Shame: [hysterical, grabs Batman by the leg] No, Batman! No!
Batman: Oh, for shame, Shame! You’re not worthy of the name ‘Shame’! You’re a SHAM, Shame! Don’t you EVER grab my tights or pull on my leg again!
Shame. One bad cowboy, created to do battle with Batman on the 1960’s TV series. Called the Redoubtable Road Agent, the Bloodthirsty Bushwhacker, the Conniving Cowboy of Crime, and the Monstrous Maverick of Malfeasance, his name, of course, is a takeoff on the classic western, “Shane.” And his henchpersons can also be tracked to western legends, with names like Calamity Jan, Messy James, and my favorite, Chief Standing Pat. Actor Cliff Robertson brought Shame to life as a slow-talking, six-gun toting, flashy cowpoke with a polka dot bandana and a hankerin’ to do evil. Fun. I wish today I was just writing about that Shame, a silly diversion on a silly show.
Real shame is no laughing matter. Not for those of us who live and have lived under a constant dark cloud that obfuscates almost all else. An impenetrable fog. An encumbrance like leg shackles. An unrelenting, backbreaking load. A slogging in slow-acting quicksand. This blackness is profound.
I suppose I’ve battled shame for most of my life. It’s a common trait of an adult child of an alcoholic.
“A shame-based identity…is a socialized condition whereby the person picks up messages from the environment that he is disgusting, deficient, deserted, dishonorable, defective, or defiled. The cumulative effect of these messages and perceptions makes the person see herself not only as one who makes mistakes (guilt) but as one who is a mistake (shame).” Robert Albers.
These are things I have felt often in my life. What is shame? Where does it come from? Most importantly, can it be dispelled? I won’t get too deep here. Shame, very simply, is a human emotion. Webster defines shame as “a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute.”
I like what Robert Albers has to say. “Shame is an emotion, like fear or grief. Like them, it is painful–perhaps the most painful feeling there is, given that it is registered in the brain like strong physical pain…Shame can be seen in you when you want to hide, disappear, or even say you want to die, as if you are a thoroughly bad person. You hang your head or hunch down, sagging your shoulders. You can’t look anyone in the eye. Why? You believe you are rotten to the core. No one should want to be around you.”
Registering in my brain as strong physical pain? Yes. Shame. Is it that same as guilt? No. Guilt is feeling badly about something I have done. Because I can identify a specific wrong, this feeling of guilt prompts me to apologize and to try to make things right. Guilt, then, isn’t negative at all but is the catalyst to repair the damage. It often rises up from inside me. My conscience. My sense of right and wrong.
Aaron Kipnis said, “Guilt is positive. It’s a response of psychologically healthy individuals who realize they have done something wrong. It helps them act more positively, more responsibly, often to correct what they’ve done.”
Yes. Guilt is positive. Shame is much more brutal. Carl Jung called shame “a soul-eating emotion.” Shame is feeling badly about who I am. “Unlike guilt, which is the feeling of doing something wrong, shame is the feeling of being something wrong. When a person experiences shame, they feel ‘there is something basically wrong with me,’” according to Marilyn J. Sorensen. Yes. I have felt that phenomenon. Brené Brown added, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” Brutal indeed. Paul Ekman dared say, “Shame is worse than death.”
I know the truth of this, too.
Shame swirled up from my distorted internal compass, remagnetized with a false north. When my alcoholic father abandoned me when I was six years old, my sense of true north was gone. I thought of myself as abandonable, of no worth to those around me who were supposed to love me. This programming continued as I experienced varying levels of abandonment repeatedly well into adulthood. Though I had done nothing wrong enough to cause others to abandon me, abandon me they did. My conclusion was to label myself as flawed and strap on the heavy backpack of shame. A longtime companion. An evil, wicked companion.
Don’t misunderstand here. I have done my share of bad things and made my share of hurtful choices in my life. Yet these wrongs I have wrought produce guilt in me and prod me to corrective action. I try to heed the feelings of guilt. Still, I suppose guilt left to ripen and then rot in my heart can turn into shame, that dark, hopeless feeling that I am somehow bad, defective, flawed as a person. I am not. It has taken a long time to admit that.
