Shame and Modern Thought
One could say that a huge reason people seek therapy or struggle in life is due to some aspect of shame. Shame is a sense that something is wrong with us, that we are flawed to the core. Guilt is about doing something wrong and shame is more about being wrong. Now, you might say, “we are flawed because we are not perfect.” Yes, and I totally agree that we are flawed in that sense, but here’s how it is different. Accepting our limitations as human beings allows us to accept the type of being we are. This allows a sense of self or being-acceptance. But when we don’t even accept that, then we believe that there is something very wrong with us based on the comparison to perfection.
Where does this comparison to perfection come from? Modern thought. What do I mean by that? Well we are currently in a time of postmodern thought that is trying to find its way out of modern thought. Modernism brought the idea that reality can be known and defined through reason. This is where we get “labels” from. You might say, “I don’t want to be labeled.” Well that is a very postmodern thing to say. Why has that become the case? Because we are always evolving and people started to realize that they were not just like the next guy, that having the same exact label didn’t fit their subjective experience in comparison to the next guy’s – similar maybe, but not the same. Modern thought is still very much alive and well in our society. We are in a transition phase. Some aren’t sure if postmodernism is the transition to something else, or if it will end up as the next paradigm of thought.
What modern thought missed was that each individual has a unique subjective experience. Modern thought was more concerned with absolute truth than subjective experience. Modern thought got excited that we could actually know Truth through reason, so all our efforts since the Enlightenment have been based on this assumption that all reality, that all experience can be defined in one overarching way. So we get a paradigm of thought that creates boxes.
This is where shame comes in. Modern thought perpetuates shame because if one does not completely feel comfortable or validated in a certain box, they feel “wrong.” Modern thought is fixed not fluid, but human experience is much more fluid – it is always happening in the present moment. So if the world is telling me that when I am in such and such context and I should feel and respond in such and such way, but I don’t, I feel there is something wrong with me. Based on what? Based on what a group of “other people” decided. There are so many aspects and subtleties to individual experience that clumping everyone together perpetuates shame or the idea that “I don’t fit.” As you can imagine, this is extremely debilitating and unhelpful.
Postmodernism is more about the subjective experience that arises through dialogue. Truth comes out in dialogue, which is why counselling can be such a powerful tool. If I as a therapist get caught up in one theory, I can easily shame my clients if their experience does not fit that theory exactly. Do I get caught here sometimes? You bet, but I try to get the “truth” from the client most of the time. Yes, there are some universal aspects to being human, but it is the subtle differences that need attention in counselling. As my clients and I talk and explore, their truth comes to the surface and can be known more easily. I can easily get in the way of that by getting excited that I’ve “seen this before” and jump to conclusions and solutions without following their experience to the end. So the truth of a person is shows up in relationship – in dialogue. It is not predefined, but exists as the human being exists in the current moment. And this is why shame continues to get perpetuated in our society (especially North America), because we want to feel grounded in our certainty of what can be known. This is a false sense of security though and can keep us from living and experiencing the present moment with acceptance. Yes, this sounds very Buddhist, but if you ask me, it is reality.
So what kinds of ways does shame get perpetuated? Well, one is through parenting children. Fixed formulas get passed down through generations, or get developed by one person, and then a ton of children get funneled through that. Parenting needs to be about the relationship, the dialogue of how to know and guide your child. It happens right there in conversation, not in predetermined formulas or beliefs on childrearing.
Shame also gets perpetuated in institutional belief systems such as organizations, religions, the medical system and communities such as the 12 Step Community. But those last three should be helping people not hurting people right? Right! But without knowing it, they are often hurting people due to Modern Thought’s belief that truth can be known solely through reasoned argument. Someone who is “born again” in any belief system is often the quickest to shame others. Reformed smokers want you to do it their way. Christians believe that you have to believe something a certain way before you go to heaven or experience God. Buddhists believe you have to follow certain paths and practices in order to reach Nirvana. The 12 Step Community believes you must do the steps in order just like everyone else has done them to reach sobriety. Life just isn’t this fixed for everyone. If a person has a slightly different experience in the moment, or in how they see the world, from the others in a group, they can often feel shamed to conform. “You’re not doing it right.” “What’s wrong with you?” These comments do not always get verbalized explicitly but the message of these comments is often communicated implicitly.
There is nothing wrong with Christianity, Buddhism, or the 12 Steps. It is what the communities surrounding those belief systems do with their certainty. It is the disrespect for other people’s subjective experience and it is in subjective experience that we all exist. It is actually not true that there is only one way to do things, and we know this! Human beings are beings, which says they are constantly living organisms until they die, not fixed entities. Lastly, I’m not saying that we can have no discussion of objective ideas and thought, but it should always be in agreement through dialogue, taking into consideration the subjective views and experience of the individual. It is a complete paradigm shift from knowledge being reasoned certainty, to lived experience.