Sitting in My Shame
Sunday, December 18, 2011Tweet
When I was a senior in high school, my AP English teacher would give us practice AP test questions for homework, and we'd come in the next day, discuss them in small groups, and then each group would turn in one copy to get a grade.
One day, after our group had turned in our paper, my teacher called me out into the hallway. He was an imposing, brilliant man who was also our head speech coach, and the kind of person whose opinion could make or break your feeling of self-worth. He asked me how it was that my group had only discussed the questions for five minutes, then turned in my copy of the questions and gotten a perfect score.
He thought I'd cheated. He didn't say as much, but I knew he thought I'd gotten the answers over lunch from someone in his earlier period.
I stood there, shaking, and explained as calmly as I could that no one else in my group had had any idea what the poem we'd read meant, and I was the only one who felt I understood it, so I'd explained what I thought it meant and then we picked all the answers that matched that explanation, which were the ones I'd chosen for homework.
He nodded, once, and escorted me back inside the class. He believed me.
And yet that experience is still burned into my memory because of the immense shame I felt at being suspected of cheating. How much worse would I have felt if he hadn't believed me, had brought me to the principal's office or called me a liar in front of the class? Here I had done nothing wrong and yet I was on the verge of a breakdown at the accusation of having done something wrong.
It's always been strange to me that when I actually knowingly do something wrong, I might feel a little guilty and embarrassed about it, but when I'm scolded for something I didn't do or didn't know was wrong, it tears me apart.
For example, one time I was waiting to go into a concert with friends and I took a picture of the group with my digital camera. A security guard who was probably 7 feet tall came over and started yelling at me that I wasn't allowed to take that camera into the arena and I needed to go turn it in the security desk. (Apparently videocameras weren't allowed in the arena, and even though my camera didn't have video capabilities, they wanted me to turn it in so it wouldn't get confiscated inside.) I felt utterly and completely humiliated by the incident, which never made any sense to me because there was no way I could have known beforehand about the rule that I was breaking -- in fact, hadn't even broken. Yet the shame of being scolded in front of my friends by this man was devastating to me.
I finally figured out why.
I'm reading The Spirit Level, and there's a chapter called "Pride, Shame and Status." The authors talk about how sensitive we humans are to how we are perceived by other people, and reference a researcher who calls shame "the social emotion," meaning it is entirely to do with our relationships to others. We may feel guilty about something we've done when only we know about it, but we feel shame when someone else calls us out on something foolish or wrong that we've done.
This message was repeated by our priest at Mass last night, talking about how we have such a great need for other people that we feel shame when we cause any kind of rift in a relationship, even unintentionally.
I always thought of myself as not needing the approval of others because I don't tend to cave to peer pressure; I am who I am and people can take that or leave it. Even when I choose to do something I know I shouldn't, it's still a choice I make, and I've usually factored in how people may view me because of it.
What I realized was this: The reason I react so strongly to being scolded for something I didn't do or didn't know was wrong is that I have no control over the situation. I feel ashamed and humiliated and there's nothing on the other side of the equation to say, "Well, you knew it was wrong (or would be perceived as wrong) and you made a choice to do it," to help me hold my dignity together. I'm utterly laid out and at the mercy of the other person's opinions of me.
All of these realizations came to me because I felt this way last night. The details aren't important but to say I was scolded harshly for something Mike and I agreed resulted mostly from a misunderstanding. (He was not the one doing the scolding; he defended me.) I was lying in bed feeling ashamed and humiliated and trying to make the feelings go away so I could get to sleep.
Then I remembered something from the book I'd just finished, called Liberated Parents, Liberated Children (on 'Becca's recommendation). The authors write that parents often want to protect their children from painful feelings so much that they react in a way that is not helpful. They try to distract ("Here, I made your favorite cookies"), minimize ("It will all be better in the morning"), or take over ("I'll call up that teacher and give her a piece of my mind!").
But children need to learn that it's OK to have negative feelings. They need someone to say, "Wow, those words must have really hurt, huh? It's OK to feel sad about it. I would feel sad too if someone said that to me." Or "You feel pretty embarrassed about what happened, don't you? It stinks when embarrassing things happen. They just make you want to curl up in a ball and hide."
And so I let myself feel. I told myself how hurt I felt, how embarrassed, how confused. How worried I was that I'd damaged a relationship with someone I admired and cared about. How scared I was that trying to straighten out the misunderstanding would make things blow up even bigger. I just lay there and let myself be in pain.
And at some point, God said, "That's enough." And His love and forgiveness and peace enveloped me, and I could sleep.
Because when it comes down to it, I'm not in control of my life and I can't control what anyone else thinks of me. God is the only one truly in control.
And as long as He loves me -- and He always will -- that's all that matters.