Shame (by )

I'm at the pub for a meeting, but there's a minor commotion from next door; I hear a glass smash and some amused voices. A regular, a well-known local in his nineties, has had too much to drink. A party is organised to walk him to his nearby home; everyone responds with good-natured smiles. "Aw, bless him."

But I am transfixed with vicarious shame. I feel horribly embarrassed for him, and my stomach churns with stress about it. I find everyone else's reactions jarring; they seem mildly jealous of him if anything, while I find his situation absolutely humiliating. If something like that happened to me - no, let me be clear: if I did that to myself and people saw - I would not be able to look those people in the eye ever again. I don't know if I'd be able to leave my house.

I have a mental model of the world, which gives me expectations about what counts as "normal" behaviour for the people and other objects in the world. When I see things happen that are consistent with my model (objects fall to the floor when released, people are happy with they are given cake, that sort of thing) it is unremarkable; things that are inconsistent attract my attention, as they indicate either that I have incomplete knowledge of the situation or a problem in my mental model. As I've built this mental model over the decades of my existence, I've checked every new thing I incorporate into it for logical inconsistency with something else, so I'm reasonably confident that it's consistent and a correct approximation to some kind of objective reality.

The majority attitude towards inebriation contradicts my mental model, but I can't just incorporate it, because it's inconsistent with other things in my model.

For instance, people are critical of flaws in others. As a child, if I made a mistake, I'd invoke the wrath of my mother. At school, if I made a slip and broke the myriad and shifting social contracts, I'd attract the attention of the bullies. In my career, if I make a mistake it will have consequences for my colleagues, the company I work for, and the users of the products I work on. If I make a mistake in my domestic duties at home, my children won't get to school / their clubs / parties they're invited to, or we won't have food for dinner; and they will be angry with me. If I make a mistake while driving, I will injure or kill myself or others. I often hear people complaining about other people who have made mistakes, even if those mistakes had no actual negative consequences; they are criticised for making mistakes as a matter of principal.

Mistakes are very easy to make; a moment's inattention can result in something important being forgotten. Slip-ups attract ridicule and disapproval.

But the way people react when somebody has deliberately made themselves into an idiot through inebriation starkly contradicts that general trend. Why is there an exemption made for this case?

I had a dream, when I was aged somewhere between eight and ten or so years old. In this dream, I'm on a huge futuristic spacecraft, of a similar scale to a cruise ship, full of passengers, watched over by a team of sinister police robots. I'm in a fancily-decorated room with little tables dotted around, with passengers sitting at them and chatting. In this room, little drinks are available, in tiny glasses the size of my little fingertip; barely a cubic centimetre each. There is something seedy about this; the drinks are handed out covertly, with much glancing around, out of sight of the police robots. I decide to try one, and the effect is instant; my point of view moves backwards slightly, and I become a third-party observer of my own actions, a passive rider in my own body as I circulate in the room and chatter with people, with this big idiot grin on my face. But the idiot grin attracts the attention of the police robots; scowling and disapproving, the corner me and shoot me with a dart gun which dispenses an antidote, meaning I am instantly myself again. But I feign innocence; I claim I was grinning because I was happy, and that their accusation that I had consumed one of the tiny glasses was unfounded, and act all offended. Even remembering that dream now, thirty years later, causes my face to flush with shame. It's taken quite a lot of bravery to publish it here. I had to build up to it in stages. What I'm ashamed of is that I had a dream in which I was affected by some kind of drug, because it acknowledges the concept of me being so affected even exists.

But far worse than my shame-by-proxy is the sense of alienation, because I'm having this strong emotional reaction that's completely absent in the people around me. It's like everyone around me is laughing and cracking jokes while eating babies. I feel like there's something terribly wrong with everyone around me (which is scary), while logic tells me that the problem is clearly with me. Which is even scarier.

I try and avoid situations where I might be reminded of this. Pubs are risky places to go, but only mildly so; there isn't a strong culture of inebriation in most of them, so I just avoid places like student bars. House parties are far riskier, and I dread being invited to them; accepting the invite may lead to pain, but refusing it means sitting at home on my own knowing what's happening anyway (well, not really knowing; my imagination instead provides a stream of worst-case scenaries), and being on my own while everyone else is having fun (in a way I find inexplicable and distressing) hardly makes a sense of alienation any better. It's worse when the party is at my house (I never hold parties, but people I live with do), because it's harder to hide from a party in my house, people will ask awkward questions if I leave, and I have this feeling like my "safe place" is being invaded; I make my way through life by, where possible, shutting all this stuff away, and it being in my own home makes that harder.

