Shame: An Explainer

I am walking down the street on a gorgeous spring day, and I am feeling shame. I am able-bodied, healthy, and happy. I’m not in pain and I’m not in a terrible mood and I’m not even PMSing. I have a successful writing career, a great family, and a great life. I am 45 motherfucking years old and I’m smart and I look pretty damn good, and I know what the fuck is up for the first time in my life, and I am covered in shame and full of shame and swimming through shame on my way to more shame.

I never even noticed that I felt so much shame until this sunshine-y day a few months ago. I was walking to pick up my kids from school, next to a line of cars driven by parents waiting to pick up their kids. I found myself imagining that one of the parents driving the cars was looking at me and thinking, “That woman is a mess.” I imagined that this parent was thinking, “Why does she walk that way? Look at her sloppy ponytail. Why doesn’t she shower more? Why doesn’t she learn how to dress? Why is she so smug about her ugly self? Who does she think she’s fooling?” I was sure this was what anyone with eyes would be thinking if they looked at me, and it seemed reasonable and not unfair at all.

As an advice columnist and culture critic who’s always been a little allergic to catchphrases and psychobabble and canned wisdom served up by the guru du jour, I’ve never loved the word “shame.” It always felt like a catch-all term to me, a way of saying that humans are too soft and squishy to survive, like a word someone weak would use to explain why the world was too harsh to bear. “Shame” sounded like a term that people who are self-conscious and easily embarrassed use to blame someone else for the fact that they were neurotic chickenshits.

Which is a pretty clear snapshot of the thinking of someone with a lot of shame on board. Shame isn’t just a bad cognitive habit of the psyche — your bad brain telling you that you’re failing or fucking up or falling behind. Shame is an onboard navigational system, one that’s intent on keeping you small and apologetic indefinitely.

Shame springs from the belief that people who feel their feelings are weak and pathetic. Shame is also the sensation that everything you do is wrong, no matter what. Shame is the sense that you’ve never understood anything, and you never will. Shame is the result of hearing the same message for years: Everyone else knows better than you what you should be. What you are is suspect. What you feel is embarrassing.

Here’s how it works: You grow up, and everything natural and real that comes out of you is greeted the same way: “Stop that.” Stop making that sound. Stop crying. Stop talking. Stop saying that. Stop being that way.

Shame grows out of these messages. The things that you do, the things that you say, the way you feel inside: these are unacceptable. You’re doing it wrong. (This, by the way, goes back to the time of Adam and Eve: Those two ate a little fruit from the forbidden tree and suddenly they noticed they were naked. They were bad and they didn’t even know it! Just for having a snack! Just for standing around in their own skin!)

People who feel a lot of shame tend to shame each other. “That’s not how you do it,” they say. Speaking your mind is embarrassing. Spontaneous expressions of affection or anger are shameful. Asking an open-ended question is shameful. Not already knowing the answer to a question is shameful. Not anticipating and addressing the imaginary criticisms of imaginary people is shameful. You need to know — already, preemptively — exactly how weak and terrible you are.

Coolness is shame incarnate. The blasé are full of shame. Shame is believing that if you’re not winning, you’re a loser, and if you’re not in love, you’ll never be loved, and if you’re not perfect, then you’re disappointing and flawed in permanent ways that anyone can see just by glancing at you.

It’s only been a few months, but the realization of how much shame I carry around with me has radically altered my experience. Suddenly, I see how often I explain myself unnecessarily. How I apologize for everything I do. How I always assume I’m about to step on someone’s toes or say the wrong thing. And my efforts to fix my inherent faultiness have made me even less authentic. I try too hard. I operate under the premise that there is something deeply wrong with me, that there’s a “right” way of being that I just need to figure out and memorize and ape. I think that, in some twisted part of my brain, I saw this wrongness as something precious, something without which I would cease to be original. I was jealously guarding my broken pieces, as if it was honorable to be a wreck.

So how do you address all of your shame, and get rid of it? You start by noticing it. You look at it. You mention it to your friends. The more you talk about it, the more you’ll see that almost everyone around you feels shame all of the time, too. Hiding it is just another way of holding onto it.

Once you’re honest with yourself about how much shame you feel, and how much you built your social life around that shame, you can start chipping away at it. And when you start to do that, your life will feel so much lighter. Because shame stands in the way of everything good: joy, creativity, intellectual freedom, real connection, great sex, fulfillment, and pride, in who you are and what you’ve accomplished.

You’ll also find that you have more compassion for the people around you. You’ll see through their shame. You won’t think that they’re either tough or weak, capable or pathetic, winners or losers. That’s the binary thinking of the shamed. People who live without shame understand nuance. They understand the courage it takes to admit that you’re fragile. Those are the people you want to know. And that’s how you want to be: Compassionate, open, accepting, free. You care deeply about this world and the people in it. You know your heart. And when you walk through the world without shame, you make space for other people to let go of their shame, too.

It feels good to be a regular person. It feels good to move through the day without making assumptions about what other people think and see and believe. It feels like a relief. It feels respectful. I’m just me. You’re just you. You’re just doing your best. There’s a lot to celebrate. There’s a lot to love. There’s a lot to feel grateful for. And there’s nothing at all to be ashamed of.

Heather Havrilesky writes New York’s Ask Polly advice column and is the author of How to Be a Person in the World, which will be available from Doubleday on July 12th.

Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis; Elizabeth is wearing a Saks Potts kimono robe and Arme De L’Amour earrings.


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