Social Issues

the value of shame

I have … unusual hair. At one point when I was a child, it was so long I could sit on it, but it wasn’t just the length that made it stand out. It was also full, thick, voluminous– or as my partner likes to call it, “robust.” I have thick, wavy hair and I have a lot of it. It was also fairly healthy, so, as long as it was, it kept its body all the way to the ends. Honestly, it didn’t even look real.

Because of that, I tended to attract attention in public. Complete strangers would come up to me and begin stroking my hair without even asking me first. It bothered me, but a part of me preened under all the “oohs!” and “ahhs!” my  hair got me.

So in graduate school, the first time a black colleague came to work with her 4c natural hair down and I asked her if I could touch it, I didn’t think much of my behavior. I was fascinated by her hair– it was the first time I’d ever seen 4c hair worn naturally, and it was so different. She took my request to touch her hair in stride, and I connected that interaction to the sort of thing I’d experienced as a little girl– as maybe a little bit weird, but complimentary.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized that asking to touch a black woman’s natural hair is a microagression. Not every black woman I’ve talked to feels the same way about this– one woman honestly doesn’t mind, she sees it as an opportunity for education– but being “curious” or “fascinated” are just examples of all the ways that our culture erases the experiences of black women.

When I started listening to black women talking about all the “curious” and “fascinated” people who’d touched their hair over the years, I felt ashamed. I think back to doing that to my colleague, and something deep inside of me recoils. What I did was racist– and that’s an amusing anecdote compared to other things I’ve done, said, and believed about black and brown people. The only word I can ever come up with is horror. If I could go the rest of my life without admitting to the heinous things I used to think, I would.


A little while ago a friend and I were talking about skincare products. I have extremely sensitive skin– I can’t tolerate washing my face with anything besides warm water most of the time– so I’ve been limited to a single line of moisturizers. The line my friend uses is one of the brands that are especially bad for my skin, and when she brought it up, I said:

“Oh, I’d never put that stuff on my face.”

My friend and my partner– who was sitting next to me– were legitimately and appropriate offended by my remark, and called me on it. But I did not understand why they were upset. To me I was purely thinking of how my skin reacted to that brand, and there wasn’t a shred of judgment in her using that line.

Except a listening person couldn’t hear anything except judgment in my choice of words, and regardless of what I meant, intent isn’t magic.

Later that evening I was recounting that conversation with my partner, upset that I’d been “attacked” for expressing an opinion. That was when he realized I had no idea how my words were received. He stopped dead on the sidewalk and said “Sam, you hurt her feelings.”

For a split second I couldn’t believe it, and then I burst into tears. I realized with perfect clarity that he was right, and I heard myself from the outside for the first time that night. I had hurt her, and I was deeply shamed. I cried for the entire car ride home, and the second I saw her I apologized. That whole night, though, I was wracked with shame. The thought I am a horrible person how could I do that to her kept spinning ’round and ’round my head.


If there is a writer I wish every ex-fundamentalist could read, it’s Brené Brown. If you have the time and you’ve never seen her TedTalk “Listening to Shame,” I highly recommend it. In the research I’ve done since leaving the fundamentalist cult behind, I’ve done a lot of reading on the differences between shame-based and guilt-based cultures, and I think Christian fundamentalism is a mixture of both. Growing up, shame was an integral part of my identity. Much of Christian culture glorifies shame, enshrining it in concepts like total depravity and calling each other and ourselves “worthless rags” and “worms.”

As Brené puts it, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging,” which sort of encapsulates total depravity in a nutshell for me. She also says that “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

Shame is paralyzing, especially for those of us who have survived fundamentalism. It was the primary weapon used to control everything about our lives, about the way we think, about what we thought, about what we said and did. For me, when I experience shame today– like after the incidents I related above– it still has the power to stop me dead in my tracks and send me into a feedback loop of I am a horrible, worthless person.

That’s not a healthy reaction.

In that TedTalk, Brené talks about exploring shame without letting it paralyze us like that, to wade through the “swamp” of shame without staying there and settling in. Shame shouldn’t control us, because all it can do is deaden us to the opportunity this new awareness is giving us.

However, I think the ex-fundamentalist community might be going a little bit too far with the “no shame!” bandwagon. We were either a) not given the tools to manage feeling ashamed properly, or b) stripped of those tools– so I completely understand the overwhelming need to try to avoid experiencing it. It’s hard to confront shame head on because we can feel the fear trying to choke us. Feeling ashamed feels like letting ourselves being tugged back under the sometimes inexorable tide of fundamentalism that stills roars in the back of our minds.

When we’re faced with shame, it could be emotionally and mentally easier to not let ourselves experience it; except, when we avoid any opportunity to feel ashamed of ourselves, we’re deterring self-growth.

This is where writers like Brené talk about the differences between guilt and shame. Typically, guilt is portrayed as the positive alternative to shame, but recently I’ve come to disagree. Guilt is an easier emotion to manage, but for me at least that also makes it easier to ignore. Shame, though, is compelling. It’s blinding. The realities about shame that make it so dangerous are also what make it important.

If I didn’t feel bone-deep shame for my racism, or my tactlessness, or my internalized misogyny, or my ableism, if there wasn’t a part of me that felt the part of me that is racist is horrible, I don’t think I’d be as fierce about overcoming those things.

The hard part is not letting shame become a part of my identity. Being racist– and I am racist, not just a person who explicitly or implicitly contributes to systemic racism– is not who I am. It’s a nuanced separation, but it exists. I am bisexual: that cannot, will not ever change. I am and always will be a cis woman.

However, I don’t have to continue being racist: I can unlearn it and change.

But racism, or ableism, or whatever else, are so deeply buried inside of me that it takes moments of heart-stopping shame to overcome it. We can’t let ourselves bury ourselves in shame, to flagellate ourselves with it, to wallow. Shame shouldn’t stay. It should be an emotion we use constructively to motivate us to change, not a weapon we use to punish ourselves.

Photo by Grey World
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