One of my favorite quotes – half Dr. Seuss, half Bernard Baruch – is “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” I love the spirit of this – just be! If only it were that simple. Yet, what prevents us from being our true, most authentic, and, at times, whacky selves? What is it that stops us from being free?
This is a question I grapple with often, both personally and, with clients, professionally. It came to mind again yesterday while watching Monica Lewinsky’s Ted Talk, The Price of Shame. Ms. Lewinsky was impressive; she was poised, intelligent, funny, and courageous. She spoke of her worldwide humiliation and shame, drawing attention and focus to cyber-bullying. She is doing a great public good by honestly framing her experience in the context of shame. Shame is one of the most toxic, silencing, suffocating emotions. It was also apparent that I was witnessing a woman in the process of working through her shame. Yet, you don’t have to be cyber-bullied, or even bullied, to walk in the shadow, the imprisonment, of shame.
What is Shame?
Dictionary.com defines shame as the “painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another”. This is a fairly good definition, but it doesn’t account for subjectivity or personal history. The reality is that anything – anything – can evoke a feeling of shame: our strengths, weaknesses, preferences, or behavior, “because of what we think these things say about our character or because of the way they may seem to divide us from others” (Atlantic Monthly). We may feel shame over feeling “too” anything – too needy, too inadequate, too different. We may feel shame when we fail to achieve our goals or potential, or when we become emotionally reactive and act out in some way (yelling, withdrawing, using drugs, etc.). Many struggle with shame over a lifetime in an attempt to reconcile behavior engaged in as a young adult – a particularly cruel price to pay, since we now know that brain development isn’t complete until at least age 25.
Shame is also often closely wedded to trauma, making it an especially toxic cocktail. An underlying component of shame is a belief that we’ve done something to bring this on ourselves – we’ve contributed in some way, therefore it is our fault. We forget that we are human and fallible, and that things don’t always go the way we planned or hoped. Ms. Lewinsky is a perfect example of this. Other common examples of shame closely associated with trauma include being impacted by infidelity; affected by suicide; diagnosed with certain diseases (STDs, diseases that impact our appearance); reproductive trauma (abortion/miscarriage/infertility); domestic violence, and childhood abuse.
The Problem With Shame
Some shame is normal, necessary, and evolutionary. Shame contributes to certain parameters of behavior that enable societies and cultures to exist, even flourish. But, hidden and unrecognized shame is just toxic (Atlantic Monthly). It is often tightly bound with issues that are deeply private and personal, and it is self-protective to not speak of these issues: why risk further shame and humiliation? But this doesn’t really work; it simply lessens us. Unspoken shame holds us back, diminishes, and slowly destroys us. It keeps us in a one-dimensional world, without nuance or context. Ms. Lewinsky poignantly addresses this. She had a choice: to be known forever as “that woman”, immortalized in almost 40 rap songs – a pretty one dimensional existence that robs her of her own narrative. Or, she can demand that she be seen as three-dimensional, human, more like us than not. This is important – what the world reflects back to us, about us, impacts our identity, further discussed here.
Shame needs to be addressed from a few different avenues, but, at the very least, we need to give it voice. This moves it through our bodies and minds and helps us to make sense of what has happened, regardless of whether the shame stems from the recent or distant past. To quote the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, we all need the “accepting, confirming and understanding human echo”. We see this need in its most superficial form, particularly for youth, indirectly manifest every day on Facebook, which probably has a lot to do with its success. Facebook posts are usually joyous, and show our best selves. Kohut’s quote takes on a deeper, more contextual meaning when addressing unacknowledged and unspoken shame.
The idea of speaking about our shame isn’t new. Shakespeare talked about the power of giving voice to sorrow, Freud addressed the “talking cure”, and the Catholic Church embraces this concept in the form of confession. 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, adopt this method as well. Give voice to your struggle, and something shifts internally. Having an interested and empathic witness to our stories is in itself healing. It helps us to feel less alone, and provides the opportunity for a new, non-shaming response. Our brains are rewired during this process, which helps in more fully integrating our sense of self. To quote Ms. Lewinsky, “You can insist on a different ending to your story.”
Other ways of giving voice to shame include journaling, writing articles and essays, and engaging in creative outlets, e.g. writing poetry, painting, and other arts. When shame is closely wed to trauma, giving back can be an important final and needed step in healing. Having an impact on others, however small, is enormously helpful.
Changing the Discourse
Ms. Lewinsky began her own process of giving back last year, when she emerged from the shadows after 10 years to write an essay for Vanity Fair on the culture of humiliation (nominated for a National Magazine Award). This prompted an expression of regret from David Letterman, and liberal bad-boy Bill Maher confessed feelings of guilt, both over their relentless Lewinsky jokes. Ms. Lewinsky, in her journey to reclaim her narrative, had an immediate impact on the public discourse. I’m certain this is helping her heal. Brava, Ms. Lewinsky.
Part of this blog is an elaboration of this on-line interview with Pamela Tsigdinos.
Thanks to my husband and Christina Hill for their input and editing. And love.