This is not a word I like to use – who does? The whole point about feeling ashamed is that we want to die inside, curl away from the world, convinced of our terrible worthlessness.
Shame refers to the painful feelings of humiliation and even distress, caused by our own perception that we have done wrong, failed, or made a fool of ourselves in some way – whether or not we have.
Brené Brown has studied the power of vulnerability, and the transformative possibilities of confronting shame head on. She also happens to be the most wonderful public speaker. That woman is fierce:
There are a number of points she makes which go straight to the heart of what shame is and why we need to deal with it.
- 'Shame is a focus on self; guilt is a focus on behaviour.'
- 'Shame is 'I am bad'. Guilt is 'I did something bad'.'
- 'Shame drives two big tapes: 'never good enough', and if you can talk it out of that one, 'who do you think you are?''
I have suffered from every single element on that list.
Brown believes shame to be organised by gender: for women, shame means not being able to meet the contradictory standards imposed by society – perfectly (something I long ago gave up doing). What Brown is talking about for women-with-children, I term 'Motherload'. For men, it does not mean this web of unattainable, conflicting demands. It means being weak.
It's important, however, not to leave our definitions of shame in gendered boxes, because the experience of it is universal. We have all felt the 'warm wash of shame' – the very word is onomatopoeic, referencing that sense of drowning in an endless ocean of the feeling when it happens to us. Not to be able to feel shame at all, ever, is a sign of sociopathy.
Conversely, the capacity to feel shame is linked to the capacity to feel empathy. In fact empathy is the antidote to shame. Shame, she says, needs three things to grow: secrecy, silence and judgement – it cannot survive if it's 'doused with empathy'. The two most powerful words to a struggling person are, 'Me too'.
For Brown too, the capacity to be vulnerable is profoundly linked to courage – in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, linked to 'daring greatly'.
In the wake of being treated for early cancer, and deciding to go public with the idea that I had called my little carcinoma 'Wendy', in honour of a woman who once bullied me into leaving a job, I felt a multitude of things.
For the first time since my decision to sign my name to a paper – my resignation letter – that essentially condoned her behaviour towards me, I feel no shame.
Somehow – and it is mysterious to me, but it has definitely happened – either facing the surgery, which terrified me, or making a joke of my shame, or both, ended their power over me.
In facing my fears about cancer, and therefore my own mortality, and in learning that I had it in me to comfort myself (with support – I'm not going to pretend I did it alone), but also, and crucially, in laughing at my fears, real though they were, I have, at last, been able to step out of the deep, hot pool of shame that has saturated my life for the last thirteen years – all of my daughter's life. My beloved daughter, who turned 13 today.
In the days that followed deciding to name my shame, I have had a series of epiphanies that have inverted my entire world view. Like locks opening in a canal system, I have understood, at last, that I grew up in shame – my poor, poor Dutch father's shame. I was the product of a second marriage, and my father, I have suddenly, blindingly, seen, never forgave himself for, as he saw it, failing his first family. Never forgave himself.
I was raised in shame.
My phd on self-justification in Proust, that unpronounceable word, ended with a study of vulnerability, and the astounding realisation that self-justification has to stop for anything else to happen. Doh! It never occurred to me that shame was part of my story, or the story of the research I was undertaking. What I never worked out while writing that doctorate, or had said to me by anyone commenting on that work, was that self-justification's inner lining is shame. I had got to the right answer – that vulnerability is the royal road out of self-justification. But I had never even named the problem I was trying to solve. And without naming it, I was doomed to repeat it forever.
We do not need to justify ourselves. But we will never stop unless we can face what shames us.
I am forty-eight years old, exactly the same age my father was when I was born.
I have identified my Dutch Courage. And I no longer need it.
I have named my Motherload. And I can put it down.