Shame. The word itself elicits an emotional reaction. Hearing it, reading it, brings up the memory, like a foul taste - a small sip of a bitter drink.
Shame is trending. What our culture will have you believe is that the word does not describe an emotion but an action. Shame has had a recent transformation into a verb. Which is not to say that humanity has not changed the parts of speech or meanings of words before. One need not go much further than singing "I Feel Pretty" from West Side Story in order to understand that the melodic "I feel pretty and witty and gay" will earn you a double-take from the younger generation. But I digress...
Shame has been used as a verb for ages, but here we slog through swampy semantics. The old woman of yesteryear breathlessly telling the misbehaved:
shame on you! meant that she believed the miscreants actions ought to make them feel ashamed - the only action in "shaming" someone is the act of speaking. One cannot command that another feel shame.
Sticks & Stones
Shame is a personal emotion. And as most counselors and trained professionals would have told you just a few years ago - you cannot make anyone feel anything. You alone are responsible for your emotions. And we still accept this wisdom in other words: you can't control what happens to you but you can control how you react to it. Or, the playground expression: sticks & stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me.
You can't make a person love you (insert Bonnie Riatt's song here). You can't make anyone else feel joy - you cannot, by words alone, rescue another person from depression. Your words can bring comfort, they can encourage intimacy, they can stir emotion, but they cannot cause another to feel any way in which the person is not inclined to feel on their own. Your words can be intended to manipulate or coerce. You can be a grade A a-hole and try to make someone feel guilty, or ashamed, but your attempts may be in vain if the person you're directing your vitriol toward has a thick skin.
Shame as an Industry
Shame is enjoying quite the spotlight. There are shame researchers and shame counselors. There are books and courses. Workshops and retreats. There are "movements" addressing particular shames like slut-shaming, fat-shaming, gay-shaming, child-shaming, pet-shaming, etc. and there are over 829,000 posts on Instagram alone addressing #shame. It's trending and it's making money.
I'm not saying that shame isn't a real thing. I think all people can relate to the feeling of wanting to crawl under a rock until the storm passes. It's embarrassment, a wave of uncomfortable heat, a feeling of deep conviction that lays us low. Anxiety that passers-by can see, that they know... We want out. We want to hide, or run away. But, what if, instead of something to call out and put an end to we viewed shame as method of communication between our subconscious and conscious selves?
The Purpose of Shame
Like many other feelings, shame is a degree of emotion. Frustration is a degree of emotion that can lead to anger and beyond that, rage. So, too, is shame the furthest degree of a sense of having done wrong. Our personal conviction can lead us to a nagging feeling that something isn't right. Those gifted with introspection will then search within themselves for truth or falsehood -- and finding any truth there can lead to guilt. And guilt left unattended, ignored, bottled up and unresolved becomes shame. Shame is a signal that we have unfinished business. It is a sign.
To speak in more crude terms:
If you can be fat-shamed, then you are probably uncomfortable with your weight.
If you can be slut-shamed, then perhaps you are defensive about your promiscuity.
If you are upset by any supposition that you are engaging in socially unacceptable behavior, then you are not just a little concerned that your behavior needs correction.
But attributing that sign to someone else's mean-spiritedness without considering the personal source of our shame is a mistake. Because when we embrace the personal responsibility of resolving that which causes us shame - shame itself is powerless.
Listen, there is nothing new or out of the ordinary about bullies. The same playground adage of sticks & stones was just as applicable then as it is now. But how much more powerful our have bullies become when we arm them with weapons like shame. When we give our power of personal emotion to others we render ourselves weak. We eliminate our personal responsibility to correct ourselves by pointing the finger and tattling on the jerk who told the truth.
A Note on Toxic Relationships and Shame
Shame can be inappropriately felt. It can be used as a weapon against children leading to a stifled life of confusion and turmoil. This is not normal. If you suffer from a dysfunctional upbringing in which trusted adults misused disappointment or humiliation as a method of discipline that trained you to feel shame when it was inappropriate then please recognize that that is a result of a toxic parent-child relationship. One in which the parent was a garden variety bully. Please seek counseling to help you untangle the web of twisted emotions that lead you to feel inappropriate shame.
I am shameless. It is not because I've lived an unimpeachable life. It is because I do not give my power away to the mean-spirited. The actions which have caused me shame -- and still knock me down if it catches me off guard -- are between me and my Maker. I've evaluated what is true and what is not. I have made amends and peace. I have accepted. You cannot tell me anything that I haven't told myself. And no person on Earth can be more vicious, more vile and uncaring, than I can be to myself (sad but true, am I right?). Therefore, any venom directed at me may very well surprise me (I mean, why do humans seek to hurt one another?), but it will not hurt me. I am a woman of deep faith. I am not untouchable but I believe that my Savior died to settle my score. So the depths to which I descend in shame is such a colossal waste of time and energy! Maybe even a lack of trust that I can be loved even though...
But let me tell you something, you beautiful creature, you are loved even though...
Even if you do not believe in God, you are loved by many. Shame has no hold on you. You are free if you accept that. Extravagantly free. And it has nothing to do with the number on the scale, the sheer volume of screw-ups, or what anyone on this Earth thinks about you. You can live a shameless life, not through indignation that manifests itself in the middle finger to anyone who disagrees, but by recognizing that shaming the shamers only leads to a life of impotent bitterness. The work of overcoming shame is done in your heart. Not with publicity, hashtags, or movements.
To live in extravagant freedom is to recognize that shame is only as powerful as you permit it to be - and when you downgrade that storm from a Cat 5 to a little rain shower you won't need to mark yourself safe because you won't even need an umbrella.
In fact, you may be able to dance in that rain a little in joyous celebration that what was meant to hurt you was something you already had under control.