Shame: as the world knows it
Shame is like dust. It will settle anywhere. It gathers in layers and goes unnoticed until the particles dance in a shaft of light, or the wipe of a cloth reveals it. There is always more. But shame is the messenger, not the villain. It brings into awareness what is not alright. It twins itself to negative emotions: shame and rage, or shame and jealousy, or shame and self-loathing, guilt, fear, dread. But shame is also a source of safety, a survival resource. It is a neurobiological regulator. In dangerous situations, by enabling submission, it limits the damage and protects us from further hurt.
Survival of the group has always been our evolutionary strategy. Members have to conform to the rules and safety procedures, to ensure the survival of the group as a whole. Shame is the tool that enables this. It tells us what is acceptable and what the group will shun. I watched a happy 4-year-old innocently throwing stones. His aunt said, ‘Don’t throw stones, darling.’ His shoulders slumped, his head cast down to the ground, his bright smile darkened. Shamed! She hugged him and explained why we don’t throw stones, and back up lifted his head. It’s what happens a million times a day. With a hug and an explanation, we learn not to throw stones. With no hug and no explanation, we learn that we are bad, that somehow we are wrong.
As a 5-year-old sitting at school on the floor, I yawned. The teacher spoke kindly: ‘Put your hand up when you yawn, Margaret.’ But I remember that shame feeling even now, the eyes all fixed on me, my wrongdoing in the group. I always put my hand over my mouth when I yawn now, even all these years later. Every child has to learn not to touch the fire, not to stand behind a nervous horse, not to jump in deep water, how to share, how to handle money. This is procedural learning, the development of habits, the adherence to the rules of the group and the noticing of the social cues that signal them. Shame is how the body learns and remembers.
When shame is too much
But when shaming is overdone, the child is left feeling, ‘I’m bad. I’m no good. I’m a failure. I don’t deserve to be happy. I don’t deserve to have nice things. My needs don’t matter.’ These become beliefs and the adult spends years covering up, avoiding those dreadful feelings of shame. Shame has become internalised and can play a very punitive role. Wordlessly, the body remembers those physical feelings as implicit memory. There is no narrative or explanation, just a raw awfulness of feeling small and worthless. The child remembers the blame, believes again those words, and those words affect the body until the child and then the adult thinks this wordless awfulness is the truth of who they are. We are wrong and bad. The prefrontal cortex—our thinking front brain—goes offline. We are consumed and enmeshed in that bodily sensation, and we cannot think or process.
Some cultures and groups, as well as many television programmes, thrive on shaming. It can feel fatal: ‘I died of embarrassment’, ‘It nearly killed me’, ‘I could have dropped down dead.’ It can become toxic, a violent, visceral response with pain in the stomach, a pounding heart, shivering, sweating, shock, anxiety, panic. Emotionally it is equally overwhelming: confused, disoriented, de-energised, inadequate, cut-off, humiliated. And years later it can be triggered out of nowhere, in a nano-second. Then further shame for feeling shame! Shame gathers like dust, and perhaps most insidiously when seen as part of your identity, your birthright, who you intrinsically are. Joseph O’Connor puts it so well in Star of the Sea:
Amongst those so poor that they deserve no shame, shame lasts even longer than life.
Humiliation their only inheritance, and denial the coinage in which it is paid.
The prevalence of shame
Andrea, a client of mine, cupped her hands, as if around a big cabbage. ‘People think that shame is contained, out there, somewhere, an extra.’ She then swept her hands all over, from top to toe. ‘It’s everywhere.’ She was showing me that shame seemed to be a part of her, transcending time and space. She told me that she was at her wits’ end as a teacher with keeping discipline in one particular class. Three boys took it in turns to play the fool, disrupt the class and laugh. As she spoke of it, her right arm hurt, like a stabbing. We focused on noticing the arm, and a memory came back of when she was a young child and of a teenage boy holding her down, hitting and bruising her there with a bent finger, and then laughing. She crumpled with shame before my eyes, head bent, shoulders drooping, her arm pounding with pain. Not so much because he had hurt her, but because she had laughed with him. In her eyes, she had betrayed herself. She herself, her body, was shame incarnate.
But then she began to understand that she had laughed not because it was funny that she was powerless and overwhelmed, but because she had been afraid. Laughter in fear had been a coping strategy at the time, not a shameful betrayal of herself. She had identified with the aggressor in order to appease him and shorten her ordeal. Her younger self heard her adult self come to this realisation. And then she completed the action in her body that she had been unable to do as a child: she pushed upwards with her hands, and her reptilian brain with its procedural learning experienced in her body the movement, the liberation, that she so desperately needed to wipe away the shame, like dust, and to feel free.
George Herbert’s poem Love expresses how shame starts in relationship, and is either healed or held in relationship:
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin … let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
Shame as a transformation
A baby needs the gaze of a significant other as a condition of its existence. A shared smile or chuckle tells the baby that it is there, that it can be with another, and feel good. Left to howl alone or ignored, a blank face tells the baby that it is not alright to be, that it cannot feel good and cannot get or give a response and be connected to another. Is this the precursor to shame? And is shame the beginning of the false self? Of dissociation? And a life where defence against shame is the unspoken prerogative?
Shame can be transformed in relationship. Seeing shame as like dust, we can change its image, of something dirty and unwanted, into something clean and pure. How? A beautiful symbol in the natural world is that of the snowflake, where a dust particle enables the snowflake to form. The National Oceanic’s Atmospheric Administration shows the infinite and exquisite variety of the snowflake:
A snowflake begins to form when an extremely cold water droplet freezes onto a pollen or dust particle in the sky. This creates an ice crystal. As the ice crystal falls to the ground, water vapour freezes onto the primary crystal, building new crystals—the six arms of the snowflake. [http://www.noaa.gov/features/02_monitoring/snowflakes_2013.html]
So I take childish delight in the idea of taking a lovely, clean, yellow duster, wiping it over a surface and then taking the grubby duster outside to shake off the dust into the air, ‘done and dusted’. And then picturing that very same dust meeting cold water droplets and falling to earth as snowflakes, each one uniquely different and perfect. Then making a snowball…
Shame holds its power when we hide it, cover it up. Bring it into the light, name it, thank it, transform it and be free of it.