According to Aaron Kipnis, “Shame tends to direct individuals into destructive behaviors. When we focus on what we did wrong, we can correct it; but when we’re convinced that we are wrong as a result of shame, our whole sense of self is eroded.” Beverly Engel agrees, “Shame is the most destructive of human emotions. Shame destroys a person’s self-esteem and sense of who they are and causes people really serious problems. It’s core issue of addiction and can cause other issues like suicide, depression and anger.”
Serious business, shame. Utterly debilitating.
Shame comes from my broken internal compass. It also has another source. An exceedingly hurtful aspect of the shame emotion is it often features active assistance from others. An attack of sorts. This too is a phenomenon I have experienced. Sadly, I’ve had the shame sauce slathered onto my barbequed self from organized religion and from some close interpersonal relationships. Churches and Christian organizations I’ve known have sometimes used shame as a motivator. It worked in me at first but later, I felt I had fallen so far from the ideal that I must be defective. And more slathering from the very shaming experiences of a job demotion and my divorce in the last couple of years. From these, the pain has been nearly unbearable. This is shame imposed from the outside…what Paul Ekman describes as disapproval or ridicule by others. So hurtful.
“Shame is closely related to guilt, but there is a key qualitative difference. No audience is needed for feelings of guilt, no one else need know, for the guilty person is his own judge. Not so for shame. The humiliation of shame requires disapproval or ridicule by others,” Paul Ekman.
Alan Noble adds, “We can imagine doing something wrong, or being untrue to ourselves, but it is difficult for the modern person to conceive of our self being wrong and requiring a covering. So, we come to interpret shame as a sign of false standards being impressed upon us externally. When I feel shame, it’s because someone else is making me feel bad for being myself.”
Yes, indeed. I know what it’s like to have someone else try to make me feel bad for being myself. I’m done with that. God crafted me to be what I am. I like me.
And Hale Dwokin offers, “There are many misconceptions about guilt and shame. Many are them are perpetuated by those who try to use these feelings to keep us down and hold us back. I will not name who does this to us but if you examine your life it will become very obvious.”
Again, yes, I understand this on a deep level. I’ve lived it.
Counter-intuitively perhaps, this leads us to the place of hope. Something can be done. Something has been done. I remember the day I encountered the U.S. Marine Corps gas chamber in boot camp. I went in wearing a perfectly good gas mask. Though the gas was thick and visible, the mask protected me. I could see the “evil” as it were all around me and the mask was the positive method of dealing with it. But then, while still very much inside the chamber filled with tear gas, I was ordered to remove the mask and sing the Marines Hymn. Unmasked. Protected no more, my eyes burned, my sinuses unleashed to run like the buffalo, and breathing was painful and nearly impossible. The drill instructor made me feel the terrible impact of the tear gas. He forced me to dwell in the horrible environment. Bad things happened. At least until I finished up with, “if the Army and the Navy ever look on Heaven’s scenes, they will find the streets are guarded by UNITED STATES MARINES! Ooorah!!!
After what seemed to be an eternity in the gas chamber with no mask, I was allowed to escape the gas cloud. Sometime later, I was functioning normally, convinced of the value of a working gas mask. The operative word here is escape. So I got out of the gas cloud of shame. So blasted simple. Just leave it behind. How? Here are some suggestions I’ve found helpful. This information is taken from “Belonging: A Guide to Overcoming Loneliness” by William R. Brassell, Ph.D. and “Enhancing Self-Esteem” by C. Jesse Carlock, Ph.D.
“People who harbor feelings of shame often find that their significant relationships support their ongoing experience of low self-worth.”
“Are you in a shaming relationship? Does a significant person in your life (such as a spouse, parent, adult, child, sibling, or supervisor) criticize you often?”
“Are you in a relationship in which you feel respect is lacking?”
“Do you feel that a significant person in your life is trying to make himself or herself feel superior at your expense?”
“Do you often feel publicly humiliated by a significant person?”
“If you answered “yes” to any of the questions above, you may need to examine how shame is affecting your relationships and behaviors. Shame will not simply go away. But it is a reaction that can be changed.”
