Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Loser Talk

Behind the 'person I'm not supposed to be' is an even more formidable Guardian to the gate of True Self: Shame.

At the Healthline website is a description of "the Self-conscious emotions". Among them is Shame, described here:

"It is a highly negative and painful state that also disrupts ongoing behavior and causes confusion in thought and an inability to speak. The body of the shamed person seems to shrink, as if to disappear from the eye of the self or others. Because of the intensity of this emotional state, and the global attack on the self system, all that individuals can do when presented with such a state is to attempt to rid themselves of it. Its global nature, however, makes it very difficult to dissipate."

Merriam Webster's definition:

1. a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or improriety

2. the susceptibility to such emotion

3. a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute: ignominy

4. something that brings censure or reproach

Healthline goes on to discuss some of the dysfunctional things people will do to rid themselves of such an excruciating feeling.

Ultimately, I suppose this is the power that any given culture can wield: the collective blunt instrument of Shame.

Behind Shame is the specter of 'Loser'. Which has Shame at its core, in a tightening spiral. To be a Loser is to live in a permanent state of shame worthy only of the contempt of others and trapped inside one's own skin with it. Forever.

The tight bond between Shame and sexuality has always perplexed me. In some cultures, the entire worth and character of a man's life was judged by whether or not his daughter was 'virtuous'. Why? Why does the crime of rape have a charged connotation to it in comparison with a mugging? Why, in some cultures, are women who have been raped deemed ineligible for marriage, so that rape becomes an instrument of war, of ethnic cleansing (because she is eliminated from the gene pool)? Why did I hear a mother say, during the Kosovo War, that she'd rather her daughter be killed, then raped? And why, in Iraq, do we hear of families who refuse the return of their kidnapped daughters because "we don't know what 'they' might have done to them.?"

Somewhere along the line a collective agreement has been made that rape is in a special category which carries such unique and potent shame that the survivor must be relegated to a continuous state of humiliation. She may as well have died, because living in a continuous state of shame is worse than dying.

What's unspoken here is the role of the survivor's very people. If rape is the nail, cultural agreement that the victim is permanently shamed is the sledgehammer. Their agreement to assigning rape this value is what gives it its power: If there was no shame in being raped, a weapon of ethnic cleansing would be neutered. And a gesture of contempt rendered toothless (not that it would be any less undesirable to be raped, but the pain would be confined to the crime itself and not infected, exacerbated and extended by cultural environment).

I digress.

I think well-meaning adults, rather than viewing True Self as a diamond in the rough to be shaped and polished over time, saw True Self as an animal to be caged, and broken. Shame and humiliation seemed like logical tools to use. The people we are 'not supposed to be' wear the garments of 'Loser'. The ultimate threat is being the archetypal Loser, a soul worthy only of a life of perpetual shame, cast out, beneath contempt.

Of course, we can withdraw our own consent to this agreement. What's hidden is that it's our own agreement that gives these Guardians their potency. Once neutralized, perhaps the pathway to True Self is open...


Mrs. Spit said...

This was interesting. I wonder if there is 2 sides to shame.

1 side can paralyze us, especially when applied inappropriately. I think this shame comes from us internalizing an idea from society.

But what about the other side - the side that is a valuable idea - that we don't do things or say things because they are potentially shameful.

When we say to someone, you should be ashamed of yourself, especially a child, because they have, for example, hit a small child, are we not saying - that feeling you feel now, or should feel now, it's called shame. We feel shame when we do something that we shouldn't. When we don't act in a good way, when we violate a moral code we want to live by.

I have chosen not to do or say things, because I know I will be ashamed. Which helps me keep my commitments to myself.

I'm wondering how we manage shame, how we work on keeping shame reasonable and realistic. Only accepting shame for things that are appropriate.

excavator said...

I'm wondering if there is a semantical difference between a kind of healthy shame vs toxic--a distinction made by a guy named John Bradshaw a number of years ago. I'm wondering if healthy shame isn't really shame at all; instead it is a deep and heartfelt regret for something one may have done. Whereas toxic shame is a knife to the core of the worth of one's very being.

I think the capacity for true regret for one's actions comes with maturity and the development of empathy, and I'm not sure that someone can be "shamed" into that capacity.

Wordgirl said...

I had a discussion with a colleague about shame-based vs. guilt-based societal structures -- in part because many of our students were raised in certain parts of Africa -- many West Africans -- but North Africa as well -- and one teacher who had lived in Africa pointed out that certain cultures (though, of course not all) are free from the judeo-christian idea of guilt-based thought -- but instead are more shame-based....the implications for teaching being that many students will cheat -- and feel very little compunction about it -- until they are caught -- at which point if you shame them -- they are unlikely to ever do it again -- but unlike students brought up in a guilt-based ethos -- who refrain from doing things because of the internal mechanism of guilt...very interesting -- interesting too because if a guilt-based student decides to cross that line -- can rationalize enough to overcome that feeling of guilt -- I don't think that the invocation of shame works in the same way once they're caught.


Personally I feel, having been raised in a secular home but with culturally catholic roots -- that I was deeply wrapped in the idea of sexual pleasure and guilt -- especially as a young adult. It was a profound awakening when I went to college, took women's studies classes -- was able to redefine my sexual power as beautiful and natural...that was big for me. Transformative, really.

Martha said...

Beautiful post, very insightful, especially your ending, "Once neutralized, perhaps the pathway to True Self is open..." This resonates with me and my experiences, that if I choose not to view the world through the prism of shame, then this loses it's power. This is different than the aspect of civility and compassion which Mrs.Spit I think refers to in the positive aspects of "shame". It's interesting, I am reminded of the honor of the disenfranchised, the homeless addicts, sex workers, prostitutes, and I see no shame, just choices. Shame implies judgement, I am rarely qualified to judge or have any interest in doing so.
Happy New Year, Welcome Home.