On Shame

I determined long ago that shame is a feeling I don’t handle particularly well. This can be problematic on the internet, because people will, from time to time, declare that some behavior people regularly engage in is actually quite shameful. This takes all sorts of forms, the “behavior” can vary so widely it feels useless to make examples, it can be literally anything, and the reason it is shameful is usually because it implies some sort of moral failing, of infinitely varying degrees.

The problem is that, sometimes, the behavior being declared shameful is something that doesn’t really seem all that shameful to me. Even worse, sometimes, the behavior is something that I’m guilty of doing myself. And that phrasing, right there, is the core of the problem snowball that starts to roll down the hill: Why am I saying I am guilty of doing something, that, moments ago, I thought was completely innocuous? That makes me feel bad. Like, really bad! I’m good person, I don’t deserve to feel bad… right?

Sometimes this is good. Sometimes feeling bad about your actions is an opportunity for self-reflection, and to grow. Sometimes I can do that. Wish I could do it all the time, but I almost always feel this itch to speak up. Sometimes, I’ll try to stay silent, but in situations in which the behavior is clearly not worthy of the shame, instead of moving on with my life, I will take the complete silence of any opposition as a sign that there are other people who would speak up, but they can’t because they’re afraid of the same thing I am afraid of: outing themselves as being a person who is guilty of the shameful behavior. Then, because my Quaker heritage (or my white privilege) instilled “speak truth to power” into my bones, and that makes for one hell of a feeling of self-righteousness, I start to speak up to the “powerful” on behalf of the “silent contingent”, both groups now basically existing only inside my own head.

At this point the shame has spiraled completely out of control. Not only am I experiencing that initial bout of shame from having been guilty of the behavior, but now I’m publicly outing myself as a defender of that behavior, which probably outs me as person who engages in that behavior, and pits me (in my mind) against basically everyone, which destabilizes my feelings of security and belonging in whatever community I am now openly disagreeing with. I end up oscillating rapidly between feeling like I shouldn’t have said anything and that I am damaging my reputation / relationships / life / career, and that it’s so ridiculous that those things could be damaged by my (clearly more correct) opinion that it only reinforces how strongly I have to convey it. I start to get both angry and depressed, at myself and the world, at the same time, until the anger fades and I am just left with the depression.

The depression lingers for a while, because the external feelings of shame that fueled my indignation are replaced by an internally generated shame, the shame of embarrassing myself, that even if my point was correct and justified, the end result was mostly that I just got myself very upset, destabilized my mood for well over a day, and possibly damaged other people’s opinions of me depending on how committed they were to the disagreement.

Thankfully, after many years of being this person and doing this sort of thing over and over again, and sometimes when it wasn’t justified and I was not in the right, I’ve found that people are far more forgiving of me than I am of myself, that the feelings of shame that I experience over these situations is entirely undeserved, and that most people forget about them long before I do. What I haven’t found is a way to handle the shame better, but maybe next time I can feel the shame spiral beginning, I can read this post and avoid it.

Did it work?