Shame Part 1: People must never know

Shame is huge.

Screenshot 2021 05 05 at 090821It’s at the core of countless psychological problems, from depression to addiction to personality disorders. It's widely recognised as a crippling emotion. Yet, in my own life, shame was eerily absent. Eerily, because how does one avoid shame if your starting point was to be born so sinful that you deserved to burn in hell for all eternity? 

I don’t blame religious doctrines alone for the pervasiveness of shame in my own and many other homes. But it surely didn’t help to be held personally responsible for killing Jesus. It didn’t help to learn, before I could read and write, that for just being born human, I needed forgiveness; that it was me who deserved to have nails driven through my hands and feet. That’s a lot of badness to put in the heart of a little girl.

shame3 jesus on cross

But since I did suffer from the sin of being human, there was nothing I wanted more than to be accepted and to belong. I desperately needed approval from a deeply judgmental environment. In believing and feeling my badness, lay my redemption.

 shame girlSo I refined shaming myself to a masterpiece. I did not breath, think, or feel without evaluating it: Is this feeling good? Should I be thinking this? Would my parents approve of what I do? What did my teacher think of me? Fast forward: will this make my husband and children happy? Are people okay with where I live, what I do, what I say, how I dress? Is this the acceptable way to raise my children? Would it make Jesus smile?  Even though I came to reject the ridiculous notion that the historical Jesus would smile when children behaved according to their society’s pitiful standards, the penny still didn’t drop. I still didn’t see the pus of shame that was oozing into my every feeling, thought and relationship. I still didn’t understand why my world seemed lonely and judgmental. I didn’t question the need to justify every move I made.

Mostly, I wasn’t good. I was loud and inappropriate. As a little girl, I was shushed and shamed wherever I went – in class, in church, at dinner, hell, even on the beach. Because people were looking. And from a shameful perspective, that 'looking' was always disapproving. So during my young life, I morphed from a spontaneous little girl, to a well-behaved and highly restrained young woman. Someone to be proud of, naturally.shame7 caged in

And this highly restrained, intensely ashamed woman went on to have children.

 I now think that I never noticed my shame, like a fish doesn’t really notice the water it swims in.shame8 fish I’ve been living fully immersed in it. As I’m writing, my insides are still shaking and I have a long, long way to go. I have to dismantle an iron giant. But I’m doing it. I need it for me, and I need it to help undo some of the twisted messages my life has sent out to those I love most in the world. 

As most worthwhile learnings, my journey to shame started with the scenic route through failure. A few years ago, I wrote an Afrikaans children’s book. It wasn’t accepted for publishing. Not because it’s impossible for a new writer to publish an Afrikaans book – the story I told myself then - but mainly because it wasn’t that good. So I self-published the book. The inevitable book launch was arranged. Maybe if I launched the hell out of it, the passable book might become a good book, so I got a classy violin player, put together a beautiful poetry programme , and invited every Afrikaans person I knew. Except for the book, it was a truly spectacular afternoon.

Of course, as it goes with mediocre self-published books, I now have more copies sitting on my shelf than I’d ever be able to give away. But I’m nothing if not resilient, so I wrote a second book. This one was different. The plot was intense, the characters were interesting, and my writing spot on. I nailed it. I knew that publishing wouldn’t be for my own account again. 

I was wrong.

shame6 rejected bookThat the publishers didn’t want this book, boggled my mind. I understood that they rejected the first one, but this one was góód. I mean, have you read some of the books that do get published? I phoned a friend and hesitantly told her what happened – which made her the only person in the world who knew that I submitted a second manuscript. She assured me that I was, in fact, an amazing human being. (Which was completely irrelevant to my publishing dilemma, but that’s what friends are for.) Self-publishing wasn’t an option again, so I deleted the publisher’s e-mail, closed that chapter, and made dinner. My embarrassing secret was buried.

Soon after my second manuscript was rejected, lockdown struck, and I had time to do career navel gazing. And just like that, the wheels came off. The wave of embarrassment that had been bubbling beneath the surface finally broke through into consciousness and washed me off my feet. The memory of my beautiful book launch made me want to hide inside my glass house and never come out again. I felt utterly stupid. Mountains, fall on me; hills, bury me. The people around me did not just find out that I couldn’t write. They also saw that I was attention-seeking, arrogant and delusional.

What took me by surprise, though, is that all this nauseating embarrassment revolved around the average first book that I self-published. I felt no embarrassment when I thought about the better one that was rejected, even though my disappointment was greater that second time. Why? Why did the failure of my first, average book gut me, but the failure of the second, good book seemed to leave me unbruised?

Then it finally hit me. Because people didn’t know about the second book. It was me, the publisher, and my friend – so it didn’t count as failure. This brought a completely new understanding of fear of failure: I’m not scared of failure. I’ve privately tried out many things that failed, and none of those floored me much. But I’m shit-scared of people knowing about my failure. 

Shame crowd

I’ll try to conquer the world, as long as I can hide all my humanness in the process. As long as people thought that I was clever, good and successful. Something was nudging me from the inside. I knew I was onto something that I needed to understand better. So I began researching fear of failure. And that is when the role of shame in my life finally raised its massive head.

As it turned out, the core emotion of fear of failure, is shame. Shame is defined in the literature as “an extremely painful experience in which one feels that the entire self is a failure, is stupid, or bad.”  Yup, that sounds about right. 

Shame also involves an awareness that this defective self is exposed before a real or imagined audience.” 

Naturally. Always. Ever-present.

“This defective self is perceived to be judged unworthy of love or in danger of being abandoned.”   Strike three. 

It seems that people experiencing shame have “the urge to escape the presence of others and hide the self”. (Mountains fall on me…) To withdraw and avoid others is about belonging, not about performance. So fear of failure basically means you hold the assumption that if others are to find out how bad or stupid you are, you will be rejected for it.

At this stage of my research, I already felt overwhelmed. My inner knowing confirmed loud and clear that I put up daily performances for an imagined audience. I KNOW that I evaluate my every step through the eyes of others. I’ve seen myself running a mile from people if I sensed that I was less than perfect. 

But it was the second stomach punch that brought me to my knees. "Fear of failure", I read, "is rooted in parent-child relations. Parents who are high in fear of failure have children who are high in fear of failure". 'Intergenerational fear of failure', it’s called. As I read further, I ended up in a heap on my carpet, bawling my eyes out. Yes, I gave my beautiful children the legacy of feeling ashamed for being human. And I really, truly, never knew. What’s worse, I didn’t do this 10 or 20 years ago. I’ve done it last week. This thing is alive and strong. I know that I can’t begin to talk to my loved ones about their shame and their fear of failure, unless I turn it upside down and inside out in my own life. 

This has been a lot to write, on many levels, and I’m sure a lot to read. So I’ll divide my shame article into two parts. Thanks for hanging in here with me. In the next part, I’ll deal with the hairy detail of how mothers pass on their fear of failure to their children. 

Read Shame Part 2: Keeping it in the family


The intergenerational transmission of fear of failure, Elliot & Trash, University of Rochester, 2004

The Shame of Failure, McGregor & Elliot, University of Rochester, 2005 

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