But avoiding situations where people might drink alcohol isn't enough, anyway, even if I could do it perfectly. People still talk about it around me, and thus, I am forced to confront the concept. I can think of no way to avoid it without isolating myself from all people and all mass media.

To be honest, I feel pretty angry about it all. Why do I have to hide, and be an outsider, flinching away from this concept? People around me can, just through saying a few words, hurt me. When a group of friends or colleagues organise a group social activity, I have to choose whether I'll suffer for going or suffer for not going. What's more, I've been told that if I don't go to an event I've been invited to, I'll offend the person who invited me. Apparently this is more important than the pain I'll suffer.

My attempts to tell other people how I feel have often ended badly. Responses tend to be either:

"You're weird, that freaks me out, go away"

"Whoa! That's weird. So does related concept X upset you? How about Y? Really? Hahahah! X! Y! That actually makes you feel ill from me just saying those words? X! Y! Z! This is fun!"

"How dare you criticize my actions! It's my choice what I do with my body, and your choice whether you put up with it or go elsewhere."

Most people just seem confused by it, and then seemingly forget I ever mentioned it. A few people have actually tried to avoid saying things that will upset my in my presence, which is heartwarming, but the concepts are deeply embedded in our culture and are impossible to avoid: attempting to avoid them just leaves awkward gaps, and I know what would fill those gaps. The best that can be done, I suppose, is to say what needs to be said, but without the assumption that everyone feels as the majority does, so I don't feel neglected. But that's not an easy thing to ask.

I don't want to be like this. I can't change the world, so I need to change myself, but how do I do that? It's hard to think about the underlying sense of shame, because the feeling of alienation is too painful; and it's hard to think about the feeling of alienation because the anger clouds it, and anger is such a destructive all-consuming emotion. Indeed, it's taken me years of careful reflection to even isolate the other feelings. My emotional response to exposure to inebriation was basically "Confused burst of painful negative emotions then ANGER". Pulling apart that little burst of emotions before the anger wins out has taken a lot of careful detective work, feeling a bit like a physicist deducing the presence of the Higgs Boson by looking at the trajectories of particles streaming out of a hadron collision. But now I'm aware of the shame at the root of it all, I can feel it. I just can't stop the anger coming in and clouding it.

So perhaps I can address the problem indirectly. What else gives me similar feelings of irrational shame, but without the complexities of alienation and anger on top?

One answer comes to mind: Dancing. I'm usually one of those people who professes he can't dance, and only tries to when under duress; at which point I just find an action and repeat it until whoever's forcing me to dance lets me stop. I have no enthusiasm for it, and struggle to understand why people do it.

But occasionlly, if I'm in a really good mood, listening to dancy music that I have happy associations with, I feel a faint glimmer of a strange pulse-quickening excitement that it might be nice to dance to it. The thing is, if I hold that thought, a flash of embarrassment comes and destroys it, so I need to keep it just out of mental reach. Perhaps if I could overcome that, lesser, shame, I would weaken the greater one. The problem is, I don't know how to. It's not like I'm standing there thinking "I want to dance, but don't know how to"; I mean, I want to dance in the sense that I usually feel very lonely and left out and forgotten when everyone is dancing apart from me, but my problem is that I want to want to dance, and I don't know how to want to.

What else is there that's similar? Oddly, there's something I have the anger about without the shame or alienation: and that's coffee. Around the time when Starbucks was really invading the UK I had a girlfriend who thought Starbucks was great, so I was always being dragged into them. The thing is, I don't like hot drinks at all, and I find the taste of coffee absolutely disgusting. At most, Starbucks could offer me over-priced orange juice, and I got sick of that pretty quickly. This touched a bit of a raw nerve: coffee wasn't being presented as something some people like, as an option; the ubiquitous Starbucks (and their competitors), the attitude of people towards them ("Let's meet in Starbucks", "Fill in this quiz and be rewarded with a Starbucks voucher"), and the decor and advertising all seemed to draw on an assumption that everyone liked the foul stuff, while I didn't.

And, of course, I have a massive chip on my shoulder about that from the alcohol thing. So being offered coffee, or having to go to coffee places and get coffee, gives me this little jolt of irritation. I used to just bite my tongue and repress this, but over the past few years I've decided it's probably healthier for me to let a little bit of snark loose. As a Repressed Minority Coffee Disliker, I probably shouldn't feel I have to put up with everyone assuming I don't exist; so I'm trying to actually say that I think coffee tastes awful and that I hate coffee shops when it comes up. It's cathartic, but there's a lot of pent-up bile left; this will take a while to finish... And I don't think that fixing that will do all that much to fix my anger about alcohol.

