When I was 8 years old and wearing a cute blue skirt I liked and my dad walked into the living room and joked, “Hey, only skinny girls should wear skirts like that!” When I was 9 and my piano teacher, frustrated at my inability to play one particular section in the Bach fugue perfectly, asked me what my grades at school that semester were and said, “Well, I guess you’re pretty dumb, aren’t you?” When my mom came to my piano recital when I was 13, two years before I quit, and remained silent while we visited a relative in the hospital afterwards, disgusted and unable to talk to me because my performance wasn’t up to par. When I was 15 and the doctor made me stand on the scale in his office, which made me want to scream because back then I hated weighing myself in front of other people, and said “You’ve stopped menstruating because your estrogen and progesterone levels are too low. You need to stop starving yourself.” When I was 18 and my on-off boyfriend gave me the silent treatment for the entire evening because I didn’t realize the leggings I was wearing were slightly see-through from certain angles.
These are some very ordinary moments in my life where I felt intense shame. Shame is distinct from guilt because it isn’t about responsibility: it’s about feeling like the very way you are is insufficient and bad and embarrassing. If you’ve read any Brene Brown you probably already know that guilt can be adaptive and helpful, but shame is dangerous. I’ve certainly done plenty things of my life that I’ve felt guilty for—most of them revolve around hurting people who didn’t deserve to be hurt—but I’ve spent far more time feeling shame. Shame is a kind of birthright for many immigrant children, what we absorbed from our surroundings as we grew up. I’ve felt deeply ashamed of failure my whole life, and by “failure” I mean not performing as well as the best person around me. That’s the Asian-American legacy, isn’t it?
Shame is so insidious. I found it so hard to be vulnerable in relationships because I always wanted to be perfect: giving but not needy, communicative but not oversharing, beautiful but not vain. I always acted as if I was responsible for everything: if someone was nice to me, I caused it, and if someone was mean to me I probably also caused it. I always treated myself like I didn’t deserve compassion. I didn’t see a problem with this because I thought it meant that I was accountable. I didn’t want to be someone who was weak, who blamed all my problems on my circumstances. I wanted to be able to say: if I mess up it’s on me, I’m the bad one. I should try harder.
In the past couple of years I've moved away from this model of thinking, and now believe that you can be accountable without shaming yourself. As a teenager I still felt extremely tethered to my childhood, but in my 20s I’ve been able to shake off some of the behavior patterns I absorbed while I was growing up. As a result, I spend less time punishing myself, and more time making constructive improvements. When I look back now I’m shocked by now fearful I was almost all of the time.
Shame makes you terrified of rejection of any kind. There were so many things I was afraid to do because I was afraid to fail at them: I was always waiting for someone to deliver a verdict about my worthlessness. I didn’t want to share anything about myself because it made me feel so horribly exposed. I was so afraid of other people’s judgement. I was brittle, convinced that the world was inherently cruel. I would find myself in spirals of self-loathing where one bad thought could lead to an entire week spent feeling terrible. It was hard for me to improve because improving means accepting where you are and what you lack, and shame stifles your ability to do that.
I now understand that people will always judge you and that rejection is inevitable. If you’re trying to do something difficult, you need to be strong enough to weather rejection again and again. The only way you can make decisions that are in line with your own values is if you can shrug these moments off: if you have an internal compass that isn’t swayed by the need to please everyone else.
To be a slave to perfection is a terrible thing because there will always be a gap between the person you are and the person you portray yourself as that you can never close. It means that you’ll be dishonest with yourself and other people in an effort to live up to who you think you need to be. It means you have no respect or love for your actual self.
I want to be able to improve in the ways that matter. In order to do that, I have to be able to live with myself. I have to be able to say: at times in my life I’ve been very wrong, I fucked up all sorts of things, I was lazy, I was a bad girlfriend, I was uncommunicative with friends I loved, I neglected important relationships in my life, I‘ve been an unthoughtful daughter, I’ve lied, I’ve hurt people. I’m not as good as I want to be at all sorts of things. And maybe that’s a blessing because I have so much room to get better. It turns out that I can be accountable and I can still like myself—I can still believe in my capability to change. I don’t need to live in a permanent state of shame just because I’m a fallible human being.
We live in a society that is so, so bent on shaming people. If you’re online at any moment you’re really only one tweet away from death threats, right? Say one thing that can be slightly misconstrued and watch people tell you you’re privileged, you’re disgusting, they hope you suffer, you’ll never find love, you’re weak and pathetic, you must secretly hate yourself, you’re ugly and fat, you’ll never do anything successful, etcetera etcetera. We are ugly to other people because we are so ugly to ourselves. The anonymity of the internet magnifies the cruelty lurking in our psyches. We feel compelled to police each other. And it’s scary, I’m not going to lie: it’s really really scary. It’s hard for me to keep writing on Substack because I keep thinking that one day I’m going to write something that’s deemed wrong, and I don’t particularly want people on the Internet to tell me I should die. Honestly, who does?
But I can’t live in fear. I don’t want to be ashamed all the time. Shame is the antithesis of creativity, the opposite of risk. I want to honor the version of myself that’s open to being wrong, willing to keep trying. I want to believe that while there are some things in life we earn, there are others—like love, like connection—that we simply deserve to be given.
"The Genesis of Shame" by J. David Velleman is an interesting read.
His argument is that we are all social creatures, so we naturally want to maintain control of our self-presentation and our social image. Shame is the particular emotion we feel when this control is taken from us, for any reason.
I think he makes a strong case that this is correct; it explains a lot of cases where people feel shame even though they rationally "shouldn't".
your writing is unbelievably powerful and resonant. I feel so lucky to have found your newsletter!