Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Do You Believe in Shame?

This morning my friend Nancy in L.A. sent me another one of her provocative emails that always get me thinking. Today, she asked a million-dollar question: "Do you ever feel ashamed, or embarrassed at something you've done?"

Answering one-half of that was easy. I live my life in a perpetual state of embarrassment. I get a rush of blood to the head (thankfully, undetectable to the naked eye, which is one of the good things about being black) every time I'm using the pull-up bar at the gym, and my iPod falls out of my pocket and lands on the floor with a thud. I'm certain that everyone is looking at me, laughing on the inside and thinking, Clumsy fool!

But Nancy's wording was interesting. She asked if I ever feel ashamed or embarrassed by something I've done. If I know her -- and I know that I do -- she chose her words carefully and specifically. As embarrassed as I often feel in everyday life, it's generally not due to something I've deliberately done but rather something that's happened to me, either by chance or through the deliberate action of someone else.

Back when I was a Teen People editor, I used to edit a page in which celebrities and regular teens recounted their most embarrassing moments. I can't recall a single one of them at the moment, but I do remember that they often involved slips of the tongue and exposed body parts, none of which necessarily required deliberate actions by them, though I'm pretty sure a few of those body parts were revealed via someone else's practical joke.

Speaking of exposed body parts, one of my most embarrassing moments came when I was 8 years old and in the hospital undergoing neurological tests for chronic headaches. (My mother couldn't understand what her baby possibly could have to worry about that would cause his cranium to throb constantly, and the doctors were no help. My head pounds chronically to this day.) I was standing in my hospital room wearing nothing but a towel, and when the nurse came in to check on me, my towel fell down to the ground.

Looking back, I'm pretty sure that my 8-year-old self had nothing to be embarrassed about (and even less to expose!), but there you go. I've always been weird about my body, particularly when it comes to revealing that danger zone between my upper torso and my lower appendages (the ones I use to walk on -- get your mind out of the gutter!). No wonder the walking-around-in-public-naked dream is my most recurrent one.

Since the episode with the nurse, I've probably been embarrassed at least once a week. Like the scene in that hospital room, it generally doesn't involve any deliberate action on my part but rather some chance occurrence, like falling while I'm running -- or simply walking -- down the street, having someone's eyes linger too long on my gnarly toenails, having someone be publicly rude to me, or getting kicked out of a bar or club. The latter two might spring from something I've done, but what causes my embarrassment isn't my action but someone else's public reaction to it. Embarrassment is a party of two or more.


Shame, on the other hand, is a solitary experience, whether it involves a solitary experience or a group one (as was the case with Michael Fassbender's character in the 2011 movie Shame, pictured above). It's more internalized. It has deeper psychological roots, and it's longer term than embarrassment, revolving around how we view ourselves as opposed to how others do. A parent or a holier-than-thou type might say, "I'm ashamed of you," over something we've said or done, but what they're feeling is probably more fleeting disappointment than shame. When we're actually ashamed of someone, or embarrassed by them (say, a family member who's in prison or an alcoholic parent who sleeps around), it's typically over habitual behavior that we perceive as reflecting poorly on us.

That "me" in "shame" is there for a reason. Shame is personal, whether or not our own actions bring it about. But getting back to self-shame, unlike embarrassment (or being ashamed of someone or embarrassed by them), there doesn't have to be any witnesses involved. It's a private hell. I must be the most shameless person on earth because I can't think of the last time I've felt shame over anything I've done in public or in private. Maybe I'm just one of the lucky ones who lives a life that's beyond reproach.

Hardly. I might not be inclined to walk around with my head bowed in shame, but guilt is something with which I'm well acquainted. People tend to use guilt and shame interchangeably, but there are significant differences. Guilt is public, even when we grapple with it in private. Shame is much more personal. As I already pointed out, it doesn't necessarily involve another person, and it tends to have moralistic undercurrents.

Recently on Days of Our Lives, Victor Kiriakis and an unwitting Marlena Evans screened a sex tape showing Kristin DiMera and Eric Brady (Marlena's son) in flagrante delicto (after Kristin drugged Eric, therefore it was a rape in action) at the wedding of Kristin and Brady Black (Eric's stepbrother, Marlena's stepson). Yes, only on a soap!

I'm pretty certain that the overwhelming feeling bubbling over inside Eric, who, by the way, is a priest, was shame, and probably embarrassment, though not guilt. If he felt any guilt in that moment, it was probably not over the tape but due to the realization that he'd previously falsely accused his good friend Nicole Walker of the rape, based on some vague flashbacks of himself in bed with a tall blonde.

But as for the tape itself, to paraphrase Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb, he had nothing to be guilty of. Like shame, guilt generally involves some wrongdoing (or what we see as wrongdoing), but it's our own. (There was also a Teen People column in which teens confessed terrible things they'd done that they had every right to feel guilty for, but I can't recall any of those misdeeds either.) A rape victim might feel shame for months, or years, after the assault, but it's the rapist, if he or she has any conscience, who should be wracked by guilt forever.

Guilt is a less personal experience than shame, as it actively involves other people and how they perceive us, or how they would perceive us if they were privy to our wrongdoing or whatever it is that's making us feel guilty. In addition to the legal angle that often accompanies it, guilt is as likely to involve inactivity as activity. We might feel guilty, for example, for not keeping in touch with our friends and family (which would be my primary source of daily guilt), or for not coming forward and admitting some crime, or over the actions of our forefathers toward some ethnic group. We talk about "white liberal guilt," not "white liberal shame."

Personally, I'd rather be wracked by guilt than by shame. You might not be able to undo a crime once you've committed it, but by confessing, you can go a long way toward easing your guilty conscience. And if no fatalities are involved, you might even get over it eventually. The shame, however, you'll have to carry around for much longer, possibly forever, like a tattoo. I wouldn't wish that burden on my worst enemy, and I'm thankful that I, to answer Nancy's question, have yet to experience it first hand.

And may I never do anything to deserve to.

Songs About Shame

"Shame" Evelyn "Champagne" King



"Shame" The Motels



"Shame" OMD



"Shame" Eurythmics



"Shame" Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow



"Shame, Shame, Shame" Shirley & Company



"Shame on Me" Donna Fargo



"Shame on the Moon" Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band



"Such a Shame" Talk Talk



"Do You Believe in Shame?" Duran Duran



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