You're on the school playground during recess. You're about nine years old. You see a group of kids playing and you walk over to join their game. As you approach — halfexpectant, half-apprehensive — one of them sneers at you and another laughs. You hesitate a moment, wanting to move forward, but wanting to retreat. They decide to let you play after all. Later, you blunder badly and several of them call you “faggot”! Not knowing what that means you look down anyway, hanging your head for a moment, feeling despised. Everyone standing around begins to mock you.
You are older now, thirteen, just on the threshold of adolescence. Everything about you is changing. Your face, your body, even your feelings. Inside you feel different from everyone you know. You just don't seem to fit in anymore. But did you ever fit in? Even the way you look at people has changed. You find yourself staring at someone you like until suddenly you're noticed. Then you quickly lower your eyes and look way, embarrassed at being caught. Other kids don't seem to stare the same way you do. Sure, they stare too – but not at the same individuals you stare at. And you don't notice the ones they do. Something is different about you. Something seems wrong. But not let anyone find this out about you. It's safer to hide.
Remember that time in class when everyone crowded around the big table for the science demonstration, and you actually got to press against that certain person you'd been staring at? But you were noticed – you'd been seen. Then, later in the hallway between classes came the jeers: “You're a queer! Look at the faggot!”. Instantly, everyone's eyes were on you. The silence was deafening and you just wanted the floor to open up so you could disappear – vanish from sight. The world was spinning. You wanted to get out of there, escape, find somewhere to hide. But you couldn't. There was nowhere to go – you felt trapped and exposed.
You are fourteen years old now and you've found a best friend. You go everywhere together, share everything. You tell your friend you deepest secrets and feel closer because of the revelations. You like to touch, even hug each other occasionally – when no one is looking. You feel a rush inside, a thrill you do not fully understand, or want to understand. One day you're out walking, arm in arm, oblivious to the world, when all at once your serenity is shattered: A group of kids walks by and suddenly begins to jeer: “Look at those homos! They're sick.” Instantly your head goes down, involuntarily. Neither of you speaks of what happened. But your friend suddenly becomes busier, has less time to spend with you. Something is wrong, and also feels wrong inside – but neither one of you can talk about it. Gradually, you're surrounded by a deepening silence, and that silence alsospreads within you. You begin to hide even more of yourself.
To be human is to be vulnerable to shame. Everyone has experienced shame in some form and to some degree. That is normal. And there are times when shame is even appropriate and necessary, though at other times it can be overwhelming. By its very nature, shame is both multidimensional and multilayered. It is first of all an individual phenomenon that everyone experiences. No-one is immune to the sting of shame. But shame also occurs on much wider planes as well, most notable within family and culture. Our family is where we first learn to hide, to disconnect from ourselves, where we first feel split from others and alienated. The individual experience of shame is directly reproduced within every family, and each culture has its own distinctive sources of shame, particular targets for shaming, as well as prescribed remedies for returning from shame to honour.
Shame is a deeply disturbing human emotion that becomes triggered anew throughout the life cycle, from birth to death. Shame is by no means confined to just one time of life. During each successive, unfolding phase of development, from childhood and adolescence to adulthood and old age there are distinctive sources of shame. It is everpresent in our lives, however masked it may be.
THE TOMKINS THEORY OF SHAME
Defining Shame. To experience shame is to feel seen in a painfully diminished sense. Our eyes turn inward in the moment of shame, and suddenly we have been impaled under the magnifying glass of our own eyes. Even when other people are present and watching, we are watching ourselves. Exposure is what we feel in the instant shame strikes: our face burns hot, we blush, we lower our head or eyes, yearn to disappear, to escape all those watching eyes, to find cover. But we can never hide from ourselves, from those watching eyes inside.
Exposure is the central characteristic of any shame experience, and can be of two distinct forms: exposure to others or exposure only to ourselves. We will experience shame when we unexpectedly feel exposed before an audience of some kind, whether stumbling in a crowd, falling on the ice, or being criticized in the presence of others. We will feel equally exposed in the moment of shame even in isolation, when no one else is present and the watching eyes belong only to ourselves. This sudden, unexpected sense of exposure is inherent in the experience of shame: we stand revealed as less. Shame instantly calls attention to our face, heightening both selfawareness and visibility to others. That is why we immediately become so aware of our face in the moment of shame. We are unexpectedly visible when we wish most to disappear from sight.
If the inner experience of shame is exposure, the outer view of shame is revealed by its characteristic facial signs: eyes down, head down, eyes averted to the side, and blushing. These universal facial signs signify the experience of shame for people in all cultures. They communicate shame both to the person who is feeling it and to anyone else who is present or watching.
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