Tag Archives: shame

Guilt and triggering

Content warning – abuse mechanics

There’s nothing like being triggered to bring on the guilt. It kicks in for me around any situation where I experience panic, but once I’m into flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, the guilt comes thick and heavy. I experience the trigger as my responsibility, my fault. I’ll end up apologising to the person who triggered me, for my being so unreasonable and for over-reacting. This makes it hard to even ask people not to do things that bring on high levels of panic in me.

It’s not an accident. The situations where I was most hurt, I was explicitly blamed for what happened. Complaining is a sure fire way to make an abusive situation even more dangerous. And it was, always, always my fault. Maybe because of what I did or didn’t do at the time. Maybe because of a comment I made years previously. Perhaps my being too tired to articulate things clearly made it my fault for not being clear enough. Perhaps I was upset over emotional pressure, which I should not have been because it was fair and justified, for reasons. You get the picture.

This is normal. Abusers blame their victims. It is an effective strategy to keep the victim in place and stop them from seeking help or going to the police. I was told many times that the problem was me – I was unreasonable, over-reacting, and worse still I was told that I was emotionally abusive, an emotional blackmailer, manipulative, cold, calculating… So when things go wrong, one of the places my triggers take me is back into that deep sense of shame, guilt and responsibility. It is even worse for child victims because they have nothing to set it against and no way of even wondering if what’s happening isn’t their fault.

It is so hard to ask for help when you think everything is your fault. It is so hard to ask for kindness or care when you feel like you don’t deserve it. There are regular shoutouts for people with mental health problems to ask for help and speak about our troubles, but that’s really hard to do if abuse is how you got here. It’s hard to ask for help when what damaged you in the first place was also blamed on you. If expressing distress has been dangerous for you, that’s an enduring barrier to asking for help.

The only things I know of that truly help with this are as follows. Boost self esteem and confidence – make an active effort to lift people and they may be able to handle all of this better. Take triggers seriously, even if they don’t make sense to you. Your understanding the process is irrelevant. If someone trusts you enough to flag up what triggers them, it means they think you won’t deliberately hurt or punish them. If you can honour that, you might be able to do a lot to help them feel safe and to heal. And if someone gets very weird with you and starts apologising for things that were not their fault, and especially if they seem scared when apologising, it’s a pretty reliable sign that they have some serious issues and need your care.

Pain, Shame and Guilt

I think in many ways it’s a reflection of how seldom mental health is taken seriously that we add shame and guilt on top of people’s existing pain. No one who considered themselves kind and well meaning would tell a person with flu to just pull themselves together and try harder as though this is how you get over flu. We don’t tend to tell people whose bodies have been seriously injured that they should ‘man up’. Culturally we do have some serious and parallel issues around how we treat chronic pain and long term disability, but that’s a post for another day.

We treat psychological injuries as though they are personal failures and in doing so, add to the burden already wounded people are carrying.  Telling people the reasons you think they shouldn’t be in pain doesn’t ease pain. What it does do is help that person internalise shame and carry guilt about their own suffering. That in turn makes it harder to ask for help.

Depression isn’t an individual failing. Often the reasons for it aren’t personal, but systemic. Poverty and the stress of insecurity makes people ill. Overwork, leading to exhaustion and burnout makes people ill. Distress caused by mass extinction and climate chaos makes people ill. Being made responsible for things we have no power over also makes us ill. Here in the UK we have a culture of working people to death, blaming them for not being able to find work in a shrinking jobs market, causing poverty and then blaming people for being poor and a host of other such horrors that pile on the misery. The result is that not only do you get to suffer the consequences of stress and insecurity, but you get to feel like it’s all your fault for not being good enough in the first place.

If you do get help with mental health issues, the odds are it will be meds. That’s what we can have. Huge numbers of people are suffering depression and anxiety as a direct consequence of our messed up work culture and precarious lives. How can the answer to such system failures, be chemical? Use it to get by if it helps you, but don’t buy into the idea that meds are the answer here.

We have to stop blaming individuals for suffering and start talking about the way in which our culture is sick. We get less time off than your typical mediaeval peasant. The safety net of welfare is being eroded. We are punished for misfortune and poverty. We don’t have enough green space, enough quiet space or enough time to benefit from exercise. Many of us can’t afford to eat well. It is difficult to be mentally well in such a situation.

