The stories we tell ourselves: shame

We live within stories. 

Often we have a hard time recognizing stories as stories. There are folk tales, bedtime stories, short stories, novels, movies, video games. But there are also national myths, collective stories of greatness, and mental scripts we keep telling ourselves. And they can greatly influence how we behave, think and feel.

“I am not worthy of love”, “I am defective”, “we need to defend the purity of our race”, “our civilisation is under threat”, “my political opponents are brainwashed idiots” – all these are not isolated statements. They are part of a wider web of beliefs, values and practices that define who we are. They are part of a narrative that has real life consequences. Believing in your essential defectiveness can lead to personal tragedy. Believing in a looming threat to the purity of the race can lead to war and gonocide.

When I was 8 or 9, I was caught with a semi-nude photo of an actress in my pocket. Judging by the standards of today, and in fact by any standards, the photo was mildly provocative. A black and white photo of a woman exposing her legs up to the thighs and smiling at the camera. But being exposed like that made me feel incredibly ashamed. It felt as if a dirty secret had been revealed to the whole world and now I have to live with it. And I never really shook off that shame. I am not talking about that episode – it was just a funny little moment of my childhood – but about the shame itself. By the time that moment arrived, the shame was already there. Fed by known and unknown traumas of childhood. It was already part of the story I was telling myself about who I am and what I am capable of. I’ve struggled for a long time to undermine and reframe this story.

Because that’s what some stories do. They become part of us.

In Steve Mc Queen’s movie “Shame”, the main character lives and struggles through his sex dependence, spiraling out of control. The sudden appearance of his sister, who has fallen on tough times and asks to live in his apartment for a while, disturbs his habits and enrages him. At the same time, this new situation strikes a cord of fragility and affection that were hardly visible before. Just as myself in a different context, he struggles with shame. And it’s not just the shame of his sex dependence, it’s the shame of what he has become, of the type of person he is.

Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen’s Shame (2011)

Toxic stories are persistent. Part of the reason is that it takes time and effort to realize their toxicity when you’ve been living with them long enough. It takes a shift of perspective, a degree of critical detachment, to start seeing them for what they are. But even then, realizing their toxicity will not be enough to get rid of them. No matter how harmful, we may choose to hang on to the story because giving it up feels like giving up part of ourselves. It feels as if we don’t have anything else to hang on to.

Toxic stories are powerful but they are not invincible. They can be undermined by learning to tell a better story. A kinder, more forgiving story that starts from the same basic facts or experiences but frames them differently. Bad stories can also be undermined by simply paying attention to what others are going through. Getting out of your little bubble of misery and making space for compassion, empathy and a sense of shared experience.

  1. I am working in a library. All together, for 12 years (6 – in Ro; 6 – here; I had worked in other places, too. Another story.). Here I see thousands of stories wrapped nicely in boxes (my note: the books are the pretty boxes). It does not matter if it is fiction or non-fiction, each particular box is holding an auto-biographical story. Each author is telling himself throughout that book – his questions, his journey, his answers. * The way I see STORIES … mmm … such a long story. And I agree with you – I found out that the open, forgiving, accepting, brighter way of telling them is the healthiest way. Enjoy your story, Florin!

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    1. Thanks :). Well, I have a long experience with toxic, unforgiving stories we are told or tell ourselves. So the roots of my interest with storytelling are very personal.
      “All together, for 12 years (6 – in Ro; 6 – here” – where is “here”?

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    2. “Here”, for me, is Canada – Ontario – Bruce County (Bruce Peninsula). * To not get intoxicated irreversibly , we might need to change the story until we get the best possible meaning out of it. I guess … At least, this is what I am trying – to sculpture my story in that healthy way that will keep me going, that will not make me feel despair, anguish, overwhelming sorrow. * Inspiration and good luck with your art! We need this kind of art that you do. I am not totally rejecting it, but the modern art (in music, ballet and in other forms of expression) is too often like a visit to a psychiatric hospital; kind of alienated and alienating. Authentic beauty is not a fairytale. Life, death and nature contain it (*beauty) majestically and, how I mentioned yesterday, beauty is accessible if we step out our room, our mind, our obsessions etc. (and you are inviting us to look at it). *Sorry, an answer way too long.

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  2. Liana, it’s definitely not too long :). It’s a pleasure to receive meaningful comments. Of course, no story is carved in stone and that’s the beauty of it. We can change our toxic self-narratives and escape their spell. What I find fascinating is that we cannot escape the spell of a story, even a very negative one, by simply discarding it. We need to replace it with something better. We need to reframe or transform it, not simply get rid of it.

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  3. Florin,
    When we choose to express ourselves in a way that can be accepted as creative, we heal. And – because it surely has something universal – the ones who are listening or watching our art – they will find ways for healing themselves. Indeed – we tell stories: to others, to ourselves; from time to time, it is even healthier to listen, to observe, to turn our mind away from our story; not to dismiss it, just to let the soul be quiet about it. * At one point, in my adult life, I understood that, because I was a loved child (a fact that I had never doubted), I have on me a protective shield, resistant for my entire life. The antidote for those toxic stories is to remember that we came out of love and that we are loved. Not in a religious way. Not that. Loved – as simple and light as a petal, a leaf, a feather. Just loved. Even only one thought counts.* Last summer, I was thinking about the meaningful connections, conversations, feedbacks. I agree: I am always happy to learn what stays behind the “likes” on my page, because I would like to understand that point of view, that perspective, those reasons. Enjoy your evening!
    p.s.: I noticed that you mentioned Neil Gaiman. One of my favourite authors. I dare to show you something related to N.G.: https://wordpress.com/post/spellingmylifeblog.wordpress.com/3988

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can resonate a lot with this, including the part on growing up as a loved child and wearing this as a protective shield. It was not exactly my case. So I know the situation from the other side – how is it NOT to have that shield and how much it takes to build it.
      Can you please check the link? It’s not working on my side. Thanks a lot.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I know what you mean very well, Florin, again, from a different perspective. But, again, that is the story of primordial love we need to tell ourselves. Again and again. That love is was happening, a way or another, in a mysterious, difficult to detect way. Love was there for everyone of us. I do not want to sound religious. Nope.

      Liked by 1 person

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