As a person, I always dive headfirst into everything. Friendships, career ambitions, you name it. If something interests me, I always follow its trail full-bore, to see where it will lead.
Thus, I’ve gotten to know people. Lots of people, in many different social situations. I understand the unspoken attractions and hostilities—usually communicated via subtle quirks and peccadillos —inherent in most relationships. And the one driving force I’ve come across in human relationships again and again, ad infinitum, is the exploitation of shame.
In the human character, shame reveals itself as a weakness, a fear, an insecurity. When shame is strong, you can basically smell it on another person. Whatever they are ashamed of—their looks, their level of success, their sexuality, their level of intelligence—will be immediately communicated to whomever they are in contact with through a series of subtle unconscious clues.
This shame almost always begins in childhood, and I will use my own as an example. I was raised by two parents who were very narcissistic. My father was a French Canadian high school dropout with an extremely strong intellect, and a savant-level musical ability. He idolized people like John Belushi, and shared that comedian’s penchant for indulgence and performance. My mother was a foxy, dark-eyed, petite beauty. She was adventurous, artistic, well-read and naturally sophisticated. Upon graduating high school, she worked at a job long enough to save money to move to Europe. When she returned from living in France, she met my father, who played in a local band. Together, they formed a dashing pair. I think she appreciated having someone she could speak French with.
She got pregnant, and they got married and moved into a “commune” called Trask Farm, which I think was really more like a party house. My mother had the cachet of being a beautiful, not-dumb painter who’d lived in Europe, and my father had the social currency of being a musician who at times rubbed elbows with some famous druggie musicians. These superficial charms worked until they didn’t, and eventually things began to unravel. Without getting too much into their story, I will say that, with regard to having me as a daughter, my parents (who are both deceased now) got someone they didn’t expect. My father’s relationship toward women was hateful and exploitative, and (as with my mother) he saw me as someone who would only benefit him if I could somehow improve his social currency. When his band played outdoor shows in the summer, he would command me to dance out in front, so that (I assume) people could watch me being cute and enjoying my father’s music. So that I could make him look good. That was on the lighter end of his exploitation of me. I won’t get into the darker end here.
My mother, in direct opposition to this, did not want a pretty female around to compete with—and would not task herself with motherly protection if she saw this pretty young female as a threat to her ego. She hewed to the archetypal beautiful competitive mother, to the point that I felt the only way to get through adolescence was to gain weight to obscure my breasts, cut my long hair into a boy’s crop, and basically become extremely tomboyish and nerdy. To deny myself my femininity.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, I was also gifted with my father’s level of intellect, which made me far less passive and willing to turn the other cheek to these injustices. As much as I was—and to a certain degree still am—riddled with the shame that my parents gifted me through their need for me to be someone other than myself, I was also very aware of the injustice of all this at a very young age. It allowed me to disconnect from my parents very young, which I think in some ways saved my life.
But my shame has followed me, and once someone gets a whiff of it—it’s hunting season. Up until recently, my friendships with females (and some males who have taken on more feminine characteristics) were about me trying to manipulatively placate them into some kind of noncompetitive situation, and them always finding a way to compete. To put the onus on myself: my abuse by men at a young age made me constantly on the lookout for women (and feminized men) who would “protect” me, at the cost of me letting the spotlight shine only on them. Because I would always hide in fear backstage, they could shine as the star. And I would get the companionship I needed without the risk of being abused by a man. This worked, for a time.
My relationships with men have always had the same putrid flavor of my father’s initial exploitation, with the exact same underlying questions: “how will she make me look?” “do my friends think she’s hot?” Spoiler alert: the man's friends, responding to his own shame around women and social standing, almost NEVER think I’m hot enough—regardless of whether they are attracted to me or not. Of course not! She’s a fucking loser. She’s just going bring you down, bro. You can do so much better. This pattern has played itself out to the point that it has ceased to be excruciatingly painful, and has become almost amusing to me. That’s the hard-won gift of self-awareness.
So shame is shame. It begins in very early childhood, and roots into the psyche with a frustrating and painful tenacity. You can pluck the shame out via ending a relationship, but because the root is so strong, another relationship with the exact same characteristics will grow in its place. And what intrigues me most about this is how people know almost instantly how to wield shame so effectively. I cannot tell you how many times, now that I’m aware of it, I’ve seen people wield shame. I’VE WIELDED SHAME, I’m embarrassed to say. Because my belief in my intellect is so airtight, and because my mother’s Achilles heel was the fact that she leaned on her appearance rather than her intellect to get things, I’ve often subtly inferred to a woman that she wasn’t very smart. Even if she was smart.
That’s what shame does. It makes people, all people, absolutely horrible. When I am a witness to these dynamics in other people’s relationships, I just cringe, because it’s literally like watching someone dig their finger into an open wound. I would much rather someone just insult me directly, rather than digging into my shame. I wonder if we can get to the point where we can stop hurting each other in this way. I wonder how that might happen.