The great poets look into your own heart and the dark corners of your soul, shine a light on it, and name your feeling before you ever knew you felt it. For me, that’s Bruce Springsteen. In one of his most insightful moments, he sings, “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse?” Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true? That’s a question from childhood, the last time when dreams feel like facts, but it’s that second part, the contemplation of what is worse than a lie, that rings prophetic. What is worse than a lie? Shame. The pain we feel when we hold up ourselves up to the image of who we thought we had to be and see every imperfection as a mark against us.
In five years, I’ve seen many young writers experiencing shame at far above a healthy dose. I see it in their posture, hear it in their voice, and sense it in their defenses. It presents first as an apparently lack of confidence, and at the start of my teaching career, I thought that is what it was. Now, I see the need to call this shame what it is because nothing is more toxic to learning, creativity, and especially writing, where time spent alone in thought allows for shame to take root and spread until it is out of control.
I’ve had my own unfortunate experiences with shame. Five years ago, I finished my graduate education with a master’s in English from the University of Iowa. Four years prior, I entered that program to pursue a PhD. To leave without finishing the higher degree is a decision that I still feel shame over, and one that affects how I live, how I work, and especially how I write. Living in the same town where I did my graduate work, I will occasionally run into professors or former graduate students. These interactions cause me anxiety because I anticipate they’ll ask what I’ve been up to, which I assume to mean that they want an explanation for why I left with just the master’s degree and I’ll have to compose some explanation that exposes some of the truth while hiding the causes of my departure that I fear reflect most negatively of me. It is important to note that no one outside of my closest family and friends has ever actually asked me to explain why I left, and even then their queries were out of love and support, yet the fear of having to confront my shame and potentially explain my decision causes anxiety intense enough that I will normally avoid those encounters, even when I would otherwise welcome the reunion.
The most embarrassing part, i.e. the reason I left, was an inability to turn my insights into a long form piece of writing. In other words, I doubted that I would be able to finish a dissertation (or even to give one much of a start.) This doubt was not a product of writer’s block. Rather, it was indicative of a pattern that appeared as far back as grade school. I knew going into the program that I had troubles with getting writing done. I ignored them partly because of shame I already felt in other areas of my life. I attended and graduated from one of the most prestigious universities in the country, and I made Dean’s List seven of eight semesters.The one semester I missed the Dean’s List was my first semester in college. I enrolled in physics and chemistry as part of the beginning of my engineering major. Engineering seemed like a fit because I was very good at math, and I struggled with English. However, by mid-semester, I was in danger of failing both classes in addition to nearly failing a calculus class that I had already tested out of and had thought would just function as a review. I started thinking to myself that perhaps I wasn’t cut out to be an engineer after all. At registration time for the spring semester, I chose a schedule with no science classes and the lowest level calculus class I would need to take to pass school requirements. I still rebounded and finished strong, missing graduating with honors by two-thousandths of a point.
That effort did not win me a job with a high salary and prestige that I felt was somehow supposed to be my reward when I was labeled a gifted student in second grade. Instead, after an extended job search and some temping experience, I landed a job as an administrative assistant in an English department. I welcomed the opportunity to at least be in the same neighborhood of a subject I had majored in, which many people don’t get. I got a chance to meet and talk with great thinkers and authors who I admired. I was even the assistant to a Nobel Prize winning poet (or as I like to say, I was an assistant Nobel Prize winner), though all that really meant is that I forwarded his mail to his home overseas when it piled up. Still, I had difficulty reconciling the fact that the most important parts of my job, such as unjamming the copier or greeting visitors and answering the telephone, were tasks that I required no formal education for, and the only alternative I could see was to return to school where I could possibly salvage some of the status that I felt I needed to have.
Each of these points of decision and ultimate failure to become the type of scholar/professional/person that I thought I should be have caused me a tremendous amount of stress. Each forced me to take a hard look at myself. That kind of reevaluating is inevitable and can be a healthy process. The way I went into it was not. My shame of not living up to the standards I thought I needed to meet fueled each decision I made, and that turned potential opportunities into toxic situations marked with anxiety, fear, and a mental and emotional paralysis that made moving forward much more difficult.
