The Motif of Shame

Last week I wrote about secrets, the central series or motif of the memoir I’m writing.  Sherri, from A View From My Summerhouse, mentioned the destructiveness of secrets and linked it to shame. This resonates with me because I’ve found that shame wells up in my story at every “low elevation,” like water pooling at a sandy beach. In fact, shame seems to drive reactions in my central characters far too often. That’s why it’s one of the 12 series of my book.

I never thought too much about shame until I studied Pia Mellody‘s 8 major emotions:

  • FEAR
  • PAIN
  • JOY
  • LOVE

Then I realized that not only is shame important and that I had been ignoring it, but that it was the creepy emotion. It’s the one that makes me feel . . . creeped out. Humiliation, regret, self-hatred, mortification, embarrassment, I could go on. There are so many words for these feelings. But no matter what, shame makes me feel YUCKY.

You’ve heard of the “it factor” that celebrities with charisma have? Shame has the ICK factor.

As a kid, my shame came mainly from two sources. One was my dad yelling at me where other kids could hear. Sometimes it was just that he was yelling in the house, and they could hear him. Other times it was that he would yell and punish me in front of friends.

The other source was when I felt embarrassed by being singled out or feeling that I was drawing potentially negative attention to myself, such as by wearing the wrong clothes. I hated negative attention and mistrusted positive attention.

Do you have memories about shame? Do they still control your life or not? Do you write about them?



Filed under Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing goals

63 responses to “The Motif of Shame

  1. Hoo boy, yelling dads. Sorry to hear that you were on the receiving end of that. I know what it’s like to live with a “yeller”. I’m afraid to say that I’ve been known to use the strategy and it is harmful to everyone.

    When you review that list of emotions, for the most part, they are fleeting – sharp and potent, but short-lived. Shame is sticky though. It lingers. Until you manage to become unstuck, yes, I’d say that at the very least it affects my life, if not control it.

    I think shame is one of the heaviest bags I carry. I wrote a post called “Curse You WordPress!” because I started to write a fluff piece on sugar and my sweet tooth and before you know it, I was overcome with the shameful memory of stealing money from my mother’s purse to buy candy when I was a girl.

    This was one post that stayed in draft form a lot longer than most of my writing because I couldn’t push the publish button. I was very scared about revealing my shameful deeds. The good news is that by sharing my story, other’s came forward and shared similar or even the SAME story and all at once, I felt so much better.

    • Maggie, I love that you were able to share your childhood shame and discovered that what you had done that had been such a burden was a burden shared by many people who have survived childhood. I do wonder, too, if children of yellers have a greater sense of shame than other children. If there is a relation between the two. ?? And your description of shame as sticky is PERFECT. Yes, that’s exactly it. Thank you so much for sharing your story here!

      • There very well may be a connection between yelling and shame. After all, very rarely is love and affection displayed at full volume.

        • Good point, Maggie. I’m sorry to hear about your brothers and you being shamed for using protective boundaries. Gosh, why don’t family members see that? Is it because he wants to blame or deflect onto someone else (you) for your other brother’s troubles?

          • Thanks, Luanne. On reflection, I think that his words triggered the shame in me. I don’t think he meant to do it. Mostly. But there was a “tone”, you know?

            This brother is a good provider and he does everything and then some to accommodate his family. Sometimes, I feel, more than is wise, but that’s me being judgmental.

            About 30 years ago we both decided that we would “fix” the other brother, an intervention. My job was to call AA for advice. The fellow I spoke with told me to step back and to tell the other brother that I love him, that I want to see him get better, and here, here’s the number to call for help. Which I did, and which began 30 years of not estrangement exactly, but of a very long, arms-length relationship.

            Younger brother does everything he can to make sure other brother is part of family functions which means driving long distances (other brother doesn’t drive – a DUI – nor will he take a bus).

