Rethinking Our Cultural Conceptions of Shame

I've had "that haunting feeling" after some indiscretion too ridiculous to recount. As a society, we need to pay attention to the double edge sword of our norms that both protect and shame us.
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So often, I myself, have had "that haunting feeling" after some indiscretion too ridiculous to recount or some misjudgment or miscommunication too heinous to bare. So when I meet with people who regret their journeys into their darker sides, I fully understand the need to hide or be silent while that haunting feeling leaves.

In my work with people, it is this feeling that often feels no permission to reside in a repertoire of memories, and it is this feeling that plants the seed of depression, anxiety, suicide tendencies or avoidance of living life to its fullest. As a society, I think that we need to pay attention to the double edge sword of our norms that both protect and shame us. And in these stressful times, it is particularly important to think of forgiveness of both self and other.

At college, many people know what it is like to wake up next to someone whom they might never have dreamed of sleeping with. The morning shock is all the rant and those who can make light of it joke around with their friends. I recall a very attractive, body-conscious junior who got up to see a fairly obese man in her room eating leftover Chinese food. All she could talk about was how she had to block that memory out. And there was a rambunctious young man who could barely keep from retching over the scene he created in an alcohol-induced rage. If one has a good sense of humor, this kind of minor faux pas can be overlooked, but during stressful times, our indiscretions may indicate more subconscious feelings we may want to look at more closely.

Why do people sleep with almost anyone when they are very drunk? Is it just that the alcohol kills all judgment or is there a genuine sadness and loneliness that begs for company of any kind? And is that warm body some kind of reassurance that you are not alone in the world? If so, have you taken a look at the depth of that loneliness and understood the nature of it and how it wreaks havoc on your judgment and your life?

In the throes of an alcohol binge, what is that innermost calling that makes you want to connect with your greatest disappointments, anger or fear? What gets unblocked when those defenses melt away and you are left with raw feelings that have no place to go? Are your beer goggles really just about misperceptions, or are they about the fact that physicality matters less to you when you are so deeply connected with your own pathos? Indiscretions are a taste of life beyond the norm. We seek refuge in these moments when life feels too boring or unbearable for its heaviness. Yet these very moments of relief quickly turn to guilt when we are sober or over with the "act."

We are left astounded at how stupid we were, and how we could have made such poor decisions. Bill Clinton's oral sex. Michael Phelps's marijuana. Whitney Houston's cocaine -- the list goes on and on. People hurt their careers. They hurt their loved ones. And we, as a society, ask for public apologies so that we can return to the status quo.

But to me, those apologies feel almost meaningless. For we neglect to see and acknowledge the real vulnerability of being human -- of having a brilliant thinking brain that lives with a primitive animal brain within the same skull. We like to pretend that we are only brilliant thinking brains. We assume that if one person can put on a lid on his or her impulses, that all people can. We neglect to understand that there are novelty-seeking genes or genes for different temperaments and that we cannot truly make these assumptions.

I think that we need a sincere revision of our attitudes on public apologies and shaming. We also need take a closer look at our own sadistic impulses when we demand these shallow responses from our fellow men and women. I think we need to understand that our need for public apologies exist so that we can ensure that there are adequate deterrents to other people who might hurt us. And rather than asking someone to apologize publicly, we can take a step back and try to understand our own capacities for forgiveness. I think that if we truly cared about peoples' partners being publicly embarrassed, we would leave them alone and let them figure out what does and does not matter to them. There is little use in pretending that we care if we can't act in accordance with this.

That haunting feeling is at the door of every human being. Opening the door leads to sickening guilt. Leaving the door closed leads to an unexplored and unfulfilled life. Isn't there another solution or depth that would benefit our understanding and help us lead more fulfilled lives?

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