Twice within the last six months, I’ve heard the 18-year-old son of friends use the expression “put to shame.” The first time, he told me that Lea Michele’s rendition (Glee) of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” put Barbra Streisand’s version to shame (I beg to differ). More recently, he told me that a certain designer’s collection during Fashion Week in New York “put to shame” the work of another well-known designer. It got me thinking about the use of the word shame in this expression and what exactly it means.
Most of the online dictionary definitions focus on embarrassment or humiliation. The superior achievement of one person makes another feels humiliated or embarrassed. In other words, the expression involves a comparison between two people, one of whom is above the other. This pairing between a “winner” and a “loser” has been a theme of my writing on this website from the outset. In particular, I’ve focused on the way many people project their own shame into someone else and then triumph over the other person, as if humiliating someone else “proves” that he or she has gotten rid of all shame. Bullying serves the same function.
In middle school, a period when tweens and young teens feel anxious to find their place in the social hierarchy, when cliques form and divisions between popular kids and the outsiders become more defined, one unfortunate girl or boy is often ostracized and forced to carry unwanted shame for a group of persecutors. Most of you will have heard, read about or experienced this kind of scapegoating. The person who finds himself the target of such persecution usually has some level of shame already — a sense of being unlike others, lacking traits or qualities that other “normal” kids possess. The group likely intuits this shame and “projects into reality,” as we say. Two young men currently in my practice fit this description and found themselves teased and bullied as they came of age. The experience has left them cautious and watchful: in social situations, they strive to adopt behaviors that will allow them to fit in, to escape the feeling of being different, and to make sure no one can see their damage.