            Younger brother also does everything he can to help his aging MIL, his two college-age students, including driving long distances to pick up my niece so that she can get to a concert several 100 km and hours away, wait around, and drive her back. More than I would be willing to do, but hey, not my life,it’s his.

            He called on the weekend to tell me of the assorted challenges his family is facing at the moment, among them the fact that older brother has been unemployed since January. “What’s he going to do?” he asked, worried, anxious, compelled to take charge and make it better. I commented that I haven’t talked to older brother for some time.

            “Yeah, I know,” he said, with a tone. And I was taken back immediately to the intervention of 30 years ago. That’s why it’s been so helpful to read this thread of comments on your post.

            As it happened, I didn’t engage with my brother. I changed the subject and our conversation ended on an OK note.

  2. My dad wasn’t exactly supportive to me, period. Right from the first moments of my life I remember how much he reminded me of his hate for me, I moved on though and am striving to be better than him for the sake of my child, sorry you had to go through that 🙁

  3. Times when we’ve felt shame (rightly or wrongly) stay with us forever. Maggie had that pegged right in her comment. The important things about it are to learn from it if it was our fault, and to forgive ourselves if it wasn’t. Both hard to do. I think it’s important to have feelings of shame though; without it, we couldn’t feel justified pride in the things we do right. People who feel little or no shame, usually don’t feel much pride or self-worth in themselves. I think we need both to varying degrees.

    • Anneli, sometimes it’s forgiving ourselves for what was our fault, too, because if we don’t how can we grow? It’s interesting that some of my reader buddies here don’t find shame to be a biggie for them. I wonder what it would feel like to live without shame, but then I grew up with so much of it and not just my own.

      • Yes, we should forgive ourselves as we learn from our mistakes, but also we shouldn’t allow shame we feel by association take over our psyches. We are not responsible for what others do. I think this is often the case with relatives. It’s not our fault what other adults do with their lives. It’s enough to take charge of our own mistakes and forgive ourselves as we strive to make things better.

        • True words for sure. It’s so hard not to feel responsible, especially a child for a parent or a parent for a child (of any age).

        • “We are not responsible for what others do. I think this is often the case with relatives. It’s not our fault what other adults do with their lives.”

          Oh, I needed to hear this right now. Thanks, Anneli. Stuff is happening in my family, and old kneejerk reactions are urging me to fix, to help, to take control. I’m feeling guilt/shame for keeping one brother at a safe distance. Now he’s in trouble. My other brother is shaming me for not having contact with the first.

          • I believe that all adults, unless we are sick or handicapped, have the opportunity of saying yes or no to choices along our path of life and we need to accept responsibility for our own actions – not expect someone else to bail us out all the time. Yes, we help each other, but there’s a limit. It’s sad when people make the wrong decisions, but when they choose wrongly over and over it’s not up to others to pick up the slack all the time.

  4. Yikes! I have no shame. I did my Ice bucket challenge in my pool completely nude. Maybe it’s something I could work on.

    • This CRACKED me up. You were probably lucky not to learn shame at an early age. Maybe it helped to have your nudist uncle in the family? Did you put your video on Facebook? And if so did they take it down ;)?
      I FINISHED YOUR BOOK LAST NIGHT! Such a well-thought-out and fascinating story and the history in it is so important for us all to remember/know! Of course, I’m dying to know what was fact . . . .

      • The story is all true until the conclusion. Only the names were changed. In the end though,my cousin (Sybil is her real name..the only one.) never actually meets her son. (We haven’t been able to find him, even with military records.)The true story ended so abruptly and I did not feel it was a satisfying ending…too sad. I had a client in hospice whom we aided in finding her son. I used her story, which was very similar…so it’s true in a way.

        About the Ice Bucket Challenge…yes, no shame. In the privacy of my back yard, but posted on FB for all my friends and family to see..Fat belly and all 🙂

        Seriously, 60% of all nudists are over age 55…is it any wonder? And our resort is fifty years old this year. I just found out today that the co-founder of The Ice bucket challenge drowned last week. He was only 27. Diving accident in Massachusetts. I am sad that he won’t know the magnitude of his reach, but happy that he could make such a difference.

