UNPOPULAR OPINION: Shame Is Good For You

Maybe not everything about us is necessarily worth embracing and accepting.

Dec 28, 2012 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

image

I was in a clothing store trying on jeans when a saleswoman came by, looked me over and suggested that I try the “curvy fit” style. Livid, I hissed no thanks, put my own clothes back on and stomped out of the store. How dare she approach me and impose her unsolicited opinion?! What made her think the “regular fit” wouldn’t work on my body?

In hindsight, it’s pretty apparent that the poor woman was probably just doing her job, seeing as how I am undeniably “curvy.” My own body issues, amplified under the unforgiving fitting room lights, completely obscured my ability to take her suggestion at face value. Was I fat-shamed? Without a doubt -- but the blow was struck by my own hand.

Shaming is an action in which a person (or persons) inflicts negative feelings upon someone else. Fat shaming, slut shaming, fun shaming, job shaming, etc. has probably happened to everyone at some point. It can be subtle, aggressive or sometimes, muchlike in the scenario described above, self-inflicted because shame is a pre-existing condition.

So, what should we do about all this shame? Ignore it? Love it into submission? Self-affirm it away? Sometimes, yes, absolutely -- gender, race, sexuality, being naturally "curvy" and other intrinsic elements of our identities are, in a perfect world, neither bad nor good. They just are.

But, maybe not everything about us is necessarily worth embracing and accepting. 

Eight years ago, I went back to college and finished the degree I’d started and abandoned after high school. Five years ago, I lost 30 pounds by adopting a healthy diet and exercising. Three years ago, I dropped my pack-a-day cigarette habit cold turkey. I consider these things major life accomplishments and at the root of each is one common denominator -- shame. I didn’t accept myself as an undereducated, physically unfit smoker and felt (in my case) appropriately ashamed. Rather than wallow in that all that negativity, I used it as the fuel necessary to bring about positive changes.

My family history predisposes me to a laundry list of preventable health problems like diabetes and heart disease. Shame forces me to take a hard look in the mirror when I find myself playing Russian Roulette with my well-being. It reminds me that, given my genetics, the consequences of poor life choices would be especially dire and that I know better than that.

I smoked heavily from my early teens into adulthood without much thought about quitting, willfully oblivious to the effect it had on my health and the message my smoking sent to the people around me. One day, shortly after finishing college, I read a statistic that smokers were less likely to get hired for jobs. So, all that work I put into school could potentially mean nothing if I walked into an interview smelling like an ashtray? Like, seriously? Shame began to creep in.

While shopping in the cosmetic aisle, I reached past someone to grab a mascara and a little internal voice would whisper “That lady can smell the smoke all over you and she thinks it’s disgusting.” When I was stopped at a traffic light, puffing away on a menthol; glancing over and meeting the eyes of a young mom in the car next to me with her children in the backseat, it told me “She probably thinks you’re trash.”

Finally, when the preppy, clean-cut guy I’d just met asked me to brush my teeth before he kissed me because “I’m sorry, I just can’t stand smoking,” shame won. I quit and never looked back.  

Were those horrible thoughts healthy? No way! But, there they were and the most constructive thing I could think to do was use them as a means to an end. Self-love many not always be the thing that compels me to work toward a happy, healthy life but on more days than not, it’s the end result.

My bartending job predisposes me to a nocturnal schedule but shame helps me get out of bed before noon every day. It motivates me to exercise even when I’m worn out from a long shift. It forces me to write when I feel like I’ve got nothing to say. 

Shame is the voice in the back of my head that chants, “You can do better, you should do better.” It acts as an internal checks and balances system that forces me to take pause and examine my behavior. Shame, or the fear of it, is often the red flag that stops me in my tracks when I’m on the wrong path. Or the wrong guy. Or the extra drink that I don’t need.

Sometimes, the possibility of feeling shame is the only thing that can stifle the alluring siren song of my couch when there’s work to be done. Boiled down, most of my shame comes from the deep desire to always be the best possible version of myself. Is that a feasible reality? Maybe not, but it keeps me trying. When I don’t try, the internal roar of shame can be deafening.

At its worst, shame is ugly and dark and unfair and unfounded. At its best -- and I think it does have a “best” -- it’s the part of our psyche that ultimately believes in us the most and won’t accept anything less than100%. Either way, it exists -- what we do with it is all in our own hands. Ultimately, I believe it can strengthen our ability to rise above whatever shaming the outside world tries to dump on us. Taking control of shame is the emotional equivalent of keeping your enemies closer. 

For the record, I went back to that store. The “curvy fit”? It really does -- like a fucking glove.