There's one more thing that I think might be related. I really like funny things; as a kid, I really liked surreal comedy, and could easily end up laughing so hard I could barely breathe. These days, I've lost that; I feel too much shame about the thought of somebody seeing me laughing like that. I've come close, but then I feel a sudden chilling fear that I'm going to irritate people or that they'll think I'm an idiot. But the difference here is that I can remember not having that fear.

If you'll permit me an aside, I've been teaching my daughter how to ride a bike. I did this by holding her upright and pushing her forward as she starts to pedal, so that she can get going on the bike and learn to balance, because she was struggling with getting started at all. I decided to hold her up and skip the getting started part, because learning to keep balancing while the bike's moving and you're already pedalling is a lot easier - but once you've got the feel for that, you know what riding a bike is supposed to feel like. So then you can learn to start, because you know what state you're aiming for when you push off. Trying to ride a bike from nothing is a lot harder, because you push on the pedal and wobble and fall over, because even if you push off right you don't know how to ride a bike so you'll fall over - so you can't tell if you're learning to push off right or not.

So while I can't imagine dancing in front of people (as opposed to going through the motions of pretending to dance, which is different), or even doing that unspeakable thing with alcohol that could never be in any way associated with me, I can actually imagine myself having a really good laugh about something hilarious. And, just like how knowing what riding a bike should feel like helped my daughter to quickly learn how to start from standing, I think that means I have a chance of being able to overcome the shame and recover that ability.

And maybe learning to deal with that shame will be transferrable, and I'll be better able to deal with other kinds of shame.

So, who is willing to help me overcome a crippling phobea that's causing me untold misery, by coming around to my place and watching Monty Python DVDs? Soft drinks only, I'm afraid.


  • By John Cowan, Thu 2nd Mar 2017 @ 3:29 am

    The demand "Make no mistakes!" is fundamentally inhuman, and the people who imposed it on you at home and at school were damaging you in the process. People who go through this as children become perfectionists, and often carry over the same demand to their own children, students, or what not. The reason is, of course that it is impossible to make no mistakes: we all make them, and if we cannot forgive and be forgiven for them, we lose our humanity.

    This perfectionism is actually an advantage for computer programmers, since computers really do demand perfection in order to make them do what we want them to do. But note that we programmers are, as a group, perfectionist; we still stigmatize mistakes so much that we have had to invent a new name for them: bugs.

    Note that it's not enough for you not to drink or serve alcohol in your own home (I don't do those things either, because of a family history of the disease), but the idea that people are drinking anywhere embarrasses and outrages you, like the guy in the xkcd who won't come to bed because "someone on the Internet is wrong somewhere".

    My situation was different from yours: I was bullied, but not at home. My parents instilled the value "Why should you care what other people think?" and that protected me from at least some of the excesses of perfectionism.

    You might want to consider getting some cognitive-behavioral therapy, the purpose of which is to replace inflexible responses that are no longer useful to you with flexible, adaptive ones. It can be quite effective with things like perfectionism.

    My wife says: "If you don't act like yourself, expressing the things you truly don't like in a calm and confident manner, you will be so busy either pretending to like what you don't, or trying to blend in or 'pass', that you will never find the people who actually have the same minority tastes that you do. And they are certainly out there." She likes coffee and tea and is indifferent to drinking, whereas I don't drink hot drinks either. For neither of us is there a big emotional charge around these things. Some people do dumb things, so what? I do dumb things every day, but I forgive myself for them.

  • By @ndy, Tue 7th Mar 2017 @ 7:29 pm

    I'd love to come but my hovercraft is full of eels. Can you help me out with a date?

  • By Clare Nicholls, Tue 14th Mar 2017 @ 4:26 pm

    As a fellow non-alcohol and coffee drinker I can totally sympathise. Any time I say I don't drink I get a range of reactions from "Are you religious/pregnant/ill?" to "Go on, you must drink." I think I have just accepted that this is the prevailing culture in this country.

    I think the key is to just be confident - easy to say, not to do! Believe in yourself, do what you want to do and don't let embarrassment make you shy away from anything. Take it one step at a time - maybe socialise with a few drinkers, or do a 10 second dance and try and desensitise yourself.

    Seriously, you be you, everyone else can be themselves and if we could all stop judging and being dicks to one another, the world would be a happier place. 🙂

  • By @ndy, Mon 3rd Apr 2017 @ 10:36 am

    This has been sitting here for a couple of weeks waiting for me to post it:

    Now I've slept on this and my subconscious has had a while to work on it so I'll vomit out some probably rather ill formed thoughts and see if I get anywhere.