        • Oops! I tried to post it but it wouldn’t let me. My privacy settings must have it blocked.

          • Hah, I can’t believe Facebook censored you from sharing on WP! What a shame (oops, I can’t help punning sometimes).
            I had a feeling that a lot of that story was true! It’s so wonderful that you shared it. The only thing I even wondered about was when Sybil lived with the other people (I don’t want to give it away to people who want to read your book and want to be surprised). Did that really happen like that? The story seemed as if it was bringing to life all the little bits and pieces of history of the time period I had learned from all different sources.

            • Great! That’s exactly what I hoped it would do. Bring it all together in a real story about ordinary people who lived during the time. I know it is set up in a different sort of template from most fiction novels. That irks some people, but that’s okay. Part One is in first person and Part Two is in third. I’d be happy to discuss it with you though. Just send an email

        • I had a dream where you wrote me an email and now I can’t find it. Did you write it? Did my computer do something with it?

  5. I think that the icky feeling of shame is the same feeling as depression, Shame becomes depression when the person can see no way out of the icky feeling.

    • WJ, as soon as I read this, I thought, “Of course!” Yes, to bottle up shame and not rid oneself of it absolutely causes depression. But I do think that talking and/or writing about it helps enormously. Unless the response from the listener is to double the shame somehow.

  6. Luanne, one of my favorite thoughts is by Carrie Fisher. She has said that an interesting woman can only be interesting if she is raised by neurotic parents. I go by this. It’s the high road. Yes, I have felt this, of course. I think it is what has given me amazing courage. Because of the ICK factor, I want to escape it and do something daring. It works. I am sure you know. Look at your successes!

    • I must be fascinating then!!!!!! hahahahaha Neurotic parents, yeah, that’s a way to describe them. But then I worry my kids might say the same thing for different reasons. What an amazing response to shame, Hollis. You are truly a role model for me! Thank you for showing us another way out!

  7. I don’t have shame relating to my family, but I do have an incident from my late (stupid) teen days that always brings on the ICK factor and also the thanking God I’m still alive factor. 🙂
    Do I write about it? Well, I never wanted to until I had to take a polygraph test for my job. 🙁 No, it doesn’t control my life…I attribute it to my stupidity that I outgrew many decades ago. 🙂

    • Shame, still alive, polygraph, oh boy. You’re going to leave me hanging like that?!! Sounds like it could be an amazing story, Jill. Reading your comment and a couple of the others I am remembering stuff I did that I felt shame about for a long time afterward and yet once I got past it I have felt so much lighter!!

  8. Hm. Shame is not a big one for me, not as big as some other motifs you’ve written about. Perhaps I’m shameless? That’s possible LOL.

  9. I was very ashamed of the fact that I wet my pants in 2nd grade during Show and Tell. Until I told the story (while standing on a barroom table after many beers), I felt the shame all the time. I worried that someone from my past, someone who knew would suddenly appear in my life. That didn’t happen, but once I told my story, I saw the humor as well as the shame (Show and TELL????) and it was incredibly freeing. That is true of several other stories I’ve told. Once you talk about it, the shame diminishes.

    • Oh, that’s a tough one, like wetting the bed, too. What a cool way to break through the shame, to tell the story from a bar table top!! Another one was the classic telltale red stain on the back of the white (or other light colored) skirt . . .. One year I’m pretty sure that’s all my friends and I worried about!

  10. Many of my most vivid growing-up memories have to do with shame and/or humiliation. Shame has a way of anchoring events in memory. Writing is a powerful way to, not root out the memories, but keep them from taking over the garden — and your life. Another singer in my church’s junior choir told me not to sing so loud, I was always off-key. I stopped singing. I was sure she was right. I was totally humiliated — even though no one else, including the choir director, ever told me that; even though the music teacher urged me to try out for the high school glee club and was disappointed when I didn’t.

