The Concept of Shame, and what I intend to do about it

Photo by the incomparable Ella Sophie Photo

The boss lady once told me a story about a childhood whim of hers. When someone told her about the virtues of modesty, she would chime back “Modesty-podesty!” while lifting her dress up over her head to show how little she cared about the lesson.

Despite having what some might call a less than “typical” American upbringing with 80+ cousins spanning multiple countries and multiple languages, I would say that I was taught similar lessons about being modest, and more intensely about the concept of shame. In Farsi, the word sharm (شرم) was whipped out at every indiscretion. Whether it be a toddler picking their nose, showing their bellies in public, or just generally doing something that was considered inappropriate it was all quickly followed with “Sharm as!”, “That’s shameful!” Publicly shaming someone into behaving in a socially acceptable way was the norm, a verbal hand smack. As an adult with a bit more life experience and introspection, I often wonder about this kind of thinking, and what it instills in a person from a young age.

Shame itself is learned state of being, if you can call it that. No one comes into the world feeling ashamed of their bodies and its functions until someone gives them that feeling–it’s not something we’re born capable of feeling until it’s presented to us through religion, culture, or our general surroundings.

I’ve personally struggled with this feeling for a long time; shame over who I am, how I look, my actions, things that I’ve experienced, the list goes on. Feeling fundamentally out of place in a world that’s supposed to be your own can do that to you. Growing up feeling like all elbows, knees, and braces– being generally uncomfortable in my own skin was never easy. To this day, I find myself worrying that if people are looking at me, it must be for the wrong reasons. Is there something in my teeth? Something on my face? Is my shirt too tight or my skirt too short? I never had the resilience to shrug things off because things like that always implied that I had done something wrong, something shameful. It was never the other person’s fault for being crass or rude for staring. I think the appropriate term here would now be “victim-blaming,” which I’ve also experienced. There’s nothing worse than gathering the courage to share past trauma and being met with judgement. Even as an adult, those feelings linger and reappear. Even though it’s from a place of their own insecurity, fear, or lack of compassion, people still yell “Shame!” if you listen closely enough.

So…how does one begin to heal from the shame? Poet Olivia Gatwood has a biting series of poems that she’s created with the sole purpose of counteracting these feelings of shame. One of her more famous poems Ode to my Bitch Face, was my first real introduction to spoken word poetry, but the dialogue she delivers prior to her poem is what sticks with me the most.

“We think we’re supposed to feel [shame], we’re told we’re supposed to feel it, about the way that we live and act and walk and speak and dress and are. And then we feel it because someone told us to, it’s not an organic feeling, really.”
Unapologetically writing and sharing my experiences like this without expecting validation is something I’m working on. If anything good is to come out of all this, it’s the fact that feeling shame has made me a more compassionate human being. Sadly enough, I’ve learned that shame can create an unspoken bond between people. Over the years, I’ve connected with so many women who have experienced and survived abusive relationships and assault, as I have. As strong, intelligent women, sometimes the worst kind of shame you can feel is self-imposed. It’s the kind of shame you experience when you sell yourself short, when you protect people you know you shouldn’t by simply staying silent.The world would be so much better if people weren’t so afraid of each other, or afraid of judgment all the time. Shame should never be a necessity. If you consistently expect everyone and everything to be at a teflon-covered level of perfection and propriety, you’re either in serious denial or missing out on a lot of really beautiful, human things in life. None of us are perfect. Life is guaranteed to be messy no matter how uncomplicated and orderly you try to make it. So, I’m slowly unlearning the feeling of shame. I hope some of you will join me.
EVA♥
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