will I get fatter? Since I eat to comfort against the shame, that’s a pretty pertinent question.
That’s where I am. That’s where I’ve stopped. I should report; the shame has been much better in the last few years. Gradually, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t feel shame every minute of the day. Unfortunately, a side effect of the respite from shame is that when one of my triggers hits, it hits hard. I spin almost immediately. When you’re neck-deep in shame all the time, you get used to it. Now, if just a toe dips in, I freak out.
What’s your experience with shame? Have you kicked it? What do you think about shame vs. guilt? Are either helpful emotions? Now that I think about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever actually felt guilt. I’m pretty sure all I’ve ever felt was shame.