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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

A Culture of Shame

While bracing myself for the lurch of the tram at Denver airport, I watched as a young family with a stroller and screaming toddler tried to navigate into the already full car. Not quite soon enough, the mother turned to get the stroller out of the way of the closing door and the ominous voice came over the loudspeaker saying something like, “You are blocking the door from closing and slowing down the tram.” I have been victim to that voice and exchanged a sympathetic look and muffled laugh with the woman next to me.

“Why do they say that?” I asked.

She responded, “It is a culture of shame.”

“So true!”

I thought back to a conversation I had before boarding the plane to travel home. It was a fascinating airport conversation and we fell onto the topic of shame. We had shared our similar stories and both groaned when I mentioned shame.

“Shame is the worst!” we said together.

Many confuse guilt and shame—they are not the same. Shame tells us we are not worthy; guilt tells us what we did was unacceptable. They are two totally different things. Shame occurs when we internalize what others do to us or say to us and take it as our own truth about ourselves. Guilt is the result of our own actions—we can ask for forgiveness and move on. Shame makes us apologize for our very existence and being. There is no moving on from that.

Thinking back to the mother in the tram . . . yes, she did slow down the tram, but she had no intent to do so. The ominous voice was telling her that she was making an intentional choice to inconvenience others. It was telling her that she was an inconsiderate person. The truth is the doors hardly ever give everyone enough time to get in and situated. I sincerely doubt this mother with the screaming toddler had any ill intent—but the voice said otherwise.

Most do not realize the extent that shame may or may not be present in their daily lives. If you do not struggle with shame then the ominous voice would simply be an irritation. If you do struggle with shame because of the messages you have internalized, then you would undoubtedly experience a hot wash of shame surging through your body at the realization that you had blocked the door.

I remember that wash of shame the day I blocked the door. It was before I understood and healed the shaming in my own life. I heard the voice, I felt the wash of shame, I was convinced everyone on the tram was staring at me, and I was suddenly dizzyingly unstable as the tram lurched forward.

This time, as I watched everyone try to help the woman with the screaming toddler, I watched her carefully as she and her husband sighed with relief and laughed at the ominous voice that we all knew was ridiculous. Seriously, who gets up in the morning thinking, “I want to block the door and slow down the tram today.” No one is that person, but the voices tell us otherwise.

Whoever, in his or her ultimate wisdom, decided to shame the paying passengers in the Denver airport needs to rethink how unnecessary this is to the travel experience. We all have a tendency to think others are purposefully inconveniencing our day (think of someone who will not turn left until there is a twenty-car length break in the oncoming traffic). Intentionally irritating others is probably extremely rare.

But on the side of this discussion are those who would have been engulfed by a hot wash of shame when blocking the door and hearing the voice. Please understand that you have internalized messages about yourself that are not true! Those messages (from parents, teachers, peers, the church, etc.) have been internalized as the truth about who you are.

Much of the anxiety I experienced for my entire adult life was actually hyper-vigilance for the purpose of avoiding situations that had the potential to trigger shame. When I finally understood and emotionally healed the internalized messages that were flooding me in those moments, I began to free myself from what was often debilitating anxiety that I had to force myself to walk through.

When I heard the voice on the tram, I remembered the shame. I saw a dozen people roll their eyes. This could either be interpreted as irritation with the voice or irritation with the one who barred the door from closing. Shame will always internalize those looks. When the woman said, “It is a culture of shame,” I realized how easily I had misinterpreted and internalized most of the looks (there are those who do judge—it is their own problem).

Freedom from shame is life changing. Shame forced me to always interpret those looks as a condemnation of my inherent clumsiness and inability to navigate appropriately (internalized as a child). I still catch myself using my somewhat famous self-deprecating humor as a defense mechanism, but it really isn’t necessary any more. I have discovered that most people are genuinely ready to help when I inadvertently ‘block the door.’ We all have done something similar. It is human. It is OK to be human. (Therapists everywhere are smiling.)

Back to my conversation with the woman in the airport . . . “Shame is the worst.”

The look we exchanged with this proclamation spoke volumes about how hard we had worked to overcome the messages we internalized as children. We didn’t need to say anything else. We understood.

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