Snobbery and Pretentiousness

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.

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Projecting and the Law of False Attribution

I’ve been meaning to write this post for more than a year now; from the beginning, I’ve had this particular title in mind although I’m not 100% sure that it’s the right one. If anyone has a better suggestion for how to name this particular mental process, feel free to submit a comment.

I call the phenomenon I want to describe a “law” because it seems to be a fundamental principle of human mental functioning, an in-built assumption that if I am feeling bad, then someone or something is causing me to feel that way. In other words, we attribute a cause-and-effect relationship between the way we are feeling and the actions of people around us. Sometimes this attribution may be accurate — Your continual criticisms are causing me to feel terrible — but on other occasions, it may be false: The way you chew your food is driving me crazy! In the latter case, I am probably feeling irritable, tired and grouchy; rather than recognizing that I feel the way I do because I didn’t get enough sleep last night or because work today was highly stressly, I falsely account for those feelings by attributing them to you and your irksome way of chewing.

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‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ as Character Traits

I haven’t written a post in two weeks — unusual for me — because during that period, I have felt almost overwhelmed by the events in my life, mostly enjoyable and of great meaning to me: my oldest son’s 21st birthday, my middle child’s high school graduation, my daughter’s promotion from middle school, two flights (one to Chicago, one to Los Angeles), followed by the drive cross-country to Colorado, where I will continue to work throughout the summer. My fatigue levels have been made worse by some poor choices I’ve made along the way, and I’ve watched myself “hardening up” in response. Now that I’ve recovered a bit, I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk about the importance of choice “after psychotherapy,” and what can happen when you don’t respect your limitations.

At the beginning of May, I had set as a goal for myself to complete a rough draft of my book on defense mechanisms before leaving for Colorado; that way, I reasoned, I would have an entire month to review and revise it at leisure, before my summer break. I really wanted to achieve that goal. At the same time, I wanted to keep up with this blog as well as the one on PsychCentral, and especially to continue practicing piano. I can become very cranky if I have to forgo my practice; I normally get up at 5 a.m. in order to make sure that I have uninterrupted time alone, so piano doesn’t impinge on work and family life. Even before May became truly hectic, I knew it was unlikely that I’d be able to accomplish everything I had set out for myself. I probably should have accepted that piano would have to take a back seat if I were going to finish my book.

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