Coping: When shame knocks on the door

Anxiety spread, and even though I knew it was illogical, my body told me to feel bad

Photograph: Thinkstock

Photograph: Thinkstock

 

The world is more difficult to cope with on some days, and not necessarily for any reason we can access. Noises are louder, images more jarring, and the behaviour of others, rather than bouncing off your skin, oozes inside and leaves you feeling vulnerable and anxious.

Anxiety is a terrible state of mind, and it’s generally triggered by situations where we feel a combination of excessive self-awareness and a lack of control. If we think of these self-conscious emotions as being on a gradient, anxiety is just a couple of notches below shame, and unchecked anxiety can balloon into shame pretty quickly.

Recently there was a knock on the front door of our apartment while I was home alone. When I opened it, our landlord – an incredibly nice man, the mythological sort who fixes anything within two days of it breaking and who gives you chocolate Santas at Christmas – was standing in the hall looking uncomfortable.

Vastly uncomfortable

We had upset the neighbours downstairs (although it turned out to be down to a lack of communication). Rather than knocking on our door themselves over a very minor problem, they had called the landlord, and now, although he and I were both vastly uncomfortable, we had to talk about it.

Like most people, probably, I don’t ever really behave in a way that would justify feeling ashamed, but I nevertheless feel ashamed quite often. Even though I hadn’t actually committed the minor offence perceived by my neighbours, my body decided that I had. A gushing tide of hot anxiety spread from my reddening cheeks down to my feet, and even though I knew it was utterly illogical, my body told me to feel bad.

When the landlord – who was incredibly friendly in his investigations – left, I wondered, as we sometimes do when we behave in a way that confuses us, what my reaction had been about. According to Hegel, a late Enlightenment German philosopher who heavily influenced some of history’s greatest thinkers, shame manifests as “man’s separation from his natural and sensual existence”.

Shame cannot exist except in relation to other people. It is something we feel when we become aware of ourselves as objects seen by others, and judged. When we feel shame, it is because we have committed some transgression or someone thinks we have.

We experience a form of hyperanxiety that makes us painfully aware of ourselves, and detaches us from our bodies. I stop going about my business organically, being unaware in any direct way of how others perceive me.

Shame makes me see myself as others see me – an object in the world. My body betrays me; I become aware of my cheeks getting hot and my shoulders hunching up. I want to jump out of that body and fly away.

By understanding shame better, however, it passes more quickly. But that utterly Irish tendency to unjustified shame is harder to step out of.

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