Shame is one of the most powerful human emotions we can experience. All emotions have their roots in evolution which means they have to serve some sort of useful biological purpose. Shame is all about making sure that we don’t get outcast by the group. It whispers in our ear that we are dirty, unlovable, not good enough, and tells us that we must hide our sins (and sometimes ourselves) away. In times gone by, to be outcast by the group spelt a relatively quick and lonely death. This threat to belonging was serious, and it was important to our survival that we were made aware.
These days, shame can also be a matter of life and death. Shame arising from childhood abuse or trauma is often a factor in adult mental health problems and its effects can cause dissociation, depressive symptoms and a literal physical shutting down. It is so all-pervasive we can become paralysed by it – so huge is the threat of the condemnation of others. Unfortunately those with power soon come to learn that shame can be used as a means of social control. Parents use it consciously to induce a sense of guilt in their children which can be healthy, but also open to abuse. Others use it to control behaviour which is seen as a threat. If you look at what sorts of things are considered ‘shameful’ in society, you can get a pretty good idea of who is in charge.
As an attachment focused therapist, understanding shame is an important part of my work, and I have recently been completing an online course all about it. Marsha Linehan, the founder of dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) advises that the cure for shame is to tell as many people as possible the thing that you are ashamed of. She talks about how gay people have previously been shamed by society but that this has shifted with the lifting of the taboo. The more people speak out about being gay, the less ashamed they feel and gradually societal attitudes have shifted in response.
Speaking out is brave however and requires the support of a community of like-minded others that are brave enough to speak out too. To shift societal norms and narratives, you have to find a load of other people who won’t reject you first. This is the power of minority groups coming together and part of why it’s so important. The Gay Pride movement is the living embodiment of this and its success a credit to those who were fearless enough to march together.
I learnt all this today having recently been thinking about my own experiences of speaking out as a survivor of domestic abuse. I still remember how scared I was when I chose to hit the ‘publish’ button after having written my first blog post about my childhood. I was extremely nervous about the reaction I would receive and worried about who might read it, but at the same time determined to speak out. The response could not have been more surprising. I was amazed at how touched people were by my story – so many of my old friends reached out to me, sending messages of support and wondering how they hadn’t known about it at the time. My blog went from something that was read by a few of my friends to something hundreds of people had read. Without realising it, I was telling as many people as I could about the thing that made me feel ashamed and the effect has been hugely healing. I didn’t know what would happen that day, but instead of rejection or ridicule, I was met with deep love and understanding and something inside me shifted forever.
The shame of a survivor does not belong to them, but it is often misplaced. The shame of the abused belongs to the abuser, but to admit that your parent was dangerous for example, is hard for children to do when they depend on them for their survival. To protect ourselves, we decide that it is us that is defective – with all that that entails. This sense of shame is reinforced by a patriarchal society that always sees women as the ones to blame. Despite the tireless campaigning of countless feminists, the police still issue posters telling women not to get drunk so as to avoid sexual assault, and society is quick to blame rape on the attire or state of the victim at the time. Sexual assault is the only crime where the victim is routinely disbelieved and made to feel that it is her fault and the purpose of this sort of shaming is to keep us quiet. The fear of being outcast so great, that the majority of sexual assaults go unreported.
The #MeToo campaign was not shocking for anyone who has walked this earth in a female body, as casual sexual assault is a routine part of our lives. The difference is that we are finally speaking out about it. The more we speak out, the more we shout it from the rooftops that someone touched us, groped us, penetrated us against our will, the less shame we all feel. This is not only healing for women who have been battling through the minefield of sexual assault every day of their lives, but it is a hugely powerful challenge to the narrative of society. Every time someone says #MeToo, they say, this happened to me and it wasn’t my fault. Not only that, but what are you going to do about it?