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Deconstructing ‘Shame’ and ‘Ashamed’

I was talking to someone recently about the work of The Quest. I had mentioned ‘shame’ as part of my response to a question he’d asked. “I do not feel ashamed about being gay”, he said very firmly, before I could finish my sentence.

It’s a response I’ve heard from a few people when I have mentioned “Shame” and “Gay” in the same sentence. In this particular conversation, I responded by mentioning the work of Dr Brené Brown, who defines shame as “the fear of disconnection”. I explained that, according to Brené, the majority of the population feels shame, which can be triggered for a variety of reasons because, as she and many others have said, “we are wired for connection”. Brené goes on to say that “when we stop caring about what people think, we lose our capacity for connection.” He was not buying it and the conversation soon moved onto other topics. As I left that evening, I found myself replaying the dialogue over and over. The word ‘ashamed’ had struck a cord and I could not get it out of my mind.

I mentioned the conversation in my supervision session a few weeks later. I asked my supervisor about the difference between ‘feeling ashamed’ and ‘feeling shame’. My supervisor paused and then said that she needed to double-check the definition of ‘ashamed’. The synonyms that came up were – apologetic, remorseful, mortified, humiliated. She said that Brené’s full definition of shame was “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging”. She explained that, looking at the definition of ‘ashamed’ and ‘shame’, there was a clear distinction – that it was possible not to feel ashamed, but to feel shame.

Ade Profile 1Those synonyms for ‘ashamed’ made sense. I recounted what had happened when I came out to my mother in my late 20s. One of the things my mother had said a few days after I told her my news was “Are you not ashamed?” I remember very boldly and confidently responding “Of course, I am not ashamed”. And yet, beneath the surface of the feelings triggered as a result of her comment, I felt shame – I felt that “intense feeling and belief that I was not worthy of love and belonging” – as my authentic self. At the end of the exploration with my supervisor, I concluded that it was indeed possible not to feel ashamed, but to feel shame.

When I reflect back on the aftermath of that conversation with my mum, I recognize that I did pretty much do what Brené calls the “hustle for worthiness”. In effect, because I felt this sense of being unworthy of love and belonging (as my authentic self), I developed a practice of pleasing, performing, perfecting and pretending my way to feeling worthy. I went through a phase of where I was going to be the good and compliant son and in return my mother would welcome and accept me. And for a long time it worked – on the surface. Deep down, I still carried those feelings of not being accepted exactly as I was. Those feelings of unworthiness and not being good enough simply lay dormant, waiting to be triggered.

Just the other day, I found myself in a similar conversation with someone else saying, “I don’t feel ashamed and I don’t feel shame”. I felt better equipped this time and instead of giving definitions, I explained by way of anecdote. I told the story of coming out to my mother. “Yes, I get what you are saying, but it does not apply to me. I don’t feel shame”, she responded. A short while later, she grabbed me by the arm and said, “I get it! I do feel shame!” She went on to tell me about how she feels during and after conversations with a particular member of her family – she mentioned being left with feelings of not being good enough and uncomfortable sensations she’d feel in her body. She went on to give me examples of conversations she’d had that left her with those feelings. “I never knew that was shame,” she said, just before we parted.

As I was getting ready to put down my reflections on ‘shame’ and ‘ashamed’, I thought back to that gut response of “I am not ashamed” and “I do not feel shame”. I thought back to what Brené calls the ‘1, 2, 3’ of shame – we all have it, no one wants to talk about it and the less we talk about it, the more we have it. There is indeed something about the word ‘shame’ that often triggers an emotional and mental disassociation. It can feel shaming to have a conversation about shame, and equally shaming to acknowledge feelings of shame. Using ‘shame’ and ‘ashamed’ interchangeably also does not help, because it triggers more shame. And yet, if we do not have these conversations about shame, we never get to explore what lies beneath some of our behaviours.

For those reading this who might be unsure as to whether they ever feel shame, I’d recommend you stay curious and, over the coming week, go on a ‘shame scavenger hunt’ – look for it. In the words of Brené, “if we do not claim shame, shame claims us”.

Ade Adeniji

Photo: Flickr/bruckerrlb

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