Sunday, November 27, 2005

Encompassing Shame

The Compass of Shame
Donald Nathanson has thought much and written honestly and deeply about the most basic of human disconnection: shame, and its opposite affect, pride. Nathanson provides an elegant, simple sketch of the very limited moves we have while in the grip of shame. An environment of competence and confidence is expansive and can seem infinite sometimes. Shame on the other hand, constricts and binds anyone in its throes. The signals of shame are universal and appear in human affect very early. The child drops his head, avoids making eye contact, and becomes very still. Time itself stands still.

What is even more interesting about shame is that this affect acts as the interruption of more positive affects, curiosity and desire. When shame, which comes from the outside, inhibits the curiosity or desire of a small child, he becomes still and avoidant or moves away. Thus, the first steps in the dance of shame.

Curiosity or desire well up from the child as naturally as any other part of development -- i.e., reaching for an object, rolling over, pulling up, interacting with others in his environment. These movements, and the affects which accompany them, can be readily seen. Watch a toddler spy a cat lying in the corner. There you have the scenario of curiosity and desire, acted out as the child moves as directly as possible to this curious new object. What follows may nor may not be the inhibition of desire, depending on the temperament of the cat and the behavior of the caretaker if the child runs afoul of the cat. A caretaker who soothes, who verbally takes the side of the child, prevents shame from arising in the child -- though not regret or anger at the untamed object of his desire, the ruffled cat, now a distant object out of reach.

Shame engenders in all of us an attempt to flee the unbearable. As Neo-neocon puts it:

...For vast numbers of people, shame is experienced as a narcissistic wound that is unacceptable and almost literally unbearable. In such cases, a person cannot stand feeling shame and is driven to great anger at the source of the shame and must remove it: either in actuality, by doing away with the person or a substitute; or by an intense explosion of rage expressed verbally.
This is spot on. Shame is unbearable. As Nathanson diagrams it, the person shamed has four options. In the north quadrant is the picture I painted of the small child with neck turned, head down, and gaze averted. He has withdrawn from the unbearable for the moment and will stay that way until his natural curiosity and desire kick in and he finds a new object.

In the east quadrant shame becomes acted out in attacking the self. One is self-deprecating, ironic, detached from the real emotion. In its extremes shame on this point of the compass leads to pathological self-injury, common in adolescent girls.

The southern quadrant is where you'll find the alcoholics and drug abusers. They have learned the very efficient release from shame which alcohol or drugs can provide. Until they can find a healthy substitute for facing and dissipating the "unbearable" then the wound cannot heal and they are stuck here, in the quadrant of avoidance.

Violence towards others takes up the western quadrant. Here, rather than attack the self, or hide from the world, the "cure" is to attack the eyes of the world that can see its shame and humiliation. It is this quadrant I often consider when I hear about another bomb going off, another group of innocents sacrificed on the altar of the shame of a whole culture. The attack-other mode of shame is the most difficult to approach, for here the wound feels most public and is so easily broken open.

The person or group who finds a way to drain the festering wound of humiliation that is the pain of the Middle East will be as important to our history as those who found insulin, penicillin, or vaccines. This has begun in Iraq, but the thought that they might escape while everyone else still lies in the sand is more than some can bear.

Mr. Zarqawi is the essence of shame. If you have any doubt, look at what he did to his fellow Jordanians, and what they, in their shame at his murderous betrayal of his countrymen, felt impelled to do to him. As I said, shame is the ultimate disconnection from one's fellows.

Whether Islam itself is a religion of shame is open to debate, though it would appear so. It relies on external behavior and rituals performed with absolute correctness. It has spent thousands of years spinning out more and more rules. Islamic culture is defensive, superior (attack other), requires that its women cover themselves completely (avoidance), and lives life based on an easily aroused shame/honor dichotomy (the movements across the compass from attack self to attack other). The constant calls to jihad are nothing more than a denial of shame through thrill-seeking.

