It starts so early.  Several years ago, I identified an undercurrent of shame as one factor that seems to hold me back. Trying to unravel its source has been tricky, and uncomfortable.

I can’t really remember a time in my life when I did not feel shame about something. My father died when I was very young, and I felt shame about being in a family that was so different than my friends’. Irrational, I know, but rationality is not a characteristic possessed by most kindergarteners.

My mother and her mother compounded my feelings. Mom and her sister had different fathers, and there was some suggestion that my grandmother had not been married to one of these men. ( I will never know, because the involved parties have all gone to their graves with their secrets.)

I got older, and taller than almost everyone else. And my hair was wildly curly. Different again, and shameful, in my mind. I was repeatedly ridiculed in elementary school for being singled out by my teachers for being smart.  And on it went;  right up to my current under-employed present- just another reason to feel shame.  Shame was a magnet for other reasons to feel it. I never stopped to question whether my feelings were valid.

Shame can be useful. Applied properly, it helps us function as a society. We should feel shame when we harm one another by lying, cheating and stealing, or worse.

Shame that only hurts ourselves is no shame, just waste. The real shame of this shame is that it is also very context-specific. Had my grandmother lived her same life in another time and place, right now, for instance, no one would blink at her less than conventional family life. It pains me to think of all of the emotional suffering that would have spared her, my mother and my aunt.

That kind of shame keeps us from taking our rightful place in the world; I know I dialed down my efforts in school to fit in with my classmates, (a real shame with permanent effect.)  More recently, ashamed of my lack of  employment-related identity, I have hesitated to make social overtures, an obvious waste of free time I will never have again, not to mention opportunities to make connections that might help me find work!

Going forward, I promise this:

1) When I feel ashamed, I will ask myself whether I have caused anyone actual harm. If so, I will do my best to right the wrong. If no, I will get over myself, and move forward.

2) When I see anyone around me feeling self-harming  shame, I will do my best to comfort and encourage them.

Imagine a world where we all felt shame only when we should, and never when we shouldn’t. We’d hardly recognize the place.

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