This is the second article in a three-part series on reducing the effects of shame. In the first article, I described shame and shared a bit of shame’s effect on me. In this article I will explore how we have come to have so much shame. In the last one, I’ll help you discover ways to reduce shame.
A side note first: This is the first blog I’ve written that I haven’t received several comments. I know that even thinking about shame can be shameful, and as Maggie wrote in her comment, shame can make you want to turn away and distract yourself. That said, I hope you will reflect on what I’ve written in these articles and do what you can to reduce the effects of shame in your life, whether or not you write about it here.
So, how did we come to have so much shame in our bodies, our lives, and our culture? As they say in the world of psychology, shame is over determined. That means there are numerous sources of shame, pretty much ensuring that none of us go unscathed.
I don’t know that shame started with the advent of patriarchy, but I do believe that it was perfected there. Patriarchy, the male-dominated world we now live in, requires domination, hierarchy and one-upmanship. The most effective way to create those structures is through shame – I am better than you and you are better than so-and-so. It is the single most effective way to put someone “in their place.”
In our culture to be different from the dominant culture (white males) is to be shamed. In a patriarchal society, we are shamed for matters of birth – national origin, the color of our skin, our gender, sexual orientation, intelligence, and for women particularly, how we physically look, as well as matters of choice or circumstance – religious affiliation or lack of religious affiliation, socioeconomic status, even our “cool” factor.
The overarching shaming patterns of patriarchy get played out in every venue in our lives – family, schools, religious organizations, places of work, even sports and entertainment. Every aspect of who we are, where we live, how we live is judged. Some are more obvious and blatant – the denigration of women, people of color, immigrants, the LGBT population, the poor, the “other” political party. Other forms of shaming are more subtle, but just as damaging – who has the most money, power and authority, even among white males.
You cannot be female in a patriarchal culture without being shamed from birth. The shaming of females is so pervasive in our culture that we become like fish swimming in water, the shaming drops out of conscious awareness and is internalized as shame. We (men and women) come to believe it’s true –women are shameful, inferior, less than men. Women apologize for existing and taking up space. Just compare how men and women sit in close quarters, such as the coach section of an airplane. Men usually spread their legs apart and put their arms on the armrest, taking up as much space as they want. Women usually sit with their legs tightly pressed together or crossed over each other with their arms inside the confines of their bodies. How people take up space in the world speaks volumes about their usually unconscious belief about their right to exist. As a result of several millennium of shaming, women have lost contact with their right to exist and take up space.
Of course, men don’t escape the shame game unscathed. In her TED Talk, Listening to Shame, Dr. Brene′ Brown says that males are shamed for showing any sign of weakness. Even very young boys are told, “Boys don’t cry!” Boys who show emotion, fear, or sensitivity are called sissies (shameful females!). The devastating effect is that men have lost contact with their authentic feelings and emotions, including fear, and even wants and desires, if those wants and desires are considered to be too feminine.
Now, let’s move from the general to more specific ways of being shamed. Here are some of the ways I have been consciously and unconsciously shamed in my life.
Comparison played a big role in my shaming. I was often compared to my sister, who was (and still is) beautiful, built like a brick shithouse, and very smart. I was compared by my grandmother to other little girls who had their hair cut short or didn’t’ cuss or didn’t get dirty or whatever. I, of course, was found lacking, as I was never compared favorably. I would react by either hiding out in shame (red faced, head down, collapsed chest) or by being sarcastic and mean (rigid back and sharp tongue). In the end, I just thought there was something very wrong with me that couldn’t be fixed and that I would never be good enough. (I want to note that this was usually not done maliciously, and the effect was still damaging as I internalized comparing myself to others, almost always unfavorably.)
I worked for 20 years as an air traffic controller in the Federal Aviation Administration. Sexist (racist, gay-bashing, immigrant) jokes and comments were an everyday occurrence (to be fair, this began to change during my career as more women won sexual harassment lawsuits against the agency). We were told subtly and not so subtly that we were “affirmative action” hires and to leave the real work to the men.
Of course, I was (and still am) shamed for being female. It was assumed that I couldn’t do certain things and had to do other things. I often heard (and continue to hear), “That’s just like a woman!” said with contempt and even disgust. I tried very hard to distance myself from being a woman, so I wouldn’t feel so ashamed of being one.
How were you shamed? What forms did shaming take? What led to your feelings of be shameful, not good enough, not enough? Again, share as much or as little as you want.
In the last article of this series, I will teach you how to reduce the effects of shame in your life, so hang in there, help is on the way.
Yours in putting shame to rest!