Monday, August 24, 2009


What we didn't say in the last post, The Disappearing Act, not specifically, is that shame has a huge impact upon personality. Although we talked about fear of exposure in the comments, it is shame that muzzles us, keeps us in the closet, limits our capacity for intimacy, scratches at our vulnerabilities and tickles our fears of abandonment. We think, if we're honest with people, we'll be rejected if they know the truth about us.

We assume there's a huge stain on our shirt, that even if we don't talk about it, they know. Like we're the only ones who ever did it, whatever it is we did.

Add to this our Judeo-Christian-Moslem-Confuscian--who knows what upbringing-- the sense that we imbue from our parents, teachers, or other significant care-takers, that we're horrible if we stray from the tenets of goodness, all in the interest of raising us right, you know, and we're toast. It isn't unusual that parents and teachers will over-dramatize the wrongfulness of experimenting, acting out, and as kids we're vulnerable to drama and blame.

Spare us young and we can take it when we're old.

Survivors of childhood shame can get the sense of okayness from someone, if they're lucky, some angel, the one who gives us the nod that we're actually good. It's okay, says our angel. You're human. To err is human.

We could talk about this all day, but there's a story I want to tell, a story in a story about embarrassment. Embarrassment has to be a sister of shame, I'm thinking, and if at all possible, if we're talking about functional behavior, we do our best to avoid doing this, embarrassing people, because we know how that sense of shame might stick, like the effects of most relatives.


One night FD and I are at a party for a bride and groom, not the kind that you stand around and drink and talk, but the kind specifically designed to bless the newly married couple during the celebratory week following their marriage. This means these parties are food-centric.

Nobody runs off to Hawaii right after the wedding, not in my crowd. Following the expensive (usually) gala event, the couple celebrates with friends and family for an entire week, then maybe takes off, maybe not. They may not because they haven't lived together before marriage (not in my hood), so staying home and getting used to one another tends to feel pretty good.

You would think people would leave a young couple alone, but no. That's not how we operate. We have to lavish them with good wishes, because basically we assume that if we lavish these on the couple, that the odds are better that our well-wishes will come true. We send them off to independent living with an insurance policy.

Would that it were that simple, but in any case, we don't change traditions that are really, really old just because they're inconvenient or seem fattening. And the Jewish tradition is that wherever the bride and groom sit down and break bread that first week, they're entitled to seven blessings, assuming they can gather the crowd of people necessary to say them. If there's food, you see, you increase your odds.

Jews basically eat because inherent in eating are food related blessings, and since praising Her is an inherently Jewish thing (although some mix it up, refer to Him), if old fashioned perhaps, whenever observant Jews have an opportunity to do this, eat and praise, they jump to it, praise before eating, praise after eating, praise the carrot, the bread, the wine, everything but the tablecloth. You name it, we praise it and are thankful for it. You would think we're starving. Oh yes, in our history, there was starvation. So this makes sense. But as long as we're eating, we'll add a few extra praises for the divine idea of coupling, for the newly married couple.

Enough said. This particular party happened to be a dessert party. I made two strawberry pies, for the record, and they turned out well enough, although between you and me, were lame excuses for pies, compared to my mother-in-law's, for she's from the south, and they know how to pie in the south, like nobody else; not even my mother, although as a yankee, her blueberry is incomparable; as is my machetainista's* apple. So my pies are generally not as good, not as rich, not as sweet, but if you cook for people you love, your odds are better that whatever it is you are making will turn out well, despite your fallibility. This is the thinking of my mother-in-law and I think she's right.

So we're sitting around a very, very long table, just the thirty of us, the hosts and the families of the young couple, and a lot of little kids. There's no alcohol, for the record, but enough sweets to put anyone into a coma.

The speeches begin, and it is thanks to the speeches that you get this post.

Rabbi Azose, the Sephardic rabbi of Chicago, perhaps the Chief Sephardic Rabbi of the Midwest, tells this story, one that dates back to 180 AD, I imagine, and the Roman occupation of Jerusalem. Forgive my interpretation, the rabbi did not use the word "idiot" in his speech.
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, or Judah the Prince, a descendant of King David, had a serious revulsion to garlic.

