Shame

December 21, 2016 (Kampala):

SHAME: Up till recently, I wouldn’t have thought I had a ‘shame core’. I thought my self-esteem was better than that, or that my deepest angst is repressed anger, not shame. But a recent experience, and remembering one from two years ago, is changing my mind. I do know shame at a deep level.

The first was my doctoral defense in Leiden, in December 2014. Sitting at that great table, faced by that awful panel of ‘opponents’, I witnessed parts of my brain and body shut down out of fear. I had to use my prefrontal cortex to answer the questions, but it felt like pouring lava, slow and viscous. Other, lower regions of my brain were in charge. I felt like a small child trying to talk in a foreign language. I experienced this ‘inquisition’ as a deep humiliation. My body and brain were letting me down when I needed them most. I was naked and vulnerable. I experienced the event as an utter failure, a miserable humiliation of my mental powers. I was asked a brilliant question by one of the opponents, and I felt my answer was pathetic and unclear. Those qualities I took pride and safety in – eloquence, intelligence, articulateness, etc. – were rubbed in the dirt before all those penetrating gazes.

I was ashamed.

Later, in the shower, I cried…

The second experience of shame happened this past Monday. Things had fallen into place for me to tell K the thing I had been rehearsing in my mind: that I was thankful for her friendship [which was actually disingenuous because I was very attracted to her]. I was nervous [about being inauthentic yet again?], unsure that I would pull off this plan without it ending in disaster. It would’ve been much easier to give her a written note, because then it would’ve felt safer, my left and right brain hemispheres working together in an integrated way without the interference of fear. But I resisted that temptation, knowing it would be too easy to say things I shouldn’t and wanting to be a man who engages life full-on. So despite my insecurity, my upper brain gave my body orders, and I asked K if I could talk to her. She sat down beside me, and I began my little speech. She, of course, picked up on my misalignment and didn’t know how to respond right away. Her visible discomfort told my amygdala that I was going to botch this interaction irreparably. The felt awkwardness grew exponentially. Seeing this beautiful woman I liked so much dumbfounded by the words coming out of my mouth confirmed my worst fears: 1) I am a misfit. 2) I am doing something inappropriate. 3) My relationship to women really is dysfunctional. 4) Taking risks in following my heart is a bad idea, etc. And that is when SHAME overwhelmed me. My mouth dry and my throat tight, I muttered something like ‘that’s all’, got up, and left her. I left her! My blood was burning hot with primal shame and self-recrimination. K collected her things and as she walked out the door, she said something I didn’t catch. She was smiling, but her smile was different…I was hoping my longing and loneliness would be relieved by being courageous, but instead, they have increased ten-fold.

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