For a writer, shame short circuits creative and rational thought, slowing or grinding progress to a halt. It is the engine of self doubt: the voice that declares you will never be able to pull this off. The voice that says not only have you missed the answer, but you never understood the question. The voice that, in writing this piece, says that this is too personal, too self indulgent, too strongly stated for anyone to connect to. The voice that says, “Stop it. Just quit. You’re not the right man for the job.” It is a voice that kills creativity and saps motivation. It leaves behind only a supercharged dose of the shame one began with. It is not a coincidence that so many writers slide into alcoholism and addiction. They don’t turn to drugs and drink because it lets them be more creative; they become more creative because the drugs and drink temporarily numb the shame that feeds self doubt. Of course, such a solution only leads to a greater amount of shame in the long run.
Shame seems like too harsh of a word to use in these circumstances. It echoes its past of moral judgments pronounced by hypocritical theocrats or tyrannical autocrats who played on people’s fears and humiliated anyone whom they felt threatened by. These days, it might be more comfortable to say low self-esteem, but that describes a mood or an emotional compass heading rather than a sense that something is personally wrong with you. And it is imperative that we address that uncomfortable state.
I started thinking about the importance of understanding shame after reading Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. [The subtitle here might perhaps also clue you into the genre, which I'll admit is another anxiety I have about including it here. The book would be classified at best as pop psychology and at worst as self help, neither of which is worthy of the scholarly voice that my shame over not having a PhD suggests is extra important. However, Brown has two TED talks ("The Power of Vulnerability" and "Listening to Shame") with over two million views each, is a researcher and professor herself, and is downright inspiring, so I'm sticking with it. Even so, do you see how strong the influence of shame on self doubt can be?]
The important takeaways from Brown are two: first, shame is something different from guilt. Shame is focused on the self; guilt focuses on behavior. Guilt, in Brown’s words, is “I made a mistake; I’m sorry,” and shame is “I am a mistake.” Second, shame is “highly, highly correlated addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. … Guilt is inversely correlated with those things.” I don’t imagine that either of these principles is applied when we talk about shame, and it seems extremely important that we do. In American society, where celebrity culture and reality television invade the nightly news, it is hard not to say that we need more shame rather than less. What we don’t understand is that many of them already have an extremely unhealthy dose of shame and what they need to do is to experience guilt instead.
The determining factor between shame and guilt boils down to who and what gets the blame when things go wrong. Mistakes happen and always will. But Brown’s work is inspiring because it demonstrates that success and happiness do not depend on avoiding mistakes. Nor does success require ignoring mistakes and cultivating some sort of blind optimism that inoculates one from the anxiety and depression that failure may bring. Only someone who is truly a narcissist and incapable of empathy can do such a thing. Instead, learning to address mistakes as something you are sorry for and plan to fix is a key to persisting in any complicated multistage process, whether that process be learning, dieting, becoming a better parent/spouse/child, etc.
Lately, I hear a lot of people worry about the vigilant attention Americans dedicate to helping children develop a positive self esteem. This trend created a world where every child gets a trophy, and eventually, every child expects a trophy. Some teachers report seeing the effects of this in the large numbers of students who approach them to question their grades. This generation seems to have a sense of entitlement, a narcissism that makes them impervious to shame. I don’t argue with the idea that some students appear to feel entitled in ways that make me feel embarrassed for their boldness. However, the idea that these students live without shame is false.
Instead, I see shame as a constant presence that manifests itself in ways that we may not initially detect. A student who protests a low grade on an essay on the basis they have always been an A student (a tactic many seem to take) should not be treated as someone obnoxiously petitioning for a grade they didn’t earn, but rather as a young person attempting to square an unfamiliar experience with the image they had of themselves up to that point. This is an experience of shame. The student cannot see the cause of the results as connected to their efforts (i.e. feel guilty, recognize their mistake, and resolve to work harder next time). Instead, they focus on their self (i.e. feel shame, see their paper grade as possibly the first time that they aren’t smart enough to do this, and instead flee from that confrontation by blaming their teacher.) They may not be pleasant to deal with, but dealing with these situations constructively may do more good for the student than any class lecture.
