I mentioned I have been reading some books by Brene Brown, who describes herself as a shame researcher. The reason she researches shame is that it prevents us from finding connection.
One of the things she writes about in Daring Greatly is the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is, “I did something bad.” Shame is, “I am bad.”
I was thinking today, given that it’s Father’s Day and yesterday I saw my sister for the first time in many years, that if I talk about the abuse I experienced as a child, the first reaction a lot of people have is, “It’s not your fault.” But I don’t feel guilty about it. I feel shame. The idea of it being my fault sounds insane to me, but if I hear it enough I start to wonder if I am meant to feel guilty, and if there is something wrong with me for not blaming myself. Because, evidently, average people assume I do.
Brene Brown describes shame as the fear of loss of connection–I did something or something happened or there is something about me which no one is going to understand, and I will feel all alone because of this thing about me. As human beings, loneliness is one of the worst things that can happen to us. It is soul destroying.
I have to interject here that there is a whole literature and line of thought devoted to the idea that dependency is so likely to be associated with loss and betrayal that the best way to deal with it is to prevent it from ever arising.
I believe the bedrock of the whole codependency movement lies here. The underlying, core premise is, “I am too dependent on someone else, and individualism is the answer.”
I think there are other ways of looking at these relationships: as in, I and/or my partner lack important relationship skills that would allow us to stay connected to each other in supportive, resiliency-building ways. We can’t take one another’s perspective adequately, we can’t control our impulses, we can’t understand our own internal worlds or communicate about it, and we are deeply lonely people because of that. The lack of relationship skills creates a very deep pain we sometimes numb or avoid in destructive ways (as in addictions) or we become so deprived of our basic need for connection we demand it or rage that we don’t have it.
That said, I think there is this confusion over shame and guilt because shame is used as a punishment. Because shame is so painful, people intentionally create feelings of shame by deliberately telling you they can’t understand you. “How could you do that?” people say–a lot of times when it’s not very difficult to understand how someone might do that. I am not talking here of atrocities we genuinely can’t fathom. I mean stupid things kids do, for example, which basically anyone who has been a kid ought to be able to imagine might seem like a good idea to someone without a lot of skill in imagining consequences yet.
I think we also use shame in society to maintain certain kinds of social control. They are meant to maintain certain social boundaries. Some of these boundaries are destructive, but I don’t think all of them necessarily are. Even if they are in the long term destructive, I did not start this particular fire. So I am going to describe this usage of shame without any judgment. It exists.
Sexually exploiting children is one of these boundaries enforced via shame. As a society, we have a very dim view of pedophilia. Incest is pretty bad too.
I was thinking about what I experienced as a child, the immense of amounts of sexual exploitation and abuse. Those memories are absolutely dripping with shame–not from my adult self judging those experiences, but the shame is a part of what I felt when they happened.
I think the societal use of shame to enforce this boundary of not abusing or exploiting children is a part of why I felt that. I have an idea, you should understand, that because of the lack of nurturing experiences, my memories of many things are sort of confused. Emotions and sensory impressions are not really linked to a narrative or to declarative knowledge. I might remember something that felt icky, for example, but not be able initially to identify the icky thing–what it looked like or what I might call that icky thing.
My later attempts to make sense of my memories haven’t necessarily been that great. I thought about that this morning. I called C and the phone she uses was with some other kid I don’t even know. Absolutely no hope of speaking with her. So afterwards, I had these kinds of deep insights and felt teary. After a while, I realized whether I have deep thoughts or not, I always feel teary if I call her and can’t speak to her. This is not about my wonderful thoughts.
I’ve had similar moments about going to bed at night. I miss particular people sometimes at those moments, and I’ve started to realize this has absolutely nothing to do with the person I think of in these moments of terrible loneliness. This is about being left alone as an infant who was not capable of doing anything more than lie in whatever position I had been placed in and cry.
I was thinking about the shame I feel when I remember being sexually abused and exploited. A key element of this is the lack of emotional connection to the perpetrator. A perpetrator who understands the victim is frightened and confused and disgusted and feeling both betrayed and the need to please a powerful adult would not be able to abuse a child. Their empathic distress would prevent that from ever happening.
Being abused at any age, but maybe especially as a child, is a profoundly lonely experience. It’s also profoundly vulnerable later to seek the connection that heals the sense of disconnection. It asks, for one, that the listener tap into whatever painful feelings they have which might allow them to understand our experiences. That’s a big ask. Not everyone succeeds in that.
Brene Brown talks about the difference between empathy and sympathy. It’s a cartoon she narrates. It’s great. Empathy requires the person go down into your pain with you. Sympathy looks at you from the outside like nothing even remotely like that has ever happened to them. I’ve gotten my share of sympathy. It sucks. It is worse than keeping everything to myself and being actually alone.
I’ve wandered from the point, but I feel like I get it.
Abuse is a profound experience of disconnection. That’s shame.