We have all felt shame. It’s a universal emotion. It’s also something of a taboo. No one wants to talk about it because we all know what it feels like, and it’s just . . . icky. It can make us feel worthless, stupid, ugly, judged.
The thing about shame is that it makes us feel bad about who we are, not what we’ve done (or not done). During this month of Elul, in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we’re encouraged to look over the past year and take a kind of inventory. What would we do differently? To whom do we owe amends? How can we change our behavior and choices in the next year?
But shame is different. Shame doesn’t say, “You made some mistakes and you can make teshuvah (literally “return,” but also repentance) and apologize and make changes so you don’t make those mistakes again.” No. Shame says, “You suck, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Our machzorim–High Holy Day prayerbooks–talk about mistakes and sins and a myriad of things we do that we know we shouldn’t do but we do them anyway.
I’d like to propose that allowing shame to dictate our self-worth is also a sin.
I’m reading this book called I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t) by Brene Brown, Ph.D. It’s about shame and perfectionism and personal power. It defines shame (p. 5) as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”
We are all created b’tselem Elokim–in the image of G-d. If we believe ourselves, images of G-d, to be unworthy of love and acceptance and belonging, then we diminish G-d. Remember that old quip, “G-d don’t make no junk”?
This goes back to what I wrote about yesterday, struggling with how much to say, how open to be. Because underneath it all is the fear, “If people knew the truth about me, they wouldn’t like me anymore. They wouldn’t respect me or read anything I write. I would be a failure.” And if I say too much here on the blog, well then, maybe people would figure out that what my shame is telling me is true.
Says Dr. Brown, “Shame forces us to put so much value on what other people think that we lose ourselves in the process of trying to meet everyone else’s expectations.”
If we lose ourselves, do we also lose G-d?
In the Torah, we’re told, “You shall not take vengeance nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the L-rd.” (Vayikra [Leviticus] 19:18) Would not believing oneself worthless and undeserving be equivalent to bearing a grudge–against yourself?
Further, if we do not love ourselves, then how can we possibly love anyone else? Because obviously it makes no sense to treat others with the same disdain and disgust with which we treat ourselves when we feel shame. We are not told to hate others as we hate ourselves. We are told to love. That makes (appropriate) love of oneself a mitzvah, a commandment. (Remember, we’re not talking about self-aggrandizement here–we’re talking about shame. If anything, shame can lead to self-harm.)
Encouraging people to take stock of their lives at this time of year is a given. Guilt is practically expected. But how do you guard against shame?
Perhaps I’ll have more answers when I finish this book.