The shame of it all

Recently, I was doing a mock job interview with a young man serving a sentence for a drug-related crime.  He was a little nervous but handled even the difficult questions about his criminal background well.  He also  seemed sincere in wanting to turn his life around. At the end, I told him he’d done great and he looked genuinely surprised.  “When you all walked in, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to go through with it,” he said blushing. “I just felt so much shame. ”

Anyone who’s ever felt shame — and that would be most of us — knows what he means. It’s an awful feeling – a free floating cloak of  embarrassment and humiliation . Shame  makes you feel that you’re bad, guilty and somehow defective, and what’s worse, that you’ve brought it all  on yourself.  It’s certainly not the kind of emotion that has anyone raring to go out and sell himself to an employer, let alone the larger world.

But what I told him, and what I’ve come to believe, is that feeling shame, while uncomfortable, is often good.  In fact, it’s usually a necessary part of the process of rebuilding a life after a felony conviction.  When I  get to the part of the course where we talk about the impact of incarceration on my students, the majority usually admit to  feeling some kind of shame. If they don’t I get a little worried. It’s hard to move on past something if you don’t acknowledge the wrongs you committed and feel the associated pain.

I’m not alone on this either.   While excessive shame is unhealthy,  it can be necessary, says Dr. George Simon, a clinical psychologist who specializes in personality and character disorders. Shame can be a warning that something you did was not appropriate.  There’s a danger in not feeling anything, he notes.  That could be the sign of a disordered personality.   People who accept responsibility and feel remorse, often feel shame.  But hopefully this will lead to forgiveness and change.

So how do you move past shame and get on with your life?  You start by recognizing that guilt and  shame are signals, not something to get lost in.  If you wallow in these thoughts too long, they  become self-destructive and counterproductive, or what ex-offender Leighton Bates  calls “having a pity party for yourself. ”   In his very thought-provoking essay here, Bates also notes:

If we focus on the guilty feelings and shameful thoughts, we are focused on the self, and we are not dealing with the problem in a straightforward manner. So we have guilt reminding us of all the wrong we have done, and shame telling us we are bad. These two emotions keep us in a cycle of thoughts and feelings that keeps us acting out on others and ourselves in a totally negative way…

Bates talks about his own feelings of shame and how guilt comes crashing down in prison, where you can’t use alcohol and drugs to dull your senses.  But he also shows that you can get beyond it, by letting go of these emotions and directing your energies outside of yourself to others. Like a bruise, shame is there to remind you of a mistake, but it will also heal and go away if you let it.

Readers, how have you dealt with shame?

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1 Comment

Filed under ex-offender psychology, starting over, taking responsibility

One response to “The shame of it all

  1. Very well put. Personal recovery from the incarceration experience, as well as successful reentry–however long that takes–require a coming to terms with guilt and shame. We must pass through them to get to the closure and perspective we must have in order to realize real peace with the self, and with others.

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