Thoughtful Revolution

Unpacking Shame

I was in the process of writing an unusually constructive post, the sort of thing in which I channel my education-related anger into bright and shining ideas about the Future of Schooling. I have left that post for another day, because there’s something that seems a lot more honest, a lot more pressing, a lot more worthwhile to write and to share. And as my senior year comes to a close — in a fashion that I could never have foreseen when I imagined my future self at age 7 — and I’m forced into reflection, there’s one idea that I just keep coming back to.

It’s the concept of shame, not the opposite-of-empowerment kind of shame, the sort that revolves around social taboos and is easily broken by a kiss in public or a confident swagger, but something more widespread and less centered around specific mores. The best definition I can think of would be smothering insecurity — the feeling that everything you do is insufficient\, inappropriate and/or hopelessly embarrassing.

We’re all familiar with shame, to some degree or another. Before I began my autodidactic journey, I was certainly not unfamiliar with it. I felt it, in pangs, on a regular basis: the shame of a poor exam performance, a stupid or cruel remark viewed in hindsight, a stunning fall over my own feet, the stubborn zipper on a too-small dress. It was always painful and always easily ameliorated. I could still feel pride in a well-done paper; a cadre of friends could assure me nonstop that there was something in me that deserved better than shame. As the years progressed, my sense of shame grew larger and larger, but there was always something holding it back. In tenth grade, my not-yet-exhausted passion for learning and tumultuous social life kept it as much in check as it has ever been. In eleventh grade, despite the dissolution of that functional social circle, my many jobs, classes, and projects left me too busy, too manically scheduled, to feel too much pain. This year, with the loss of so many friends and the complete collapse of my self-motivation and/or structured activities, there’s been nothing holding it back.

Shame, from what I can tell, is the product of an idle and unreassured mind. Maybe it isn’t. All I can say is that I feel it all the time, and it’s not just a laughable neurosis, it’s been the single greatest obstacle in the path of my education and general well-being. Let me explain.

I am ashamed of how little I know. I am ashamed of the shoddy work I do, and I am ashamed when people praise it. I am ashamed at my singular lack of passion, of interest, of drive. I am ashamed when I don’t try new things. I am ashamed when I do something I enjoy and it threatens to consume all my time; I am ashamed at the time and money I’ve squandered on things I don’t enjoy. I am ashamed of my own stupidity. I am ashamed of the amount of time I spend staring at the screen because I’m afraid to produce worthless junk that I will, inevitably, be ashamed of. I am ashamed whenever my parents look at me and see the failure sprouting in their own household. I am ashamed that I couldn’t keep my promises, to them and to myself; I am ashamed that I was wrong when I talked them into this experiment, so passionately and with such conviction; I am ashamed that I can’t be bright enough or creative enough to live the sort of unschooled life that I was supposed to. I am ashamed of the things I’ve done to tear my family apart. I am ashamed, upon reading Atlas Shrugged, that I’m no self-directed Galt-like genius, that I’m closer to the bogeyman caricature of a parasitic and silly second-rater. I am ashamed of being so needy, so unable to cope, of not finding joy in the things that should bring me pleasure. I am ashamed of the way my own shame cripples me.

I am ashamed, in social situations, that my identity isn’t more interesting, that my clothes aren’t better-coordinated, that I stutter and swallow a little when I speak. I am ashamed that I’m not witty or engaging, that I can’t come up with the proper rejoinder to a one-liner on the spot. I am ashamed of my reflexive — and relatively new — fear of eye contact. I am ashamed that I don’t know more music. I am ashamed that my arms bulge out of strapless tops, that I fall out of bikinis, that my blubber bursts through the fantasy of taut skin. I am ashamed of anything I say, because it will always be picked apart in the echo-chamber of my mind. Sometimes I am so ashamed that I stop speaking entirely, upon the rationale that it must be better than the agony of constantly working to please my internal conversational critics, and then I am ashamed of that. I am ashamed that I’ve made a decision that turned me into a pariah, that redirected my lust for companionship into a paralyzing horror of ruining everything with one ill-chosen word. I am ashamed of wearing my mistake like a scarlet letter.

I am culpable for a good deal of this. The things that aren’t technically my fault (and there are a few) I take as much to heart. I am in the habit of blaming myself, in part because the flipside of individualism is that it lays all of the losses, as well as the successes, on one’s own back. The credo of ultimate personal responsibility has made me responsible for everything that involves me, because the paradigm in my head is so unused to being able to slough off blame. I certainly don’t have anyone who will tell me otherwise. I also don’t have anyone who will re-channel this obsession with shame. In a more structured setting I could throw myself into calculus homework or some fiery discussion, instigated by someone else and as such an escape; here, I have no such outlet, because I have to generate all of my own escape hatches — even when I’m in no state to build.

I guess I don’t have much more to say than: if you’re looking for an honest, non-defensive explanation of my experience, that’s it in a nutshell. I’ve never been neurotic or unreasonably sensitive. Here I am now, trapped inside my own head and my own complete lack of self-worth, afraid to put one foot in front of the other lest it should be somehow inadequate. I’ve been asked for a retrospective — this, ladies and gentlemen, is what I have to share.


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  1. * Hannah says:

    Oh my gosh. This really really speaks to me. I sort of had a grasp on it before, but you really just put into words what my biggest problems have been in school. “I am ashamed of the shoddy work I do, and I am ashamed when people praise it.” By 8th grade I had developed a complete disbelief in all praise because I got so much encouragement when I turned in crap or sang badly or whatnot. Which is paradoxical but kind of makes sense. I’m only just beginning to feel like I am moving past that particular shame, but now I’m seeing the flip side to it: in order to feel comfortable completing and turning in work that I still see as really crappy, I think I disassociate myself from it to some extent. The determination to “just finish it” and “just turn it in” has drained a lot of the passion and enjoyment out of things that I used to enjoy a lot. At least until the moment I realized it was horrible and freaked out. Basically, I can now accomplish things which I don’t care about, but that means I don’t have to make myself care about them. I have moderately better grades, but I entirely stopped enjoying going to school or doing schoolwork around February, for the first time I can remember. Maybe I’m confusing one thing with another (Senioritis, perhaps?). Anyways, this comment is too long, but your post was really well-written and expressed nearly exactly how I feel a lot of the time.

    PS: For what it’s worth, I find your identity, what I have seen of it anyways, to be extremely interesting. On that note, I think we should hang out this summer. ❤

    | Reply Posted 8 years, 1 month ago

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