Shame Knows Your Name

By Zachary Siegel 05/22/15

Shame does not need anyone physically present to become manifest. All we need to do is imagine another being there and there comes shame.


“Shame…is shame of self; it is the recognition of the fact that I am that object which the Other is looking at and judging. I can be ashamed only as my freedom escapes me in order to become a given object (Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, p. 350).”

Enter the world of shame. 

The most profound and deeply-seated shame I felt throughout my heyday was putting myself in the eyes of my family. My sister is a graduate from Syracuse, who has a successful career in the la-di-da world of Manhattan fashion writing. My older brother, who suffered a stroke at the age of 22, and I most assuredly, literally, let him down as a helping hand because his dominant one was rendered immobile from the stroke. Both my parents were well-to-do baby boomers, who worked hard enough to obtain the wherewithal to send three children away to universities across the country. My life reduced to cliché: I was given everything I ever wanted and somehow, be it by heroin or inane nihilism, I destroyed it. 

Shame on me. 

Please note that “they” (being my family) did nothing overt to make me feel shameful. It was only when I was alone that I could imagine their critical eyes on me, where shame would show itself. It is a private and grotesque state, most often felt in the back of my throat or somewhere in my lower gut. Its signal is heat, blood vessels widen, skin goes red. Darwin found this affect (flush/warmth) to be universal, occurring in the human species across the globe. 

Shame does not need anyone physically present to become manifest. All we need to do is imagine another being there and there comes shame. For instance, you are on your bed, positive that your spouse, or significant other, or roommate is not home. You begin to touch yourself. Minutes later, you find yourself masturbating. In mid-stroke, or tug, or rub (or whatever it is you're doing to yourself) suddenly you hear a floorboard creak. You Jerk. Cover yourself. You put your pants back on. Pretend you were doing something, anything other than what it was you were actually doing. This is shame proper. The very fact that someone’s eyes potentially saw you evoked the emotion. That is to say, you evoked shame in yourself. Nobody, or nothing, not even your cat, actually saw you in the act. You only saw yourself. Freud tapped into this abrupt seeing of your self in his famous essay, Das Unheimliche. He described himself riding on a train at night. He stared out the window across the aisle, transfixed by the scene, the darkness, the fastness of objects flying by. All of a sudden, a light hit the window at the precise angle at which he saw himself for a brief moment and he thought: Who was that? He called the feeling, The Uncanny. Unheimliche, translated from the German means “unhomely” or “not-at-home.” 

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre teases out the meaning of shame, quite fittingly in a chapter called, “The Existence of Others: The Look.” As already mentioned, all it takes is an imagined look to feel shame. It does not spring from reflection, he says, but from the recognition that I am an object which the other person is looking at, judging. Instead of just saying a pair of eyes looked at him—sticking with the continental tradition of obscurantism—he called the eyeballs that produced the look, “ocular globes.” Just a tiny and hilarious caveat that must be mentioned, whenever possible. 

If the masturbation sequence, or Freud’s possibly coked out flash of insight did not make you feel shame, or for whatever reason you don’t masturbate, perhaps an example from Sartre himself will make you, at the very least, recognize yourself: 

“But the look will be given just as well on occasion when there is a rustling of branches, or the sound of a footstep followed by silence, or the slight opening of a shutter, or a light movement of a curtain…What I apprehend immediately when I hear the branches crackling behind me is not that there is someone there; it is that I am vulnerable, that I have a body which can be hurt, that I occupy a place and that I cannot in any case escape from the space in which I am without defense—in short, that I am seen (346-7).” 

It is in the instance where the other (real or imagined) looks at us, which is what Sartre called our “original fall” as conscious, radically-free human beings. That is, we fall away from conscious freedom. It escapes us. Consciousness tends to be unaware of itself as embodied, that’s because it is nothingness, invisible, you cannot see the other's consciousness. But we know the other sees us, and this forces us to see ourselves as objects, objects with bodies, bodies in space that which we cannot escape from. The same way we cannot escape the other's judgment, or ocular globes. 

Now in cases where one is addicted to something, or finds himself in a cycle of self-harm or abuse of some kind, why does shame constantly make itself known? Where does it come from? One obvious theory is socialization. The simple constructs by which we use to navigate through life, e.g., tapping someone on the back during a hug letting her know that the hug is over, or making eye-contact when you order a sugar-free vanilla, almond milk latte. These are all things we do without consciously thinking of doing them. When I walk into a library, I automatically begin to whisper without anyone telling me to do so, without even thinking of lowering my voice so as not to disturb the people there. I embody these constructs and guide myself, non-discursively, all the time, whether alone or with people. In this sense, we’re not so much the radically-free human beings we think we are. The one who is addicted then, acts out in such a way knowing that what she is doing is wrong, either by society's standards or by those who love us, but mostly, our own standards. But we do it anyway, telling ourselves it is okay, that we are okay, even when we know it is not. This is what Sartre called bad faith. It’s duplicitous, where we are both the deceiver and the one being deceived. 

My hands would be in a perpetual tremor while emptying baggy after baggy of white powder into the torn off bottom of a Coca-Cola can, then squirting some 60 units of lukewarm sink water onto the powder, then holding a Bic lighter at the proper to distance to turn the powdery water into a solution in order to suck it back into the hypodermic, to finally insert it into the most prominent vein in my arm at that time. Just about everything in the known world tells me that all of this is wrong. After some deep breaths my hands would be steady enough to execute the injection. If someone were to walk in on me performing this cockeyed chemistry experiment, I’d be in complete and utter shame. I know it’s wrong, plain and simple, but I do it anyway. 

Now, think of the non-verbal gestures of shame. Do you see someone shying away? Covering one’s face by putting her hand on her forehead? Or is his stare toward the ground? His posture collapsing in on itself?  The root word of shame is skem, which derives from kem and this means “to cover.” Shame forces us to hide—or to duck for cover—from others and from ourselves. 

It’s no wonder that with conditions like addiction, shame becomes a godly force. We imagine society or the states’ punitive gaze upon us and embody it, we call it god or the superego, or our father/mother. It looks down at us. 

Most likely because of my schooling I cannot help but think of shame in terms of functionality. Why is it there? What is shame telling us? It does speak, so we have to listen. If its signal is warmth, expanding our blood vessels, turning our flesh red, it tells the other that we are not oblivious of our error. It says, “I know, I know you see me and I feel terrible because I know.” If we are to agree with Sartre, that shame is not post-hoc reflection but is rather recognition of one as a self, a body, in that very moment, then maybe, we need shame to recognize ourselves in order to confront, like the way we use anger, what it is that is wrong, so we can change it, so we can see it. 

In my own case, shame was unveiled when I thought about my family and how I let them down. I kept this to myself for a long time. Shame is private. It keeps us quiet. Eventually, I ran out of hiding places. I couldn’t cover myself up anymore. I was finally confronted by my parents and we were face-to-face and I let them know how I felt (that I let them down, I’m a bad son, I ruined the family.) Their response was not what my shame told me it would be. It wasn’t punitive. I did not have to face the wrath of breaking social codes and expectations. Their response was care. They just cared about me. They wanted me to stop feeling the way I was feeling, which was broken, shameful. 

So much of shame is private. It lives in the imagination. The way to extinguish it is to speak to it and about it with people in your life, those same people you imagine looking down at you when you are at your worst.

Zachary Siegel, is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last wrote about whether AA is at fault for the murder of one its members and interviewed Ethan Nadelmann. Follow him on twitter.

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