Mental health is a collective problem that needs solutions on a societal level. When we treat it as a personal problem to be solved at the personal scale, we add to the guilt and shame that makes people ill, and perpetuate the stories in our culture that are causing bodily and emotional sickness. Mental health is a cultural issue, a societal issue, a political issue.

Flight Shame

In the last few weeks I’ve seen the words ‘flight shame’ used to describe the motivation for people flying less. I can’t point at any sources off the top of my head, but people are flying a bit less in Europe by the sounds of things, and this is being attributed to flight shame. It’s also worth noting that (and I got these stats from MEP Molly Scott Cato) 70% of flights are taken by 15% of fliers, so if those people cut back it will have maximum impact.

Flight shame is clearly a good thing. Flight shaming is not something I’ve managed to do. I have a fair few friends who fly – some for leisure, some for work, some because their families aren’t all in the same country. I don’t call them out when they tell me about it. I do not flight-shame them and I am undecided as to whether I should. Flying is so desperately bad for life on Earth. But, if we did it a bit more modestly, it might be feasible. If those who had most took less, it would perhaps be viable for some people to spend the odd few hours in the air now and then. The flight-shame of people who seldom flew anyway might not be a game changer.

My suspicion is that the people who are most easily persuaded to be uncomfortable about their less-sustainable choices are the people who weren’t so very bad in the first place. It’s the folk who jet off regularly who are least likely to feel uncomfortable with their choices – I suspect. I have little evidence aside from the way, this morning, I’m seeing people with a lot of money proclaiming their lack of flight guilt as Greta Thunberg sets off to cross the Atlantic in a boat.

But perhaps that need to assert the ‘no guilt’ over flying shows that flight-shame is creeping in. You don’t have to speak up to justify something that doesn’t need justifying.

The greatest harm to the planet is caused by the smallest number of people. Many of us are living within the planet’s means already. Many of us who are not living in a passably sustainable way would not need to make massive changes to achieve that. How can it possibly be tolerable that those who have most are allowed to take so much at such a cost to life as a whole? When that becomes shameful behaviour, and when we treat it with derision rather than admiring it, things may change. We could do this quickly. I’m not generally into using shame as a way to change behaviour, but we’re talking about people with monstrous levels of privilege who are choosing to do obscene amounts of damage – and they really should be ashamed of that and pressured to change.

The awkward business of shrinking

Warning: contains body size issues and possibly irrational thinking.

I’ve been losing weight for a while now. Intermittently, people compliment me on my shrinkage. It’s not been deliberate – which is odd all by itself, having spent most of life trying, and failing to reduce the amount of fat I’ve carried. At times in my life when I’ve dieted, I’ve gained weight, and in the recent years of just not bothering about it at all, the weight has gently fallen off. If there’s a sensible, mechanical process, it’s that I’m sleeping more and this helps me regulate my weight. There’s science around for this one.

Weight loss is held up in our wider culture as something to celebrate. It’s normal to praise people for it, and dieting is invariably presented in the media as a good thing: Feel great, look great, have more energy. This is not my experience of weight loss at all. I invariably feel worse and have less energy when it’s happening. The reasonable explanation for this is that unpleasant substances stored in my fat cells are releasing into my blood stream. Certainly, increasing water intake helps me get through, which could be a placebo, or could be the washing out process.

I notice, when I’m shrinking and feeling awful, it brings up memories. Usually intense and painful memories of times when I’ve been shamed, humiliated, or hurt. This is especially noticeable last thing at night when keeping my thoughts on a good and peaceful track is hard. During my most recent shrink period, I went through hours of painful recall. It felt (and this is the bit I can make no rational sense of) as if those memories were releasing from my fat cells. During the worst of it, I started wondering if what I had in my body wasn’t fat at all, but shame. Memory is distributed to some degree – muscle memory exists. Does fat memory exist?

I’ve been fat shamed for as long as I can remember, and I know weight is not a new issue or source of discomfort in my family line. There’s ancestry here and  am repeating it. My stomach has been a focal point for shame for as long as I can remember. The more able I am to accept myself as I am and let go of other people’s judgements, the less weight I seem to be carrying. The more I can say ‘this body is ok and it will do’ the less shame-fat there is. The less I see the measure of my girth as a measure of myself, the less girth there is to measure. Is that a coincidence? If there is cause and effect, which way round is it going? I don’t know, but the effects are becoming obvious.