Sensitive to the smell, he started a class one day and had to stop teaching. Sensing the garlic on a student, the rabbi asked politely that whoever had been eating garlic please leave, because he didn't feel well, he had this allergy.
As a therapist this takes me to people who take off their shoes, and sometimes I must politely ask, Would you mind. . .put 'em back on . . .the ventilation in this place just isn't good enough and I am cursed with a sensitive nose. But this is not about me, who could do not even share the same room with the good Rebbe, certainly not when it comes to manners, although perhaps have some of those queasy genetics, it's true.
Anyway, Reb Yehuda asked the class in a generic way, "Would whoever had garlic for lunch kindly leave, I'm so sorry, I feel dizzy. . ."

And a group of men got up to leave.

After they had vacated the classroom together, the guilty student, the one who had spiced up his chicken salad, asked the others, for they did not smell of garlic,

"Why did you guys leave? I'm clearly the idiot who didn't know about the Rebbe's sensitivity!"

They told him that they had learned it is better to embarrass yourself than to let someone else be embarrassed, and you should do whatever you can do to prevent your fellow's embarrassment. The men had learned this from their rabbis.

Most likely they had learned it from Reb Yehuda who knew that they would do this, get up to leave with their fellow, therefore enabling him to make the request.
Good lesson, right? These are the kinds of stories they tell after you quit Hebrew school.


A machetainista is the mother of your daughter-in-law or son-in-law. Machetainista rhymes with Bach-eh-rain-vista


Wait. What? said...

Oh I do like that story - and I wish more people operated under those same rules!

Wondering Soul said...

That is some tale... Guaranteed to be a parable though... Just 'too much goodness' to be human! (Cries the cynic within)!
You are spot on about shame... fear of rejection coupled with a fear of being known makes initmacy absolutely terrifying. I think self hatred comes into this somewhere... again, probably caused by the childhood shame you mention.
Thanks again for such an eloquent post. Your explanations of Jewish traditions always makes me chuckle. Not out of mockery you understand, but at the wry humour you drizzle over your writing.

Wondering Soul said...

That is some tale... Guaranteed to be a parable though... Just 'too much goodness' to be human! (Cries the cynic within)!
You are spot on about shame... fear of rejection coupled with a fear of being known makes initmacy absolutely terrifying. I think self hatred comes into this somewhere... again, probably caused by the childhood shame you mention.
Thanks again for such an eloquent post. Your explanations of Jewish traditions always makes me chuckle. Not out of mockery you understand, but at the wry humour you drizzle over your writing.

blognut said...

Love the story - I'd have copped to the garlic, too. But really? Just to get out of the class.

And? I often take off my shoes at therapy. Now? I might have to rethink that.

Lastly, I think shame is tied to self-worth; I'm finding that to be the case. (I'm late - and just reading the previous post, too.) Shame was used to control me, and I still don't have a handle on getting rid of it completely. I tied it to an illusion of control. Rather than admit that I was powerless about certain things that happened, it was easier to blame myself and be in control of at least that much.

I don't know - that probably sounds a little ridiculous - but I think that is today's epiphany since I was supposed to be researching shame before tomorrow's therapy appointment where I will most likely keep my shoes on now. :)

CiCi said...

Being sensitive to other people's embarrassment is kind and generous.

Regarding, shame, I am still getting through the book on guilt and shame with my therapist and am learning so much. Indeed, as Blog nut said, shame is tied to self-worth.

jss said...

Shame is an amazingly effective tool of parental discipline. Thing is that you end up with the most well-behaved kids on the block who grow up to be the least self-expressive adults on the block.

Retriever said...

Love the story, and will quote from it, linking here...

Shame the poisonous gift that keeps on giving after abuse or assault. What keeps people from telling, asking for help, or feeling like getting close to anyone afterwards...

On a lighter note, I have occasionally found shame to be an effective tactic in DOG training. IN our family, the way to stop the spoiled rotten pooches from stealing or messing or destroying things was not to wack them but to deliver a speech upon catching them in the act:

Yo, Proud Tarquin the THird Bounder of Fearless Marshes (our retrievers always had dumb names that were abandonned for poochie or sweetums on more loving occasions). WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?? (Dog stops stock still, quivers a little, looks around has NEVER been hit, but knows when owner is angry). "What is this disembowelled stuffed toy? I am SHOCKED! You SHAME your ancestors! Wickedness and sin! (dog is on floor curled up in a miserable ball). Go away from me, right now. GO! (dog scurries away to cushion under table and cowers)."

THis works for dogs, but not children or spouses. I have occasionally tried it on the two latter, with bad results. For example, when telling an adolescent "If you go out in that tight shirt, you will bring SHAME on your family, looking as if you belong on 42nd St" they are liable to shoot right back "Well, MOm, you are always wondering how on earth to pay for college..."

