Discover more from Other Feminisms
Does Shame Require Self-Hatred?
Your reflections on shame and shaping your appetites
This week I’m sharing your reflections on shame and identity. Next week will be a celebration of Other Feminisms’ first year, and I’ll be asking for your ideas about what the second year could look like.
I really appreciated the continuing conversation we’ve had about “ethical” pornography, diet culture, and shame. Returning to this topic over subsequent weeks has been a chance for follow-up questions, reading recommendations, and deep engagement.
I value Other Feminisms as a space where I can stay with these topics, for much longer than the churn of twitter and other social media allows. Next week will mark the one-year anniversary of Other Feminisms, and I’m very grateful to readers who help subsidize my work here through paid subscriptions. Your voluntary contributions make it easier for me to turn down some paid freelance projects to choose this instead.
A lot of the conversation revolved around the difference between guilt and shame. Commenters offered a range of definitions, but I think this short one from Alexander is a helpful place to start.
Guilt is about transgression; shame is about the self. If guilt is about behavior that has harmed others, shame is about not being good enough.
The big question people kept coming back to was:
Can you think there’s something wrong with you without hating yourself?
I’m Catholic, so I think you can all guess my answer. I agree strongly with Vivien, a fellow convert, who described her own shifting relationship with shame as she entered the Church.
As a kid, I felt guilty all the time. It was, I kid you not, when I converted to Catholicism as an adult, that I was able to release the burden of guilt I had been carrying so long. This was because in the Church I found a formula for dealing productively with the feelings that were going to be there one way or the other. So contrary to the popular notion, it's been my experience that as a Catholic I am not more subject to a guilty conscience—I just talk about it more. And in talking about it, the aim is to work through it, acknowledging both the need to change and the great difficulty of change, giving God both my contrition and my frailty, and receiving real forgiveness.
We all know we fall short of who we want to be sometimes, even if not all of us would call that failing “sin.” The sacrament of Confession is a response to that fact.
Without a space to be genuinely ashamed and forgiven, we can feel a double pressure: We know our own guilt, but we don’t believe anyone else can know it and still find us lovable.
There’s an essay by Eve Tushnet (“5 Things The Disease Model Gets Wrong About Addiction”) that I keep returning to. She’s speaking against the stories we tell about addicts as completely helpless in the face of addiction.
If someone genuinely did not choose to do wrong then compassion for that person isn’t mercy—it’s justice. And conversely, if you can only have compassion on someone if you believe she did not choose her misdeeds, then you’ve defined mercy out of existence. You’re not forgiving—you’re saying there was never anything to forgive. […]
And I think this narrative, in which addiction destroys the will, exists precisely because we don’t trust others to have mercy on us or on those we love.
Shame is suffocating if we believe we won’t be forgiven if we’re actually guilty. But, as Eve says, “mercy to the guilty is the only kind of mercy there is.”
Magdalen finds it much easier to have shame help when it’s about a single screwup, not a habitual struggle.
If I do something like snap at a family member, I feel shame which is productive, because it's relatively easy to apologize and do better next time. When it comes to my more habitual failings, like procrastination, I think these failings are so ingrained in me at this point that the progress I expect to make is only incremental. So that puts me in a weird loop where I procrastinate, feel shame, but can only expect to procrastinate a bit less tomorrow.... but that's still procrastination and still causes shame.
Perhaps the right perspective is that for some failings, I need a healthy dose of shame so that I can do better. For other, more engrained, failings, what I primarily need is the affirmation of actually *believing* I can do better, and it's hard for that to coexist with the "punishment" of shame that even accompanies incremental progress.
One thing that helps me is to remember that resisting a temptation (to whatever degree I can) is a small triumph. I’ve found Orthodox theology about logismoi (not very far from “intrusive thoughts”) helpful here.
Just saying “I don’t like this,” in response to a temptation or an intrusive thought is an act of resistance and, thus, of hope. It’s a declaration that although I may have reason for shame in being tempted or struggling, I can still see the temptation as not-me, something I can reject.
I’ll close with this alternate image of weakness, shame, and sin, in counterpoint to the stock photo above.