Body-mind duality is a core part of western thinking, but it’s a flawed logic. Our brains and central nervous systems run on chemical and electrical processes. These are not separate from the rest of our body chemistry. The mind affects the body – that’s what it’s for. The body, inevitably, affects the mind. Emotions are chemical experiences. Stress is a very toxic chemical experience. Is it irrational to think that the physical processes of shame and distress might have a lasting impact on my body?

Further along this line of thought is all the New Agey ‘we make our own reality’ stuff, and the idea that by getting rid of negative thoughts we can fix everything. I’ve never bought that, I still don’t – it’s too simplistic. Avoiding negative thoughts means we can’t recognise vast swathes of truth. There are times when we need to acknowledge error, lack of care, poor judgement and so forth. We can’t grow if we can’t see where we are going wrong. Shame has important social functions. But how much shame, and how we process it is worth thinking about. How entitled our culture feels to shame us for things we have little control over is well worth considering. How much we pile the shame on ourselves for not meeting expectations is also a factor.

Once again, magic words like ‘enough’ seem relevant here. Good enough, tolerable – that’s all we need to be, any of us. And what if it isn’t that we feel as we do because we look a certain way, but that within the physical issues and limitations of our specific bodies, we’ve come to look a certain way in some part because it reflects elements of how we feel?

The dubious logic of appearance shaming

There are many ways in which people shame each other over their bodies and appearances – fat and skinny shaming, and slut shaming being the most obvious. There are plenty of people making the case for why shaming others is cruel and unhelpful, so I want to take a different tack and talk about the assumptions you have to make to get the whole process under way.

Step 1: I believe that I can look at someone, even a total stranger, and make a reasonable judgement about them based only on what I can see in the moment. The surface that I can see is the whole story – be that the tight dress, the body shape, the cleanliness, the apparent poverty, or lack of apparent poverty (shaming the poor for not looking poor enough is becoming a thing).  What I see in front of me is the whole story.

Step 2: Thinking that I can see all there is to see, I believe I am entitled to infer things about the sort of person I am looking at – a refugee who is well dressed can therefore be considered suspect. A girl in a short skirt is asking to be raped. A fat person is greedy and lazy, etc. All of these judgements are incredibly harsh and critical, and assume the worst of the person I’m looking at based on no real evidence beyond my interpretation of a surface impression.

Step 3: I have successfully created a power imbalance in which I give myself the moral high ground, and determine that the other person is inferior to me. This gives me an even greater sense of entitlement which in turn enables me to take action.

Step 4: Based on my sense of moral superiority, I tell the person who I’m judging some ‘hard truth’ I ‘tell it like it really is’ – I spout my hate and assumptions and expect them to take this onboard. I also feel entitled to act unpleasantly in line with these assumptions.

Step 5: If the other person objects, I point out that I am only doing it for their own good, to help them and that they need to face up to reality and sort themselves out. I leave the encounter feeling like I’ve done them a massive favour (which of course I haven’t), and not like I am a total git, which would be a lot closer to the truth.

Many disabilities are not visible. Depression is not visible. Whether someone’s partner just died is not visible. Whether someone has just made huge progress in getting to a healthier body size is not visible. Whether someone is on meds affecting their body size is not visible. How promiscuous someone is, cannot be seen by looking at their clothes. How promiscuous someone is, is not actually a measure of whether or not they are ‘good’. People who are poor are not required to conform to certain dress codes so that you can see they are poor – there’s a double bind here: Look smart and clearly you aren’t really poor, look rough and downtrodden and you’re a lazy person who hasn’t made the effort so your poverty must be your fault.

When we shame people based on how they look, it actually has very little to do with them. It’s all about the person who is doing the shaming wanting to feel superior to someone else, and feeling entitled to inflate their own ego by bullying someone else. This kind of shaming also lets us off the hook, because if we blame the other person we can tell ourselves we’re under no obligation to help them.  Even if you think you know what’s going on with someone else, maybe you don’t, maybe they haven’t told you.