But seriously, with people, true shaming is crueller I think than most desperate acts by parents. One is thereby made to feel separate, not part of the human race, repulsive, alone.

Glimmer said...

I'm going to cry now.

porcini66 said...

When I saw the title - I was almost afraid to keep reading. Scary stuff, shame. As always, glad I DID read on. You managed, as you always do, to take something scary and hurtful and breathe a new light and life into it. I really admire your work!

Maha said...

I love your stories - they've got great lessons, and I learn something about the Jewish faith and history.

cordeliadarwin said...


It is worn like a scent that cannot be washed or weakened. It is what bars eye contact and always, always ignites the fear of being seen -- exposed -- and as you point out, being found out.

Amazing though, that the transgressions for which we punish ourselves never seem to exact the cost.

Thank you for the post.

Tough topic. Good story. Held my breath through it, though glad I need not have.

Ella said...

I'm guessing if my therapist makes me feel ashamed, embarrassed, I should find a new one?
2 wk ago - Gave him Dr. Judith Herman's book, Trauma and Recovery. Asked him in email to read it with me, a book club. In email he accepted, very nicely, said he thinks it's what I need from my therapist. A few days later we met, at the start of the session I put my arms out to hug him, said welcome to the club. He scrambled, I backed off, laughed.
Yesterday he started our session by accusing me of giving him the book in order to get a hug. I was stunned, assured him it was not so. We got through some discussion of the first two chapters.

Today I am horrified, ashamed, angry, embarrassed, and have no one to talk to about this. Not exactly on your topic, but feeling desperate. I gave him the book to make him a better, smarter therapist for me, to have a tiny understanding of my experience. Augh.

Jim Valeri, LMHC said...

Shame seems to have much to do with the rules we create for ourselves in our core belief systems. Personally, I've found that shame and guilt go hand and hand like strawberry and rhubarb in a pie, only not nearly as sweet.

To get rid of the guilt, we have to consider how shame plays a role, and in what behavior or thinking. Also, is it ever appropriate to feel shame? Sometimes I wonder...

Josephine Pizarro said...

What a story of shame. Shame is very common in so many ways. Sometimes shame is too much though for small things. It's all in the mind in the end.

lynette said...

it is a wonderful story, but i am not sure that it speaks to shame. to embarrassment, yes. but Shame, with a capital S? i am not sure.

it took me five years with a new therapist to admit and talk about my husband's physical abuse of me that primarily occurred 10 years ago. i still cannot talk about it in full with my therapist, my psychiatrist, my marriage counselor, or my divorce support group. i send emails to the marriage counselor outside of our joint sessions about things that happen in between sessions that scare me, so that he has a record.

i am so ashamed that i allowed my husband to do these things, to treat me this way, and that i have not yet ended my marriage. i am ashamed of the woman i am, that i would allow him to live here with me and be a father to my children (i use the word "father" loosely). i am ashamed to my core.

and yet, there is a part of me that says HE should feel Shame. maybe he does, and that is why he does not ever feel sorry enough to want to change. he will not acknowledge he has a problem. he will not make the first step towards seeking help. he still says his anger is my fault. but i don't control his behavior -- he does. right?

shame. very powerful. if i keep staying, then i can make like it is not so bad, and i won't feel so small.

but he is starting to shame my son, our son. and that i cannot allow. at all. i am almost ready -- now i just have to give up Hope too.

blogbehave said...

I, too, love the story. I wish this message of duty to protect each other from embarrassment was taught widespread. It's a fine line at times, though. Being true to oneself and one's wishes versus saving someone the pain of embarrassment (refusing a social invitation, for example).

Jew Wishes said...

What a wonderful story, with a good message.

Tzipporah said...

Lynette - as the child of an alcoholic, let me assure you:

Other people's emotions are NOT your fault. EVER.

This is the handle they use to shame us.

Let the love and respect you feel for your son be enough of a substitute for the respect you owe yourself to make the right decision.

Chris Edgar said...

Thanks for this Doc. The perspective I've been taking on this recently is that embarrassment is really just a sensation that comes up in my body -- for me it's a sinking feeling in my chest. When I see it that way without all the labeling and mental noise about how I should or shouldn't feel that way, it becomes easier to deal with.

therapydoc said...

Hi Friends,
I’m not really missing in action, it just feels that way. I'm working on working (prevention workshops, and have way too much going on). But it's all good.