If there is an epidemic, it is an epidemic of shame, not narcissism. When you start to look for shame, you see past the defenses and find someone who needs help learning how to take an honest look at their own mistakes without shame. Propping up every child as special has provided them with limited experience of having to deal constructively with failure. It is especially sad with college students who are in that stage of life when no sense of self feels completely comfortable. Academically and socially, they are being challenged to figure out who they are, and they learn that many of the narratives they might have had about themselves in the past are shelters built of straw.
As a teacher, I see attempts to deal with shame and failure manifest in an unhealthy perfectionism, one that prevents an ability of sitting and dealing with mistakes until something that catastrophic happens. Perfectionism is a remarkably seductive defense against shame because it is based on traits we value in our society. We encourage meticulousness; we celebrate high standards. However, when viewed through the lens of shame, perfectionism reveals its dark side. Perfectionists suffer when they must deal with a situation where they have limited control, and they develop a tendency to take mistakes as signs of personal flaws.
College is possibly one of the worst environments for this kind of a perfectionist because the sense that an answer is either correct or incorrect becomes a lot foggier as topics become more complex. In order to keep control over how others view them, many perfectionists feel they need to already know what they don’t know so that they never have to be wrong. That attitude undermines the very nature of a college education because the point of higher education is to push limits, question assumptions, and struggle with challenges that we might not otherwise have the time or resources to tackle. If a student is too focused on avoiding mistakes, the results are not pretty. Every year, I meet with a handful of students who have the aptitude to succeed at the highest levels, but they can’t put that intelligence to a good use because they experience a sense of shame-based anxiety that is so acute that their rational mind shuts down. Often, these students will fear submitting a substandard assignment so much that they will go through a class and not turn in any of the assignments. Some students even have drafts of the essays done, but they know they are not perfect, so instead of possibly getting a C on the assignment, they get an F. When this happens, it is unfortunately much more likely that this student will drop out or be asked to leave after failing a number of their classes. If that shame is allowed to grow, they may go from someone who graduated high school with a bright future and a scholarship to someone who struggles with the enormous weight of the label “failed to meet potential.” That is a burden that drives people into depression and despair.
Writing demands a time wallowing in an incredibly vulnerable state. Very few ideas arise fully formed and rarely do they flow until the writer is already deep in the process. Creativity comes in messy connections between otherwise disconnected points, and many of those connections will fail to hold. That means a writer must start with a faith that it will all work out. However, the longer someone struggles with writing, the harder it becomes to write. These writers feel like they must surrender more and more control to forces they can’t understand. Asking them to compose an essay feels to them like asking them to jump out of an airplane and construct a parachute on the way down, which means ignoring those powerful thoughts in the back of their minds about how hard that ground will feel when they fail.
Of course, simply understanding shame goes only part way to fixing it, and I’ll address that more in the fifth post from this series. Personally, I can reflect on points in the past where I feel like a failure and explain things in ways that are not tied into my sense of self. My writing struggles come from years of composing with an undiagnosed case of Attention Deficit Disorder, a former gifted student’s finely honed perfectionism, and a lingering sense that I am failing to live up to my potential. Even when treating the ADD and understanding rationally the dangers of such perfectionism, the anxiety and memories of past struggles still haunt me. I walk around with four different book projects in my head, but cannot bring any of them to fruition. I joke that I am the proof of the cliché that those that can’t do, teach, but I am beginning to realize that it is the difficulty I have had with writing that lets me connect to those who have similar difficulties. I know my approach doesn’t work for everybody, and you can’t imagine the vulnerability and fear I feel sharing in such a way, but I have always known I am not perfect. I’m now just trying hard to believe I don’t have to be.