Mental Chains – A Bit More on Shame

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In response to my last blog, which was written mostly out of frustration at what I was feeling and what I was thinking, I wanted to clarify a bit more by what I mean by ‘shame’. When you hear the word ‘shame’, you often hear it in the context of someone pointing a finger at a politician and declaring “shame on you” after they’ve done something reprehensible. If caught red-handed, you’ll also hear that politician say, “I am ashamed of my actions” (whether they are or aren’t is entirely another issue, haha).

But that’s not really the kind of shame I’m describing. It goes farther than feeling ‘shame’ for what you’ve done, and goes into feeling shame for who you are. In fact, it feels like there should be an entirely separate word for this kind of fully internalized shame in the English language. But alas, English is again inefficient at describing something that’s such a big part of my life at the moment.

This article by Behavioral Health Evolution about shame-based thinking is exactly it: “The hallmark of shame is a constant awareness of our defects. Without realizing it, we become continual victims of shame-based thinking. Every day, we focus on our failures. Every day, we re-convince ourselves that we are defective. Our thoughts become riddled with judgment, regret, and images of impending failure. When we consciously articulate these shame-based thoughts, we might be shocked at their severity.”

(Speaking of continual victimhood, here’s my one potentially-political viewpoint for this blog, and I put it in parenthesis because it’s unrelated but relevant; I’m “covering my bases,” you could say, for the future. For those of you who stumble on this blog and think you spy yet another “precious snowflake Millennial” looking to play the depression victim card in order to gain some kind of advantage in life, that’s real cute. First of all, you read nerdy WordPress blogs to search out people to belittle? Second, “snowflake”, “Millennial”, and “victim card” are all modern buzzwords whose use identifies you more than they identify me. Third, am I not human? Are you not human too? Get over yourself and seek to connect with someone instead of putting them down. I promise to do the same for you. Fourth, I fully realize that I’ve chosen to be a victim many times in my life, and I have yet to find the ways it gains me any kind of leverage. In fact, the only advantage my depression gives me at all is an increased feeling of empathy for those that have depression. Everyone goes through some soul-searching every once in a while, and those that don’t are selling something.)

(More than a few times on Twitter and Facebook, I’ve seen people arguing against someone with a mental illness, insisting that they’re using their “victim complex” as an excuse to slack off or think differently. I’ve even seen this beloved clip from The Princess Bride used as a weapon to attack people with mental illness. It makes me sick every time I see it. If these “victim complexes” exist among my age group as deeply as you think they do, your first course of action is to indulge them and actually make them victims of your “righteous” indignation? Or, if you believe that mental illness is more than just a petty excuse, you’re choosing to attack and devour the weakest among us anyway? Do you not know the power that anonymous words on the internet have over the introverted? Isn’t there enough shame in the world for those that deserve it that you feel the need to pass some more around just for good measure?)

(Anyway. I’m not arguing against the existence of a “victim complex”, because, to be honest, that’s what the shame cycle is: a self-inflicted victimhood. Nine times out of ten, you don’t have to point this out to anyone with a mental illness. No, I’m arguing against anyone shaming those that dare wear their hearts on their sleeves and share their personal experiences with mental illness. One in five of us suffers from some form of mental ailment. If you’ve never suffered an inexplicable panic attack in a public place, endured depression or PTSD huddled alone in a dark closet, or finance and relationship-ruining mania in your long and storied life, consider yourself blessed.)

(For everyone else, thank you for reading my rant, and I will continue.)

The article shares the following examples of shame-based thinking:

  • I am defective (damaged, broken, a mistake, flawed).
  • I am dirty (soiled, ugly, unclean, impure, filthy, disgusting).
  • I am incompetent (not good enough, inept, ineffectual, useless).
  • I am unwanted (unloved, unappreciated, uncherished).
  • I am weak (small, impotent, puny, feeble).
  • I am bad (awful, dreadful, evil, despicable).
  • I am pitiful (contemptible, miserable, insignificant).
  • I am nothing (worthless, invisible, unnoticed, empty).
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“Why you desire to wipe out the past is of more significance than knowing how to wipe it out. The intention with which you approach the problem is more important than knowing what to do about it.”

“Shame develops as the slow, relentless accumulation of such thoughts,” the article continues, “one self-insult at a time, delivered to ourselves over weeks, months, and years. Notice that each of the previous statements starts with the words I am. This reinforces our definition of shame as a state of being that goes far beyond anything we do or fail to do.”

I didn’t reach the point I’m at now in a single day. This kind of self-punishing thinking is something I’ve developed for many years, possibly through my entire life. I remember my mom asking me once, “Where and when did you learn to think about yourself this way?” I didn’t have an answer for her, and I still don’t. It really did come gradually until one day I realized I hated myself and that my brain had tricked itself into believing a lie: that I had to be a perfect, mistake-free being in order to be whole.

And this shame cycle isn’t solely concentrated on the self alone: it colors how we view everyone around us as well. The article points to other authors and their views that shame spreads itself around; shame-based thinking can lead to:

  • Negative explanations of other people’s behavior
  • Dire predictions
  • Selective focus on negative aspects of events
  • Doubt in coping skills
  • Rigid rules about how people should behave

I may not be the brightest light in the sky, but I don’t believe I have these negative beliefs about the intentions of other people; in the very least I haven’t developed them in the last ten years since I’ve come to understand myself and my depression. In fact, I find the “rigid rules” part to be surprising, because if anything, my feelings about letting people live the life they want to live has actually loosened quite a bit since my mission – “live and let live,” I say. But maybe that’s not what it means, I’ll have to do more research. “Selective focus on negative aspects of events”, on the other hand, I do see quite a lot in myself. When something bad happens (or when an event has the potential for badness to occur), I don’t often think about what good could arise from it. I don’t see the silver lining in the clouds.

As for solving my shame-filled thoughts… maybe I’ll save that for another day. I’m already running late on this blog, and I won’t use the release of the one on Friday as an excuse to release this one tomorrow! I shan’t!

I apologize for my scatterbrain brain scatter (that word is legitimately a single word, according to Google, neat), and Thursday’s blog will be more joyous and game-filled!

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