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shame & blame

How do we own what's ours within systems of unequal power distribution?

Recently, a friend of mine and her partner found themselves in a fundamental disagreement over how to handle a situation. They're both white, cisgender, able-bodied, raised in upper-middle-class homes. The biggest difference between their social positions is that he is male, she is female. Additionally, he works in STEM and she is a social worker. Our culture values his work more highly than hers, so he makes a larger financial contribution to their household.

Over the years, they've had frequent discussions about power dynamics in our culture and in their relationship. She's often felt that, despite his intellectual understanding of the inherent sexism in our society, he isn't able to feel in an embodied way what it is like to have less power, and, in fact, that he is accustomed to embodying more power in their relationship. This isn't malicious or even conscious-- it's the result of having been raised in a culture with deeply engrained patterns of patriarchal power dynamics.

These underlying dynamics came to light dramatically when my friend's partner made a big financial decision that affected them both-- without consulting her. She was furious. "I would never make a decision like that without consulting him," she told me. "In the heat of the moment, he decided something for us both and expected me to just live with the consequences." She realized two important things. First, that those underlying power dynamics, despite both their efforts to maintain equality, had been real. And second? That's an interesting one."I felt a deep sense of shame," she said. "How could I let this happen to me? I'm progressive, I'm a feminist, I thought HE was a feminist. I feel devalued and humiliated."

The role of shame in power-over systems

It's not uncommon for victims (or survivors) of trauma or systemic oppression to experience shame, even though they've done nothing wrong.

"Because something integrous has been torn, something that knows wholeness has been harmed and shattered, we are left with shame.... Shame is present due to a break in our innate integrity and worth-- from the very intimate to the systemic." --Staci K Haines, The Politics of Trauma

Shame is an interesting and painful emotional. It thrives in secrecy, and keeps us from sharing or connecting with others. In this way, shame serves two purposes. First, it reinforces the systems that concentrate wealth and power while shifting the responsibility to those who have been harmed or exploited. An easy example is to consider the college co-ed who experiences sexual harassment while wearing minimal clothing. Historically and culturally, we place the blame on the harassed person ("she shouldn't have been wearing that"), creating an expectation of shame for them.

In the United States, we have engrained expectations that each of us should be able to find financial freedom and success-- the old "bootstraps" story. A failure to do that? Well, that's a personal failure, isn't it? Never mind issues of intergenerational wealth or proven systemic racism in lending. Even when we know better-- as in the case of my friend-- we may still feel a sense of failure, or shame, when we don't measure up. Healthism (which I've written about here) is another way in which we shift the blame from larger systems to the individual, reinforcing power dynamics and causing shame.

Shame allows us a sense of agency

On an individual level, however, shame has a protective role. It allows the wronged person to feel a sense of control or agency. After all, if it's our fault, then we can still feel that there's something we can DO about the issue.

Letting go of shame means we need to experience the emotions underneath. That may mean the pain of being helpless, abandoned, or vulnerable. Another normal and healthy response is to feel a righteous sense of anger. In the case of my friend and her partner, "When I recognized that I was feeling shame, I was able to set it aside-- and what was left was pure rage," my friend said. All of these emotions can be quite difficult to face. We may not know what to do with them, or it may feel like there's nothing at all to do-- which can lead to depression.

Embodying Greater power

Regardless of social position, each of us has had the experience of shame. Unaddressed, it can live in our bodies, creating patterns that shape us for the rest of our lives. We may find that we hold our shoulders in a certain way; assume submissive posture or avoid eye contact with others. Shame may live deep in our gut as a sense that something is profoundly wrong.

This embodied shame is often an old narrative that makes no logical sense, but which feels so deeply "ours" we may not even recognize it. In some cases, we may need to take accountability or ownership for past actions, sharing with a therapist or trusted friend.

Regardless of what we have done in the past, or what has been done to us, we are worthy of forgiveness. Staci Haines, author of The Politics of Trauma, suggests that we challenge the narrative by writing out sentences for ourselves. "Even if _________, I am forgivable." Meditating on these concepts and feeling them in our bodies can be transformational. You can practice challenging a difficult belief (like this one!) in this five minute embodied meditation.

The magical thing about shame is that it cannot grow when it is brought into the light. As we recognize and share our experience of shame, it dissipates, creating space for new narratives to emerge in embodied patterns. We may find that we are capable of believing different things about ourselves; we may find that we want to empower others to recognize their own role in larger systems. We may be ready to find ways to change the system ourselves. For my friend and her partner, this realization was painful, but transformative. "I can't believe how quickly I went to victim-blaming," she says. The experience has given them both an opportunity to have meaningful discussions about how they can both embody greater equality in relationship-- and in larger systems.

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