    It was 20 years before I dared sing again, and I’ve been singing in one amateur chorus or another pretty much ever since. I actually have a pretty good voice. But exploring that incident — why had I let that one remark control my life?? — was a key to uncovering my own perfectionism, my fear of being wrong, of making mistakes, of trying anything new. Which was holding me back in so many ways.

    • Susanna, I had such a visceral reaction to your story. It must mean that I had something similar happen where I was “put off” something I loved because I was shamed by someone. It’s sad that you lost the opportunity of high school glee club because you didn’t have the confidence to do it. I’m so glad you found your way back to singing. I know how exhilarating choral singing can be. And I love that you explored the incident and found a way back out of that mistaken path it had led you on.

  11. Shame, yes, it does have its ICK factor. Shame has been a biggie for me too, mostly from when I was little, having a mother that was very critical, and feeling I could never live up to her expectations or my own as I grew older.

    I’ve enjoyed reading the other comments. Lots of wisdom here. All these beautiful, strong women! I love it.

    • Deborah, it’s so true about all these women! I’m so happy to have you all as blogger friends!
      Yes, your mother’s critical nature had unintended consequences, I’m sure. That is what happens. That is like the yelling that Maggie and I experienced–yelling is very critical.

  12. I’ve never really experienced shame, but I’ve loved reading the comments here. Guilt is something i cannot tolerate or live with. In that sense I try to live my life ‘guilt-free’ – but the more I think about it now, I’m wondering if guilt is similar to shame?

    • Dianne, according to Mellody, guilt and shame are definitely related. Shame, though, is considered an unhealthy negative emotion, whereas guilt is considered a positive emotion because it means we take responsibility for something we did wrong. I’m wondering about the take that some of us here have on shame. Are you saying that you have never felt ashamed for anything in your life? And have you never felt guilt for anything you have done? How does one try to live guilt free?

      • I have felt guilt and never want to feel it again, that’s why everything I do I think deeply about and try to do it with a clear conscience. I have felt shame on a small scale at times when my siblings have behaved badly, but I try not to ground myself on it because I have no control over it. As far as me feeling ashamed of anything I’ve done in my life? Now I’m worried there’s something wrong with me because I can’t remember a time when I actually felt “ashamed” of an action (oh dear – now I’ll have to think about it) xoxoxo

        • Ah, it’s from the scarring? You are so right not to let shame take you over. Such a negative worthless waste of time.

          • I should really have given you an example of feeling guilt and not shame. One evening a family member left a party (we had gone to together) very drunk in their car. I’d told this person not to drive after drinking (not just on this occasion but several occasions before). I was fed up and worried they would injure themselves or someone else so I called the police who found them and charged them. My feeling of guilt (causing someone I love to be arrested and charged) was just awful, but I didn’t feel any shame for what I’d done. Also, since then they haven’t driven while intoxicated, so i guess I remind myself of this often – to make me feel a little less guilty for the “betrayal” (yes – betrayal is what they said I did, and that’s another interesting word!) 😉

            • Dianne, what a courageous thing to do! That seems like a case of misplaced guilt because it wasn’t anything you did wrong, but something you did right! xo

  13. (1) Yes. (2) One specific area of my life. (3) No – not sure I’ll ever get there. Writing it would make it current.

    • Shel, hilariously cryptic! I won’t try to pry it out of you as I forgot my therapist couch, pad, pen, and half-drawn blinds. Instead, my keyboard and I commiserate! Loved your post about what to destroy in a marriage!

      • And it would take every one of those tools PLUS a plethora of knock-me-on-my-butt drugs to get me to take the trip down unpleasant-memory lane! Thank you for your understanding and computer compassion. AND your tweets!!

