Shame is being different. We feel ashamed when we feel unlike others.
I know it sounds simple and even trite, but this insight summarizes our experience of shame in some profound ways.
Feeling Different, Being Unlike
Our differences make us feel displaced. I am not “normal,” so I do not belong. Something differentiates me (or “us”) from other people. This difference becomes a barrier distancing us from other people. We should remain distinct from others.
Commonality is the essence of any group. The members of any group are defined by a similar characteristic. For example, cars are vehicles with four wheels and a motor. But defining social groups is more complicated. “Americans” are _______. “Men” are ________. “Smart people” are ___________. People fill the blanks in differently, but there is always some notion that all the people in such a group are “alike” in some measure. Groups are defined by commonality. So if we are not “like” the group, then we are not part of that group. That is shame—feeling different, being unlike, and so not a member of the group.
The reality is that everyone feels different in some capacity. We’re all little strange in our unique ways. We feel different for some reason. Those differences make us “unlike others,” so we assume we are “unliked by others.”
Our difference can be external. You feel different because, for example, your skin not the regular color tone, your height is shorter, you speech has a lisp, or your arm has a disability. Other people can easily recognize these visible differences. External differences cannot be hidden, so learn to live with and accept them.
But we also feel shame for internal differences. These traits are not readily apparent. Perhaps you have a reading problem, can’t remember peoples’ names, struggle with anxiety, or feel sexually abnormal. Something on the inside, which only you know about, makes you feel different. In my estimation, these internal differences create the most shame. They become consuming. We expend great effort to hide these issues from other people, pushing ourselves into a world of isolation. Our social energies focus on hiding these differences from other people. We don’t want other people to see how we are different, because then our internal anxieties of shame will be public realties of disgrace.
Take a moment to reflect—what “differences” cause you shame?
We feel the shame of difference and search for people who are “like” us. We want some sort of group identity and the corresponding status. We identify with people who have the same blood as us, root for the same sports team, possess the same passport, and have the same physical appearance. We find (many, many) ways to be “like” other people. This is a core aspect of group identity and honor.
Schizophrenia of Western Culture
Western culture is utterly schizophrenic on this issue of likeness and difference. On the one hand, everyone is encouraged to be “different.” You are supposed to define yourself, pursue your dreams, and follow your heart. This is individualism to the extreme. The modern identity discards the shackles of all expectations. Not only do we now pick our own gender to define ourselves, but we can create an entirely new category of gender. We should not be like anyone else, and we should never conform to any external expectation of uniformity. We define ourselves by our differences. Everyone wants to be and feel unique.
But at the same time, the greatest sin in this cultural moment is making people “feel different.” We should never other-ize people or make them feel unique. Don’t ask someone, “Where are you from?” because that suggests they are not from here, not one of “us.” A microaggression makes people feel different, which is the new definition of oppression and abuse.
In a nutshell, the Western person wants to “be different,” but never “feel different.” No wonder there is a crisis of identity.
Shame says, “You are different. You don’t conform. So shame on you!” The solution in modern counseling and recent Christian books about shame is basically, “to turn off that voice, ignore it, and just be yourself.”
However, I believe there is a deeper, more biblical solution to shame. If shame is feeling unlike others, we overcome shame by becoming “like Jesus.” We must conform to his image, as the next post will explain.