Using writing, and meditation, and ice cream, and reading, and dreams,

and a whole lot of other tools to rediscover who I am,

after six years living with a man with OCPD.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Shame, Guilt, & Pantyhose

A woman I worked with shared a funny story about herself and another co-worker. She was an immigrant from Romania and while she was very fluent, she still had some problems with the English language. So she’d occasionally ask for help with nuances.

  • ROMANIAN: What’s the difference between "embarrassed" and "ashamed?"
  • Co-WORKER: "Ashamed" is you’ve done something bad. You’ve lied, you’ve cheated, you’ve stolen...
  • ROMANIAN: Okay, I understand that.
  • Co-WORKER: "Embarrassed" is you discover you’ve been walking around the office for the last two hours with your dress tucked into the back of your pantyhose.
Okay, so we’ve all been there (the embarrassed part,) although for a man, the equivalent would probably be walking around the office for the last two hours with one’s fly undone. (If he had a problem with his pantyhose, we’re talking about a whole bunch of other issues.)

While embarrassment may not feel very good, shame feels worse. Embarrassment is about something that makes you look foolish or unprepared or thoughtless for a few moments, but built into embarrassment is the self-forgiving concept, "This kind of thing happens to everybody." Maybe your face gets hot or red, but usually you can laugh off whatever has embarrassed you. If it happens around friends or co-workers, they may laugh at you, but will also reassure you that it’s not that big a deal.

We’ve also all been ashamed, or felt shame; that hot flush of almost-pain radiating down our entire bodies. We may have said something unkind about or to a friend, we may have had a credit card declined while shopping, we may have discovered we’ve gained too much weight to zip up our favorite jeans. Shame is deeper than embarrassment, more about "I am bad/different/inadequate."

I used to think shame was a good thing, but this lady has made me think differently.

Shame is something I’ve often felt about myself. About things I could fix - like busting out of my jeans - or things I couldn’t fix, like being tall, or nearsighted, or having a mother with breast cancer, or a boyfriend with OCPD. I’ve been learning about boundaries, and to distance myself from importing shame about other people and their behaviors or illnesses. (Yes, dumb as it sounds, I felt terrible shame as a teenager for having a mom who died of breast cancer. It made me feel different, weird, and I hated the pity or curiosity of people who found out.) I’m learning now, that even if I am related or chose to be with a person who Has Issues, and there are ugly scenes in public or with friends, that I don’t have to feel personally ashamed. I’ve got enough baggage of my own, I don’t need to carry that of everyone I know and love.

Now I’m pondering Dr. Brown’s idea that there’s a difference between guilt - which we should feel, if we do something bad, and shame, which is "I am a bad person." Guilt is Jiminy Cricket chirping at you - you did something wrong, now go make amends.  Shame creates a fear that if we let anybody see the real us, that we would not be deemed worthy of love, friendship or respect.

The irony is that madly scurrying around trying to preserve a perfect facade (can’t let anybody see I’m weak or imperfect, or they won’t like me) leads to social disconnection. I know when I meet "perfect" people, I never like them very much. I feel resentful and envious and am certain they are phony and hiding something. I like people much better when I see them goof at something and take it in stride.

So, the connection between acknowledging when we feel shame or embarrassment (instead of trying to bury or hide the feeling,) living and breathing with it, and sorting it into its proper place makes sense. To try to find peace with being vulnerable and imperfect, because that is part of what makes us human.

And I might as well try for that, since I will always be the sort of person who walks around with her head in a book and her skirt stuffed into her pantyhose.