Shame: A Common Emotion We Prefer Not To Discuss

Melbourne writer and comedian, Ben Pobjie, has written of the shame he felt the night the police arrested him and led him away from his wife and children. His self- harming behaviour prompted his wife to alert the police.

In an attempt to explain his actions Pobjie said,

“It was shame that had driven me to declare my desire to end my life: the shame of letting my family down, of not being an adequate father and husband, the shame of not being in control of my depression. The shame of not being a good enough man.”

Shame has been defined as ‘the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonourable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another.’ Or to put it more simply, ‘it is the failure to meet our own standards of behaviour.’

Shame is a common emotion we prefer not to discuss even though it profoundly affects the way we live. Our silence indicates we regard our shameful behaviour too painful or too raw to share or we fear the criticism, rejection or abandonment that might follow an admission.

During my final year of primary school, I was appointed school captain. It was an honour to be recognised in this way. As a consequence, I was often given extra responsibilities. The assumption being, I could be trusted. During the cricket season, I had the task of taking the cricket equipment to the sports ground and setting up the wickets. On this particular day, the ground was hard and I couldn’t get the stumps to stand up. I took one of the bats and used it as a hammer. Bats were never intended for this use.  The stumps made a round indentation in the face of the bat. The following day a very angry teacher called together the captains of the cricket teams and showed them the damage. He was definitely after answers. In particular, he wanted to know who might have done this. It was obvious by his manner and tone of voice the punishment would be severe. I knew I was the guilty party but the consequences of owning up seemed frightening, so I said nothing. I was too ashamed to admit my actions. Shame diminished my perception of who I was. I felt a loss of freedom and saw myself as a failure.

But I didn’t want to be defined by shame. Shame needn’t render us powerless to live fully. Rather, it can provide an incentive to do better. I know I was motivated to make amends, to work hard and strive for excellence.

Joseph Burgo Ph D makes a distinction between guilt and shame. He says,

“Guilt and shame sometimes go hand in hand; the same action may give rise to feelings of both shame and guilt, where the former reflects how we feel about ourselves and the latter involves an awareness that our actions have injured someone else.”

I worked in disability services for many years. A former work colleague of mine was discovered behaving inappropriately toward a client. When confronted, he ran from the bedroom, took a knife from the kitchen and stabbed himself in the stomach. He was fortunate to survive.

It was an impulsive action, driven by guilt and shame, which could have had tragic consequences. Nonetheless, his shameful behaviour discredited him in the eyes of his family, his work colleagues, and the person he had taken advantage of.

Shame gives birth to feelings of hopelessness and desperation. We fixate on our failures, we exaggerate our shortcomings, and we see ourselves as unlovable. If our shame is too intense, we can descend into a cycle of self-destructive behaviour.

In his book “The Culture of Shame,” Andrew P Morrison says,

“A crucial factor that commonly underlies suicidal impulses is the presence of deep, unremitting shame.”

How then do we manage our shame? Bestselling author, Ann Voskamp offers this sage advice.

“Shame dies when stories are told in safe places.”

If we are unable to resolve our shame, it is important to get help. This can be difficult for men as they are somewhat averse to looking outside themselves. Talk to a trusted friend or counsellor. They may highlight some action you can take. Choose to forgive yourself so you can move forward with your life. Take into account the words of Susie Larson, who says,

“Shame is a parasitic force that drains life, takes life, and keeps us from life.”

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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