Identifying and extricating myself from as many sources of shame as possible was a necessary though difficult plan. I can’t do it completely now. It’s especially interesting for me to consider that my shame-based upbringing may well have shoved me in the direction of other shaming relationships. Could this perpetual squalor have become a sought-after norm in my life? I think it did. Strangely, that shame cloud became comfortable. There are times even today when I miss it. Weird. Still, over the last few years I think I’ve finally recognized it for what it was. In boot camp, I learned to “don and clear” my gas mask to return to normal breathing. It worked. So I’ve been donning and clearing.
Getting out of the gas chamber is one way to deal with shame. There are other ways of reducing the impact of shame in my life.
Stephen Fry wrote, “It’s not all bad. Heightened self-consciousness, apartness, an inability to join in, physical shame and self-loathing—they are not all bad. Those devils have been my angels. Without them I would never have disappeared into language, literature, the mind, laughter and all the mad intensities that made and unmade me.”
Note James Emery White’s words, “Pain…is to strengthen us, for what has wounded us most deeply is often what has made us who we are. Our pain is often what has developed us, strengthened us, allowed us the ability to grow.”
I suppose I’m known to be a bit eccentric, maybe even a might quirky. It may surprise you to know there is often a solid reason behind the wacky. Take my buffalo Elvis for example. Why do I hang that rather large head of an American bison in my home? For me, Elvis represents resilience. The once powerful and prolific bison became nearly extinct at the hands of man. But back the bison came, with help from wonderful conservation efforts. My buffalo was hunted down by someone else. The trophy was taken and like me, was abandoned. He became broken and ugly, left to rot in a plastic garbage bag on a laundry room floor. I found him and had him restored. Elvis the buffalo represents new life on two levels. One, he is an American bison, a strong, powerful and resilient beast. And two, this particular buffalo represents personal restoration. Broken and ugly, brought back to a place of honor by a master’s hands. I see him every day and nod to him with the prayer, “God, today, let me show strength and resilience.” I’m going to write more about bison, donkeys, and me in an upcoming blog. Look for “Beast Mode” soon.
Of course, It could be I’m just plain weird. Maybe inhaling that gas in Marine boot camp (and chasing the mosquito spray truck down the alley on my bicycle as a kid) impacted my brain. After all, I did just mount my surfboard to the top of my Honda Element here in the Chicago area. Surf is up. Give me a little while and I’ll have a story about that too. Bottom line? That surfboard makes me smile. Good enough.
“Mad intensities” indeed! It might seem crazy, but if I believe the passage in Romans that “God causes all things to work together for good…” then what Fry says makes sense. And today, I am who I am in part because of the shame I have experienced. There are positives as well as negatives in that. I’ve learned to see the good in it all. And exposing my struggle may well encourage someone else.
I’m publishing these words today as another tool to dispel shame.
Ron Pelias says, “What we decide to remember says who we are now” and “What we commemorate each day by the telling of our tales is our necessary history and our moral mandate.” Brené Brown adds, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” Yes. I feel compelled to write about this and you honor me and assist in my healing by reading these words. And I hope I do it without causing shame to others.
Finally, and I don’t really know what to make of this, are words from George Bernard Shaw. “The more things a man is ashamed of, the more respectable he is.” Huh. By this measure, I’m a most respectable feller.
Commissioner Gordon: [on Batphone] There were three auto thefts in Gotham City today, Batman.
Bruce Wayne: [dressed as Bruce Wayne but answering as Batman] That should be simple enough for your fine force.
Commissioner Gordon: It would be, except that all clues point to the Redoubtable Road Agent.
Bruce Wayne: The Bloodthirsty Bushwhacker?
Commissioner Gordon: Shame himself.
Bruce Wayne: We’ll be right there. [hangs up]
Bruce Wayne: To the Batpoles.
Shame, the goofy arch criminal from the Batman TV series, was dealt with decisively by the Caped Crusader. While Batman recognized the silliness of this foe, he also respected Shame’s ability to foul up Gotham City with his cloud of evil. To the Batpoles, then. Shame gets no quarter in my life. Today, my head is raised and my shoulders don’t droop. Most of the time. Shame, you Monstrous Maverick of Malfeasance, don’t you EVER grab my tights or pull on my leg again!
Here’s a link to a song I want to be my theme these days. It’s called, “Riser.”
I’m a riser. No, it is not that easy. But it is possible.