The following is a poem from Donald Nathanson's book. It perfectly describes the hell of shame in its many manifestations:


This is the shame of the woman whose hand hides
her smile because her teeth are so bad, not the grand
self-hate that leads some to razors or pills
or swan dives off beautiful bridges however
tragic that is. This is the shame of seeing yourself,
of being ashamed of where you live and what
your father's paycheck lets you eat and wear.
This is the shame of the fat and the bald,
the unbearable blush of acne, the shame of having
no lunch money and pretending you're not hungry.
This is the shame of concealed sickness--diseases
too expensive to afford that offer only their cold
one-way ticket out. This is the shame of being ashamed,
the self-disgust of the cheap wine drunk, the lassitude
that makes junk accumulate, the shame that tells
you there is another way to live but you are
too dumb to find it. This is the real shame, the damned
shame, the crying shame, the shame that's criminal,
the shame of knowing words like "glory" are not
in your vocabulary though they litter the Bibles
you're still paying for. This is the shame of not
knowing how to read and pretending you do.
This is the shame that makes you afraid to leave your house,
the shame of food stamps at the supermarket when
the clerk shows impatience as you fumble with the change.
This is the shame of dirty underwear, the shame
of pretending your father works in an office
as God intended all men to do. This is the shame
of asking friends to let you off in front of the one
nice house in the neighborhood and waiting
in the shadows until they drive away before walking
to the gloom of your house. This is the shame
at the end of the mania for owning things, the shame
of no heat in winter, the shame of eating cat food,
the unholy shame of dreaming of a new house and car
and the shame of knowing how cheap such dreams are.
—Vern Rustala
A commenter on Neo-neocon's post wondered at those people whose children misbehave at school, and when called upon by the school authorities act as though it is an attack upon themselves. In their eyes, it probably is.

This "attack other" mode regarding the behavior of our children arises from the general cultural condemnation of families whose children misbehave. How often have you seen people stare angrily and judgmentally at some hassled parent who has lost control of a tired and over-wrought child in a grocery store at supper time? That parent is feeling unadulterated shame at his or her inability to "control" his child. No one ever tells them to leave the cart, take the kid for an ice cream cone and leave it for another time. Just once, I wish someone had the nerve to walk over to the scene and offer to help.


At 9:10 AM, Blogger airforcewife said...

Very interesting and thought provoking.

Part of what I noticed as a teacher was that the self-actualization taught by schools exacerbated the acting out over shame. I think that in trying to create a sense of pride in students for basically no accomplishment, cognitive dissonance was created because the students knew they hadn't really accomplished anything at all.

The question then becomes, how do we negate the shame that causes someone like Zarqawi? After all, he does have quite a bit he should be ashamed of. I think, and I might have missed the point or be totally wrong here, that the ball is his court. He must admit that his beliefs are wrong (I'm not talking religiously, but cultural issues like the treatment of women and horrible work ethic that ensures continual poverty), and the shame of following the aforesaid beliefs and getting nowhere will go away.

This is very interesting. I must ruminate on it for a while.

At 9:47 AM, Blogger Baron Bodissey said...

As a matter of interest, the fourth line from the end in the poem seems to be a reference to Walt Whitman, in "Song of Myself":

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

Seems to me Zarqawi is kneeling "to his kind that lived thousands of years ago."

At 10:31 AM, Blogger who, me? said...

Thank you for such a helpful restatement of the Nathanson material.

Following up on the Baron, it seems that some of the remedy to shame as described in the poem is simple, unemotional honesty. "I am hungry, but have no money for lunch." "I wish I were not so fat, but oh, well, here I am, taking too much room on the bench."

It is the energy summoned for faux-concealment that fuels on-going shame, that turns away help and companionship because it telegraphs the resentment and rage of having the shame acknowledged. Though perhaps the catch-22 is that the truly honest -- as opposed to shamed and manipulative -- statement of the facts is ground not available to the choreography of shame. I do not know.

But I do know that very tiny truth-telling gestures without making claims on anyone else (including claims that they respond to the honest statement) can begin to break the awful isolation. And further, finding the place of not manipulating others to lighten the shame diffuses the covertly toxic self-pity that entangles and poisons the shame-hobbled with its Black Mass of pride and programmatic ingratitude.


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