Like many of my clients, I have certain intrusive memories — some of them going back more than 40 years — that carry with them the sting of shame. It’s no longer a frequent experience for me, but when one of them pops into my mind, I have a very distinct physical reaction. I close my eyes and flinch; my body tightens, as if I’m expecting a physical blow, and my sphincter contracts (sorry if this seems like TMI, but I’m interested to see whether any of you have the same experience). These memories exist in an non-assimilated state, distinct and self-contained. Each time, they come back in exactly the same form, producing the same unpleasant physical response. I think of them as “cringing shame memories.”
Since reading Brené Brown’s new book, I’ve been trying to pin down the differences between our respective ways of conceptualizing and working with shame. In a nutshell, rather than viewing shame as the enemy, I often think it has something important to tell us about ourselves if we can bear to face it. I thought that discussing one of my cringing shame memories and what I’ve learned from it might help make this difference clear. I believe that facing shame and trying to understand the reasons for it can transform a non-assimilated, self-contained and acutely painful memory into one that may occasion some chagrin but doesn’t pierce in the same way. It becomes integrated with other memories, understood and explained within a larger understanding of ourselves.
Some of my cringing shame memories are just too painful to discuss, but here’s one that I’ve been working on this past week. About four or five years ago, not long before his birthday, my friend Peter announced to our writer’s group one Thursday that he had decided to retire from his teaching position in a few years’ time. We always celebrate our birthdays together in class, and as I was shopping at Barnes & Noble for a gift, I remembered what Peter had said and bought him a book about retirement planning. Every time I remember this gift, I cringe with shame: did I really think that Peter, on the verge of retirement, hadn’t already been planning for it for years? It seems to me a very thoughtless, inconsiderate gift.
Since I see Peter almost every Thursday, this painful memory sears into my mind fairly often, especially around one of our birthdays. It came back to me again this past week, just as I was exiting the freeway on my way to the bank. My reaction, as usual, was to think, “You idiot,” and then try to put it out of my mind. This time, I stopped and asked myself what the memory revealed about me and what I needed to examine more closely. Rather than turning away, I went into greater detail. I took myself back to Barnes & Noble and the moment of choice.
I was in a hurry and feeling stressed. As much as I love our birthday celebrations, I find the process of birthday gifts for my fellow writers a little oppressive. Works of literary fiction are the usual gifts among us and the others read much more of it than I do. I’m always worried that I’ll buy something they’ve already read, or it won’t be to their taste, etc.; for this reason, I don’t buy them novels. I’m not sure what took me to that particular section of Barnes & Noble, but when I spotted the book on retirement planning, I felt a wave of relief. I had something other than a work of literary
fiction to buy.
That part is understandable, I suppose, but what occasions the shame is my carelessness. Many other people I know, including everyone in my writer’s group, seem so much more sensitive about gifts than I am. Whenever I receive a present in class, the thought behind it shines through. They understand my tastes in fiction, especially my admiration for Henry James, and usually find a book with acute psychological insight and exquisite prose. I know they’ve thought about me. My gifts, in contrast, sometimes seem hasty and ill-considered, like that book for Peter. It seems to reflect a lack of concern for others, and a kind of self-absorption that leaves other people out. I don’t think I’m being harsh but rather facing up to some truth about myself.
It is undeniably true that I can become self-absorbed. I can be forgetful in an inconsiderate way. Or hasty, just rushing through something to get it over with when I should be taking greater care. I suppose these traits fall into the realm of narcissistic behavior. I expect that Peter was probably hurt to some degree; I feel guilty about that. I feel ashamed of myself for being insensitive and self-absorbed. I resist the urge to make excuses for myself with thoughts like, “Everybody does that kind of thing from time to time.”
But now, the memory no longer makes me cringe with shame. I’ve faced this truth about myself and will try to do better. I can be on the look-out for this tendency in the future and try to catch it before I do something else insensitive. No doubt I’ll slip again but hopefully less often than before. This particular cringing shame memory has been integrated into my views of myself in a way that enlarges my understanding and will help me to treat my friends better in the future. I don’t need to excuse my behavior or treat shame as an enemy; I need to learn from the experience.
Although I didn’t link it to that particular cringing shame memory (until this moment), I ultimately resolved my anxiety over birthday gifts for my classmates by making something, a food item that I’ve prepared myself, spending time and thought in the process. I bake breads, can preserves and make chutneys. I’m proud to give these presents and they are always welcomed by my friends. I don’t feel bad for being thoughtless or insensitive. No doubt the shame I felt but hadn’t quite faced about Peter’s gift had something to do with that change.