Helping people starts by not shaming them, not humiliating them, and not assuming we know what’s going on for them and consequently what they should do about it. Ask, listen, enable, support. That kind of thing can make a difference. The other thing just mires people in misery, and makes it harder for them to speak. Blaming people just doesn’t make anything better.

Mammal shaming

It often seems to me that human acceptability has everything to do with the hiding and restraining of the mammal part of the self. I find this doubly true for women, where body hair is not acceptable, body fat must be removed, faces must be painted in order to pass muster and until very recently, grey hairs must be dyed a more acceptable colour. All the various liquids that the female body produces must be hidden or lied about, and in adverts some will be replaced with inoffensive blue fluid.

If there was a time when I wasn’t ashamed of my body, I do not remember it. Being teased about my appearance is one of my early memories. Being clumsy, awkward, not fast enough or co-ordinated enough dominated my early school days. When I was about ten, some of my peers took me aside and said they’d seen a thing in a soap opera where a plain-Jane character was transformed by a perm and some makeup, so there was hope for me after all.

At least in matters of appearance, I have limited control. Too tall, too broad, too solidly built, too prone to laying down fat, and certainly too furry – all I can do is mitigate. I could never have been a beautiful, willowy elf maiden, starting with these proportions and this face. As a child I fantasised about having plastic surgery to fix all the many things that were wrong with me, but a steel allergy makes that unthinkable.

The trickier bits are the things an animal body does and wants. It gets hungry, but I learned early that to express hunger is not ladylike. It doesn’t want to sit down quietly for hours when it’s told to, does not want to push past exhaustion to keep working, again, and it revolts against things that frighten it. Walking on ice, learning to cycle and to swim were hard battles in my childhood, not least because I was so mistrustful of my unreliable body. It doesn’t handle heat and cold well, it wants to be warm, to be comfortable, to rest for longer, not to have to get up and push this morning, to sit in the sun for a bit. It has appetites that are best not spoken of, because that would be vulgar. This body fears and craves affection in about equal measure.

It is possible, I suppose, that other people feel similar things under their better constructed veneers of civilization. The vast majority of people I encounter seem to dress and act the part far better than I do. I am an awkward, hairy mammal, as unlikely and comedic as a chimp in a dress. I walk through the world feeling like a Stone-age visitor, not able to keep up with everything a modern human is supposed to do and be. All too often this leaves me hating the skin I wear, this awkward lump of a self that I shuffle, shamefaced through my days with.

It is also possible, that if I ever felt safe in just honouring that mammal self and taking care of what it wants and needs, that I might not be so mired in despair so often. Exhaustion breaks me regularly, because I ignore the need to stop. Other needs, and wants that manifest in my body are so uncomfortable to me that I find it hard to think about them, much less say, or act on it. Faced with high heels, lipsticks, diets, hair removal and all the other norms and expectations, I feel lost, frightened, wanting to crawl back into my cave and be some other sort of animal.

Blame and responsibility

Blame is one of the least useful things we can go in for. It shuts down conversation, breaks relationships and all too often makes it impossible to come up with any kind of productive resolution. We go in for blame to protect ourselves from feeling bad about our own shortcomings – if we can out the blame squarely on someone else we can hang on to the illusion that we are fine, lovely, good people. Owning mistakes hurts. Equally, when we accept the blame, we can be demoralised, crushed even, by the value-judgements that go alongside being blamed. Worthless. Useless. Failure.

Taking responsibility is a powerful thing. Where blame is usually a blanket, and not very specific, responsibility requires us to unpick things. To take responsibility you have to know where things went awry, and what precisely could have been done that bit better. There’s scope for a learning process that takes you forward, safe in the knowledge that next time there will be new and different mistakes.

Blame cultures breed denial. If the consequence of owning a mistake is that you will be humiliated and shamed, there’s not much incentive to own the errors. In a culture that prizes responsibility, stepping forward to say where things went wrong is an honourable action for which you should be thanked. Most of the time things go wrong because of misjudgements, genuine errors, well meant attempts that were wide of the mark. Most of the time, those can be dealt with well once they are exposed and scrutinised.

