Tuesday, October 18, 2011


One of the recurring themes in this blog is my awareness of shame in social situations. I’ve written of the humiliation of falling off my bike into the mud, of faltering attempts to make conversations with strangers, attempts that were not well received, of seeing someone publicly chastise a couple of young boys, and, repeatedly, my failures in learning and speaking German.

There are many more revelations I’ve made that should—that do—invoke in me, when I consider what I’ve written. I feel shame, that shrivelling warmth, that intense heat-induced drawing up within the gut similar to the effect of putting a flame to flimsy cellophane.

This is conscious. I don’t seek humiliation, but I find shame interesting and important to consider. I’m one of those recovering-from-stuntedness individuals who finds it necessary to make conscious choices about my feeling states, choices that others seem to find natural. I work to control my emotional reactions in order to remain sane or at least not to whirl off the edge of the spinning universe into the void.

To keep from spiralling out of control when I hit problems and frustrations, I find it helpful to be aware of the effect of shame on my reactions. Rather than trying to push away the awful feelings—and shame really is a black, burning writhing—I try to say to myself, ‘Yes, this is shame. It makes me feel as though I’m too stupid, foolish, ridiculous to live. But somehow we’ll manage to hang on and survive it.’

That self talk, the deliberate recognition of the shame I’m immersed in, is my strategy to keep from reacting with more self-defeating behaviours. Which is what happens to many when the trauma of feeling shame leads people to stuff the awful sense of failure or project it onto others or to react violently. Or any number of ways we use to avoid the slow intense withering of self regard.

And so I end up exploring the experiences here. On the most basic level, I suppose, it’s the writer in me looking something to write about. On another level, creating a narrative helps me make sense of the experience. And, ultimately, I believe that the acknowledgement of our common frailties strengthens the connections that unite us. Which seems to me to be one of the functions of writing. (I’ll leave it to another time to address this circular logic.)

I raise these issues today because of a small incident last week. I was working on deadline, trying to finish a project proposal, when an email from our Robert, our landlord, came in. He was scheduling the delivery of heating oil for the winter. And he had, very kindly, written the email in German.

I say kindly, because we are making progress, albeit slow, in German. I can now have basic conversations—over the phone, in restaurants and shops, with receptionists—entirely in German. These are simple conversations, of course, and faltering on my part, but I consider it an honour when the other party respects me enough to continue in German when, frequently, it would be as easy for them to switch to English. ‘Ich muss üben’, I tell them if they offer to continue in English—I must practice.

Robert’s English is excellent. In fact, he and his family have recently returned from New Zealand, where they spent a year working and going to school. So I saw his German email as a respectful gesture to allow me to practice. But, as I say, I was on a deadline. Nor could I, as I tried to reply in German, remember the spelling of the most basic words, words I should know.

I sent off a hasty answer, poorly spelled, and he replied with small corrections, reminding me of a forgotten Umlaut, suggesting a better way to put a clumsy construction. His tone was playful, almost teasing, and I appreciated what he meant to do.

All the same, I wanted to cry with frustration. The message was so simple, and still I couldn’t do it right. I had hesitated before leaving off the Umlaut, but I was too rushed to look it up. What would have been the simplest note in English dashed off without thinking because was a time-consuming chore in German. I couldn’t engage in with a playful tone because I could barely engage even grammatically.

And I thought again about shame. I felt the loss of dignity in being reduced to child-like communications, poorly spelled, words ill chosen, when I am so fluent and confident in English. I thought too of how the posts about shame have to do, one way or another, with the loss of dignity, real or imagined.

We long for dignity in life, that sense of personal integrity that comprises autonomy, competence and self regard. We feel the sting of its loss when our wholeness is revealed as defective. Yet in moving forward, in trying to progress, even going out the door to meet the world, we risk it loss. 

Some of us are more absurdly invested in preserving it than others. I probably fall roughly in the middle of the continuum, having through my own actions and those of others been robbed of dignity many times and yet survived to feel the shame, perhaps even growing stronger for having done so. The humiliation and frustration of finding myself as inarticulate as a child is another exercise in feeling life’s indignities and carrying on. 

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