You do not envision yourself imploding under normal circumstances. It doesn’t even cross your mind. But have you ever felt so thoroughly ashamed that it seemed as though your body might have been injected with an intractably painful shame serum? Didn’t it feel like your blood was instantly saturated with devastating and immeasurable embarrassment? Sometimes, it seems just like that. In a matter of seconds, you imagine the failure cells traveling through your body, and you become certain when they ultimately reach your outer extremities you will have to implode from the sheer, uncontrollable force of mortification.
But then, nothing happens. You don’t implode or explode, or disintegrate or evaporate. Just nothing. And strangely in these moments of no visible activity, when you realize that there is not going to be a drastic and obvious end to this unsustainable, agonizing predicament, you may feel there has been some sort of mistake. You did not implode, and it feels abnormal.
That is how powerful feelings of shame can be. When humiliation overtakes someone (even a rational, normal, healthy person) in such a complete and unyielding way, it is not unusual for that someone to begin to wish for the impossible. People often talk about the power of love, but I think in many instances shame rivals feelings of love.
Perhaps, the immediacy of embarrassment is what makes it so viscerally all-encompassing. Or maybe, it is the fact that when you think about shame and strip it down to its barest form, it is really about you and only you. Love, hate, joy, sadness, and anger are all feelings that can be about internal or external factors, but humiliation is always connected to your feelings about yourself.
This is why you can only feel ashamed of other people when there is a particular connection to your own individual experience. If you do not approve of what someone is doing, you do not feel embarrassed unless it is related to who you are as a person. In those cases, feelings of disappointment, anger, or discomfort transform into feelings of shame because the other person’s behavior echoes something you personally experience as shameful. At some level, you worry their actions reflect or point out who you are in some disgraceful way.
Unfortunately, though, many people do not realize or want to acknowledge that it is their own behavior or situation that is causing the feelings of embarrassment. And so, instead of looking at themselves, they project their shame onto other people. The problem with sub-consciously displacing feelings about our own humiliating experiences is that it not only denies us the chance to address these issues directly for ourselves, it also has the potential to unjustly transfer the weight of our personal struggles onto someone else.
All of us have probably done this at one time or another. However, that does not mean we can’t do better in the future. If you feel ashamed of another person, maybe before you blame her or him for that unwanted emotion, you could consider fully the true origin of the embarrassment. When you care about that other person, don’t you think you owe them that at the very least?
I am not an expert on shame, but I have spent a lot of time being the shameful child, daughter, partner, relative, and friend. If you have read some of my other posts, you may know that I am actively trying to learn how to stop feeling embarrassed about being depressed or mentally ill. Part of my goal in outing myself publicly through this blog is to work on resisting notions of shame both for me and for other people who may have felt or still feel embarrassed about their mental health.
As a result, I have been thinking quite a bit about this issue of shame. I have begun to wonder if there is a way to return it to its legitimate owner when it clearly has been misdirected. I am not talking about some kind of spiteful retribution, though. I mean genuinely giving it back. I suppose this idea is a little crazy, but I don’t think it is entirely absurd.
Of course, you can’t and presumably don’t want to engage or waste your time with people who are ashamed of you from afar. But, for the people who truly matter (the nearby critics), maybe there is a way to openly or even subtly allow the shame to bounce off of you and back to them.
Today, I am going to try to redirect some of the embarrassment that a few of my relatives and friends have felt in response to my publicly announcing that I have problems with depression and anxiety. I will call these people my “Shaming Crew.” They are in no way the only shamers from my past and I would guess from my future, but for today they are the ones on my team.
Dear Shaming Crew,
I don’t know why my choice to share my stories and thoughts about my mental health is embarrassing you. I do not wish to deny your experiences or your feelings, but I have to tell you that I do not believe your humiliation—in its current manifestation—is serving either of us very well.
You should know that when you are ashamed of me, it makes me feel unfairly judged and bad about myself. As for you, when you focus your embarrassment on my actions, it seems as though you might be missing an opportunity to resolve your feelings of shame about your own behaviors and experiences. Therefore, I would like to ask if you would be willing (for a moment) to turn your evaluating lens away from me and face it instead in your own general direction. Perhaps in doing so, you might discover a better way to escape those horribly uncomfortable feelings of disgrace, which I understand can be truly oppressive.
I hope you can read these words and realize that I mean them wholeheartedly and without irony. Also, just in case it is helpful, I want to go on the record as promising that nothing I say or do can ever be a reflection of who you are. I swear I will never possess the power to change that fact no matter what. I alone am responsible for my actions, and only you can represent yourself.
P.S. Thank you for allowing me to relinquish what is rightfully yours. I genuinely feel less ashamed now.