Sometimes, there are people who are just mean and unreasonable. There are problems not born of honest mistakes but of a genuine desire to inflict suffering. If you come back with a blame response to one of those, the most likely outcome is that you will escalate things. People who mean to cause pain are not people who will shoulder responsibility for resolving it. What you’ll get instead is a flash of narcissistic rage perhaps, or some defensive lashing out to preserve that person’s sense of worth and dignity. If you think that someone else is genuinely to blame for a problem, the responsible action can simply be to get the hell out of there and reduce the scope for them to do something similar again.

How do you tell if you are the victim or the villain in a blame situation? How do you tell if you are blithely projecting your negativity onto someone else, or defending your crapness by blaming it on another? Look to the blame itself. If your impulse is to blame, and to push responsibility away from you, then regardless of what is going on in a situation, you’ve got issues that need looking at. If your impulse is to unpick problems and work out balances of responsibility with a view to making things better, you’re going the right way. If your inclination is to take the blame and internalise a sense of fault, this is not proof that you are the bad guy, nor is it proof that you are some kind of long suffering saint. What it means is that you have an unhelpful way of thinking about things, and you would be better off ditching it in favour of a more balanced approach.

If you’re faced with people who blame, then it is easy to internalise all the things they refuse to be responsible for. I’ve been there, and I’ve got t-shirts. There is a trap in letting yourself feel noble and self-sacrificing as you absorb someone else’s toxic output. I’ve done that too, and it’s not something I’m proud of, not least because it didn’t solve anything and just left me in a worse state. If there is shared responsibility, you have a strong relationship, a strong community. If there is just blame, it is never going to be good. Sometimes the responsible choice, is to go somewhere else.

Druidry against shame

One of the repeated themes for me at Druid camp, was the issue of facing down that which is shaming. There’s a world of difference between being ashamed of genuine shortcomings and errors, and quite another having someone shame you. Shaming is a widespread activity. When we are made to feel shame for things we have no control over, or for things that are important to us, when we are shamed by others for our mistakes and shortcomings, humiliation is inevitable. It is a painful, self-reducing process and there is no good in it.

At camp we had naked people. We had the red tent exploring menstruation and other generally unspeakable women’s mysteries. Shaming around bleeding and the female body is widespread. There were stories of people shamed, and of shame resisted.

There is a role for ‘name and shame’ tactics. When people undertake to deliberately do the wrong thing, when there is hypocrisy, when power is corrupt and abusive, then calling it out is important, and there is a place for drawing shame down upon the head of the perpetrator. However, there’s still that difference to hold between recognising an action or behaviour as shameful, and shaming a person. The point at which we say ‘this bad thing is on the inside of you, and you are therefore a bad person’ is a troubling one.

I have learned, in the sharing of stories, that bearing the humiliation of exposure can be very powerful. One of the reasons I have repeatedly put my blood, pain and fear into the public domain is I’ve realised this enables other shamed people to speak up, to acknowledge what has been done, and to make some moves away from being in a state of shame, or pain. The two often run together. It doesn’t help that our culture tends to view acknowledgement of weakness, or injury as shameful. I still find it hard to cry in public. It does not help that professional people have attempted to shame me for weeping.

Today, I heard a story about a brave boater who has put a humiliating letter into other people’s hands, making a stand for justice. The Canal & River Trust habitually sends out the kind of letters that shame recipients. For a proud and independent soul, being told to go and get council housing when you shouldn’t need it, is shaming. Putting that in the public domain, feels humiliating, but I’m going to raise my hand and say, me too. I had one of those. I was told that the home I had paid for would be taken from me and that I would have to go and apply for council housing. And the shame of it burned deeply. That shame keeps us silent, afraid of what will happen if we draw further attention to the way in which we’ve already been humiliated.

Shaming only holds power if we let it do so. As soon as you can face it down, meeting the eyes of the aggressor and refusing to be humiliated into silence, then shaming ceases to be a weapon someone can use against you. Refusing to be shamed for who we are, what we are, for our natural bodies, for our hopes, beliefs, ideas and dreams is not an easy choice. It is far simpler to accept being slapped down, and not to fight it, and invite further ridicule and harassment. It is also a way of having bits of you cut off.

I am going to learn not to be ashamed of my body. I am not going to allow bullies to humiliate me into silence. I’ll keep saluting those other brave souls who show their wounds publically so that others know they are not alone.