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.
As we grow older and more “civilized,” this type of behavior becomes less overt but doesn’t go away. Popularity and exclusion continue to play a role in social relations. When we moved from Los Angeles into a newly developed community in Chapel Hill, where a large number of families bought houses and relocated at about the same time, the social order was highly fluid in the beginning. Large gatherings with many neighbors were the order of the day. As time went on, groups became more exclusive; certain families were dropped from the guest list and felt humiliated. Many residents in the community became preoccupied with who belonged to which crowd, who had the coolest parties, etc. I felt as if I were back in high school. When one of the families we were close with decided to “unfriend” us, because of some personality conflicts with another family they preferred, it was extremely painful. As much as I understood the dynamics, I struggled to fight off the feeling of being a loser, shut out by the popular kids.
As a child, I wasn’t bullied or teased but I always felt as if I were an outsider, unlike other kids. Although I didn’t understand it until many, many years later, I was struggling with deep shame about the ways in which I really was different. I had my group of close friends, other kids outside the mainstream who I’m sure felt a level of shame akin to my own. We compensated by becoming snobby and pretentious, by seeing ourselves as more sophisticated and worldly than our peers. I mean, how many 17-year-olds do you know who like to host bridge parties and cook gourmet meals together on the weekends? For New Year’s Eve one year, we made Beef Wellington and a croquembouche out of Julia Child. We went to plays and saved up for dinners at L’Auberge, a french restaurant in Hollywood. One girl in our group had an elaborate fantasy that she belonged to a secret and powerful dynasty, the Pembertons, and that soon, one of them would come to rescue her. We convinced ourselves that we were not the losers, the inferior ones filled with shame; our cultural pretensions “proved” we were better than everyone else. The 18-year-old boy I mentioned, the one who used the expression “put to shame” — he often comes across as snobby and pretentious, too.
Shame, shame, shame.
Early in my own therapy, my analyst began to focus on this dynamic, helping me to see the defensiveness in my snobbery and pretension; he focused more on the unbearable feeling of being small, though today, I’d emphasize the sense of defect, the underlying experience of shame. Over the years, I’ve made a lot of progress in coming to terms with my shame, but my character still shows vestiges of those early defenses. On occasion, I can still be quite sharp in my judgments of other people who appear to me to be ignorant or “uncouth.” Sometimes, I find myself feeling a bit smug in my “superior” knowledge about something cultural. I feel deeply scornful of the Kardashians, reality TV shows and the widespread “vulgarity” of our culture; I also know my contempt has its defensive function and I’m usually not taken in by it. By recognizing my familiar old defenses at work, I can disengage and bring myself back down to earth.
Defense mechanisms don’t disappear once you understand them, and this is what it means to work with your defenses in an ongoing way. It’s the subject of the final section of my forthcoming book, Why Do I Do That?
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Speaking of my book — I’m reading and getting ready to review Brene Brown’s new book Daring Greatly; I noticed on her website that she’s doing a kind of online book group where participants read a chapter or so a week then exchange written thoughts/questions about it on her website; she responds. If I were to do something like that with my own book, how many of you would be interested in participating? You could do it anonymously.