So many great thoughts above, don’t know where to begin.

CAT, no question. People should be a little more sensitive. But they have their reasons. I always say, when someone embarrasses me, or upsets me, right there, right then and there I’ll say, “Don’t sweat it, don’t worry. I forgive you. We’re good.”

WONDERING SOUL Not a parable, a true story. We have a whole section of our books dedicated to parable, and others dedicated to recording history. This story is in section two.

BLOGNUT, that’s my issue with it, too, is that it is so narrow, shame, isn’t a systemic way of looking at things, only looks at one cause—you.

TECHNOBABE, the guilt is there to help us think, me thinks, and just like any voice in our heads, our job is to see if it’s rational or not. And some kids, as you know and maybe are one, can be thoughtful and still expressive, so if guilt isn’t heavy handed, rather is another option (if you’d done it another way, then . .. ) it can be really good for us.

RETRIEVER, you’re hysterical, seriously.

GLIM, a good cry is a good thing.

PORCINI, thanks so much. I try to take the sting out of things, it’s true. But you don’t see me running to the dentist, you know?

MAHA, thanks so much. Every culture has something to teach about everything, I fell.

LINROB, just that word, scent. Kills me. Thanks.

ELLA, all this has to be talked out in therapy, right? Resolved?
Tell me it is.

JIM, right on with that association. You’ve got it.

JOSEPHINE, so nice to hear from you. I have to get over to your website soon!

LYNETTE, there are really good online communities that you can talk to, also. Did you ever see Welcome to Oz? I’m not sure but I think it’s, something like that.

SANDY, thanks. Right on.

JEW WISHES, thanks as always, will pop over soon.

TSIP, it couldn’t have been fun.

CHRIS, I love it when people get in touch with it physically. I know it feels bad, but it’s such an obvious thing, you know, helps you get it out by feeling it within. You know where it is, so you can focus on it, break it down, bit by bit. Bernie Siegel used to do this to cancer cells.

Emy said...

Great, instead of going to bed early I have to look up Bernie Siegel. (I forgive you - I'm know I'll learn something interesting.)

Now for something completely different, or not...

Two posts from a professional blog I follow:

Speaking of Copyblogger, you mentioned you were writing something other than a blog. As someone recovering from a 20-year science-based academic writing infection, the post below made a huge impact on me. I don't recall offhand you having this problem (I've shared this with my boss and coworker too so it's nothing to do with you personally), but 20 minutes later I had copy that was 2X better than my first version. The advice is obvious to me in retrospect and I already knew to limit qualifiers, but somehow it turned an afterthought into a different writing mindset. Now I just need to remember to employ it!

Here ends my semi-shamelessly off-topic ramble.

therapydoc said...

What do you guess I would say, in answering your questions Em? Let's start there.

Anonymous said...

I don't understand what you mean. Please explain?

therapydoc said...

I went to the links and read through them, wondered (a) if you thought my writing not bold, (b) thought I didn't share enough of myself, and (c) worried I might be afraid of something, which is why I didn't post more often or couldn't finish a book, an oblique way of asking these questions.

Ella said...

Yes, talked it out today. I'm relieved. Both wanted to fix it, have that good fit thing going for us. Still it is a weird relationship, I'm not likely to adjust to that part of it.
thanks for listening :-)

Emy said...

Uh, sorry. I have a tendency to tangent and/or bring up obscure connections without always remembering to tell people what the heck I'm talking about, and a bunch of random links is even worse. All the talk of shame and (in the comments) fear got me thinking about those listed posts and people sharing intimate things and...honestly...I can think of one connection (ironically, it's something I was going to share but decided against it), but surely there was another(?). Sorry, for this non-answer, but I'm going to have to chalk it up to my mind being numbed by 4 nights of 3-4 hours of sleep each and a 55-hour week of particularly taxing work. The bold tangent. I suppose I was a little excited and thought I'd share something I thought was cool with someone also interested in writing.

a) haven't considered it (generally I say what I mean, so I'm not just saying that to avoid the question)
b) not hardly!
c) as I mentioned, if anything, it's something I decided not to share! I don't remember you saying you were unable to finish a book either, merely that you were writing/considering writing one, like everyone (not me!).

PS: Read up as I said. From an article on his site, makes me wonder why most people I know who have suffered or died from cancer are wonderful, strong people who love life and give of themselves constantly. I suppose one could argue the rest are holed up worrying so I've never met them. Okay, now THAT seems off-topic. I'll be quiet now.

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