  14. Great post Luanne 🙂 Shame has a lot to do with our self-talk like thinking ‘I’m an idiot’ for not doing something properly or not behaving in a certain way so yes, as a child I was made to feel ashamed by my ill-equipped caregiver… For a wonderful short description of shame vs guilt watch Dr Brene Brown on Oprah (Super Soul Sundays) or read any of her books. I love how you describe how shame wells up in your life at every “low elevation” I can certainly relate.

  15. Ahh…I remember you saying you would be writing about shame. Thanks for the link back Luanne. I could write a lot about shame but strangely, now that you ask the question, I have to say that I don’t write about it and definitely avoid it. Once before as a guest blogger I touched on a time when I stood up to my step-father and how ashamed he made me feel. I suppose because the shame I felt from that time is so entwined with what happened when I was a young girl is so painful that although I do write about a lot of other ‘stuff’ from personal experience, I’m not ready to write about that and maybe never will be. I don’t know. It’s certainly where I’m feeling led at the moment anyway. You are right, it is a very creepy emotion and one I think we do ignore for that very reason. That feeling of being humiliated in front of others is soul destroying. My aspie daughter actually fears it and this is part of why she is so house-bound.
    ‘I hated negative attention and mistrusted positive attention.’ You shared a profound consequence of shame here. I love how with very few words you really do get us all thinking long and hard about these painful issues, causing us to question how we bring them into our writing. Very thought-provoking post again Luanne.

    • Sherri, isn’t it amazing the power of shame?! It took me so long to be able to deal with it. It’s the one emotion I can picture myself taking like a dog’s bone and burying it deep in the backyard. Anything to get it away from me. and have it where I can not think about it. There have been stories and movies where guilt is kind of like that (The Tell-Tale Heart is one, I think), but for me it’s shame that is the one to really repress.

  16. I really felt like you got some honest responses and interesting remarks. I am like you, wishing each person would write a story about their ‘skeletons in their closets.’ I feel bad, my only ‘shames’ have been trusting men too easily, getting into marriages I should have seen warning signs. I am proud of my getting out of the abusive one, that I did not look back nor regret leaving with my little children. I ended up as a child advocate at a battered women’s shelter for 18 months. It will live with me for a lot of years, how close I allowed my children’s lives to be endangered, plus my own. I wrote a post about a ‘semi-famous’ Ohio case that got re-opened after the man got out of a less restricted prison area, since his wife didn’t die. I was on the courthouse steps standing next to Debbie Staley, her husband shot her in the head and she became a vegetable, living on in a nursing home. Many, many people (I knew, family, friends and other advocates) wrote angry letters in the Cleveland and Columbus papers because the Judge required Debbie to come into court. She had been served with “Contempt of Court” papers, since we had not recommended visitation for her children with her ex-husband. Due to his charge of sexually abusing the oldest girl, he had been in jail and was handcuffed. Somehow, while twisting and using his cuffed hands, he was able to grab the sheriff’s gun and shoot towards her head. I am still so sorry for the 4 children that had to be separated, although the 4 year old twins got to be kept together. The oldest daughter married a police officer, when they did a whole ‘escape out of prison’ reunion story of where all the kids ended up. That Ransom had found a stupid woman who wrote love letters to him, they were heading to Las Vegas from Lancaster, Ohio, to get married. They were caught, but still poor Debbie, did the ‘right thing’ helping her kids to escape but what a ‘cost.’

    • Gosh, Robin, this is such a stunning story. You are such an inspiration for how you handled what you went through. I’m so proud to know you :)! xo

  17. Oh yes, I’ve felt shame’s sting. When it stung, I always tried harder to please, to be “better.” One family member drew a line in the sand with another and years passed in silence between them. Shame is a heavy stone to carry. In our family we all silently carried around shame.

    • Lynne, your words are very special to me: “Shame is a heavy stone to carry. In our family we all silelntly carried around shame.” Yes, I believe I know just what you mean. xo

  18. Ellen Morris Prewitt

    Much I love and appreciate about this post and the comments, but I particularly like the photo you chose 🙂

Leave a Reply