    My musings below are just what I assume to be going on. I'm not saying that I believe that is what should be going on; it's just a bit of arm chair psychology.

    For the man in the pub, I think the main factor in play is status. I think that people see that he is old and they see that he is out and about and able and on his own. When he gets drunk they take pity on him because he has a privilege: they assume that he must have lived a responsible and sensible life to have been in the pub doing those things, at that age, in the first place. If it had been a young person, especially one in their late teens, early twenties or even thirties, I imagine that the reaction would have been somewhat different. That's a person that might be aggressive when drunk and, really, needs to learn the life lessons and take care of themselves. Well: that's the perception that I think a lot of people would have. If that old man had done this more than a few times then people may still take pity on him but they'd be firmer and treat him differently.

    He gets to make those mistakes because they perceive him as someone who has earned the right to make one or two.

    In the culture that you (and to a certain extent I) grew up in, mistakes are not for children. Children who make mistakes are bad because they can turn into a habit and the child is perceived as not inherently knowing the right way to do something and therefore cannot consciously choose to make the mistake for a good reason. If they make a mistake it has to be corrected before it turns into their norm. Children are not allowed to swear because that's a social faux-pas (mistake) that adults choose to make when they want to (consciously?) trade off an emphasis for a (momentary?) lack of vocabulary. Children are required to learn their vocabulary and be thoughtful about how they express themselves otherwise, we believe, they will become drooling idiots who always reach for the basic forms of illustration.

    This is not dissimilar to how I was taught to program. I've not heard it a lot since the nineties but I was taught that first you have to learn the rules and play by them before you can break them. Only once you do that will you understand how big are the consequences of breaking them. Along the way you'll have gained enough experience to make the right tradeoff. But when I was learning to program, breaking the rules wasn't a status thing: it was just me and the computer. Nobody thought I was big or clever if I whimsically broke the rules; it just make my life harder and I made less progress.

    For me, programming is this thing that's similar to tightrope walking. You're trying to cross a chasm. Maybe you're trying to get there so you can pull a bridge or something across so that other people can follow you easily. You have a personal skill and you're trying to apply it to achieve this specific thing. If you do it well then it's an art: it's not just about getting to the other side. It's the kind of skill where if you make mistakes then the consequences wcan be far reaching: maybe nothing works at all and it's not obvious why; maybe some data is lost or maybe some robot crashes and hurts someone. There's a narrow path to navigate and you have to practice to do that elegantly. But it turns out that programming is fun and everyone wants to have a go! So we put up safety nets (such as tests) that can catch you when you make a mistake. This is a Good Idea because, even for an expert, they want to improve. The best way to improve is to try harder or bigger stuff and always be at the edge of your experience. However, it's easy to lose sight of the purpose. You're a tightrope walker: the purpose is to walk the tightrope because that's the safe, well defined and shortest path between the start and the end. Once you've lost sight of the purpose then it's just about getting to the other side and the safety net is there and it really does look like a damn good trampoline: why not just bounce off it all the way? Well, that's an entirely different skill and takes a lot more energy. You can eventually get to the other side but you don't really improve much as a tightrope walker.

    So, yes; don't make mistakes. Right?

    Well, maybe not. You have to make mistakes in order to learn. You need someone to guide you so that when you make a small mistake they can correct you before you end up in the incident pit. The incident pit is a place where the consequences of mistakes build up on each other and it's easy to make more mistakes and the original tight connection between cause and effect is no longer stark enough to learn from easily. This is where status comes back. Sometimes you're allowed to make mistakes. Sometimes you're even encouraged to make mistakes in order to explore the limits of what's possible. When people are young and with their friends they often get drunk. Moreover, they often choose to get drunk. The higher status members of the group will be permitted more latitude to behave badly when they are drunk than the lower status members. They will be allowed more mistakes and they'll often be encouraged to do this in order to consolidate the status that they hold. I think that this only works in groups of peers tho'. If you're at a family event and people of a slightly older or younger generation make these mistakes then they are viewed dimly. They're supposed to be setting an example for the younger members or proving their maturity to the older members. ...and having gotten (incredibly) drunk with peers a few times, people feel safer drinking more moderately with them in the future. This is because they know where the limits are and they know that they get looked after in the more extreme cases (but only when the group of peers is away from older or younger groups in their society; if the other groups are there then the support is less forthcoming unless they have a very high status already).

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