Shame is a powerful emotion. It grips us, stays with us. While other memories fade, shame seems to linger, just as poignant as it felt in the moment, for years afterwards. I can still remember some of the very first moments in my life that made me feel ashamed. The first was in daycare. I must have been only three or four years old. We were going around the group, introducing ourselves maybe, all I can remember is that after our turn, we got to pick a toy from this massive pile in the center of the circle we were seated in. Immediately I fell in love with this florescent yellow/green duck stuffed animal. The rest of the world seemed to fall away as I focused on how I had to have it. I began to feel panicked that another child would choose it before I could. Who wouldn’t choose that magnificent duck?! This panic led me to speak out of turn. In desperation I tried to take my turn early so I could secure the duck, but was gently chastised and told I had to wait. That is my first memory of shame. A shame so sour that even though I did end up getting that duck (still have it today at my mom’s house) the moment was ruined anyway.
I also have another very early memory of shame. It was my first day of kindergarten or one of the first. My family and I were seated around the table having dinner. I was telling everyone how my day went at school. There was a boy I knew because our fathers were friends, and I had always had a crush on him. At one point during dinner I proudly announced that I had told this boy that I loved him. To this day I can feel that sickening silence that followed. My mom, dad, and sister all stopped and stared at me dumbstruck. I immediately recognized that I had done something wrong. I don’t even remember how that incident ended, nor if it was ever brought up again. I just remember that bitter piercing shame.
I’ve read before that shame has a profound effect on us. I don’t need to be shown much evidence to believe that it’s true. We can all feel the power of shame in our own lives. Sometimes I wonder how those early memories of shame have bled out into the rest of my life, how they changed me. Generally shame is a social emotion. It is a cue that what we’ve done is not socially acceptable and that it could put our place in the group/society at risk. This is why it strikes us so intensely. It is a defense against behaviors that could get us ostracized. Although like most remnants of our evolutionary history, in the modern day sometimes it can be a hindrance instead of a help.
I’m actually not sure if anyone else experiences this, but I feel shame about things even when I’m all alone. And not about anything that would make sense to feel shame about. There are moments when shame grips me deep down, in my core. I feel ashamed to exist, to be who I am. For example, sometimes I’ll be having fun dancing and singing in the shower only to be suddenly overcome with shame. It’s hard to explain why. I guess I’m ashamed of feeling good about myself, of what other people would think if they knew how I had just been feeling and acting. It doesn’t really make sense even to me. But because of these feelings up until recently I would hardly ever allow myself to dance, even all alone.
It makes self-love and self-acceptance very tricky for me. Because my shame primarily seems to come from moments of feeling proud or liking myself. It usually follows intense happiness or joy about something I’ve done or am doing. Like this blog for instance. I love writing on here everyday. It makes me happy and I’m not doing it for anyone but me. But there are still moments when I feel ashamed of the things I’ve written. I think to myself: how dare you think anyone cares what you have to say, it’s so embarrassing that you prop up this false image of yourself online. I think similar things about anything I create. I’ll be so happy with it and desperately want to share it with others, but when I do I feel ashamed. I’m ashamed for thinking anyone else would care, for wanting to “show off.” I never fully believe any compliments I get. There is always some small part of me that wonders if they are just being nice.
All of this shame I harbor inside of me is just another example of how I tend to take life too seriously. Shame only works if you care about what people think of you, if you have an image of yourself you are trying to protect. When I imagine the times when I’ve seen someone else do something embarrassing or shameful, I don’t care much. At most I just feel pained because I am empathically sharing their embarrassment. I want to start facing my shame, to get acquainted with it, to know what makes it tick. And eventually to make peace with it. Shame is a product of the ego. I hope to someday let them both go.