Quick question: have you ever felt ashamed of yourself after having presented a paper, sat in at a faculty meeting, after giving a lecture or following some other form of academic performance? Have you ever felt ashamed of who you are? Probably not something that you’d like to admit… But very useful to acknowledge nonetheless. There’s golden data in this, in terms of reaching your highest potential. Want to find out why?

By reading this blog post, you’re carving out some space to:

  • raise your awareness of getting comfortable with uncomfortable feelings
  • identify your ‘favorite’ polarity around which you experience feelings of shame (and other ‘high’ emotions)
  • learn why a pair of yellow trousers were so important to me at a young age…

Let’s start with some theory though đŸ™‚

Feeling shame is all about the ‘I am not okay/ You are okay’-life position. This is one of the four life positions Transactional Analysis identifies.

The whole idea is for us to grow into the position where we feel that we are okay and that, no matter what: the Other is okay too. ‘Inner seniority’ – a concept that I love working with as a deep agreeing with yourself ‘as you are’, acknowledging your beautiful and horrible stuff alike – is also connected to this life position.

Feelings, Thoughts, Behavior, and… Identities

Feelings of shame trigger thought patterns revolving around the ‘I am not okay. You are okay’-quadrant. It can lead to unhealthy and unhelpful behavior.

“Shame cannot survive empathy,” says BrenĂ© Brown.

So, your highway to heaven in terms of dealing with feelings of shame lies in acknowledging feeling ashamed, talking about these feelings with your inner circle, and giving yourself some empathy. For most of us though this highway is slowed down by lane closures, roadwork going on and unexpected diversions en route.

Especially… when our feelings of shame are connected with our identities or… when we are over identifying with our work. So, if you’re someone who over identifies with your academic work… this blog post is interesting for you…

Mind you: if you are over identifying with work… you certainly are not alone in this…

As you may gather: it takes quite a bit of practice in order to grow towards the life position of ‘I am okay. You are okay.’

Pride and Shame: Moving Towards Empathy

Last week, I was preoccupied with shame. Why? Well. I got invited to sit in with the Dutch radio show EenVandaag to talk about Pride.

As you may know: Pride and Shame are two sides of the same medal.

Although I do find this theme extremely important for academics, especially if we identify with our work primarily, I cannot help but notice that I am actually slightly unnerved writing to you on this forum about this other important part of my life.

I’ve been involved with lgbtqi-emancipation since my early twenties. And I do not want to stand by and stay silent when I see such space for growth in terms of emancipation. However you identify in terms of sexuality and gender identity… this theme is important for all situations in which identity and the way we understand our identity causes hick-ups and challenges. For academics… over identification with work, especially in terms of our publication list…, is a relevant equation.

So, if you feel highly uncomfortable with the theme of sexual and gender diversity: please, stay with me on this one, and give yourself a chance to get comfortable with what may feel uncomfortable.

Daredevils of the 1960s

Personally, I am highly uncomfortable with the frame of ‘Pride’ for lgbtqi-celebrations f i f t y y e a r s after Stonewall. Stonewall in lgbtqi-history stands for fighting back, standing up against being bullied and harassed. Let’s be clear: ‘Pride’ and ‘coming out’ as a political strategy served its purpose well.

I feel extremely grateful for the daredevils who took to the streets after Stonewall. They – with the people of color, transgender people and lesbian women as forerunners in that movement – created the space that we now have to just be in. Tremendous work in terms of emancipation and liberation.

But in the meantime? After fifty years, there’s been an arrest in development, if you ask me… I really want to challenge the lgbtqi-network to challenge itself to start embracing an entirely different medal: revolving around empathy. And this new medal will work wonders for academics as well.

Comfortable with uncomfortable feelings

If we want to get to the next level, whether in academia or in emancipation policies, we’ll have to let go of feeling proud as our discourse. Especially, where it comes to emancipation, we’ll all have to start embracing feeling comfortable with meaningful differences. At least two steps are of vital importance.

1) Creating a mature space for dealing with feelings of discomfort and shame.

2) Getting to a level of self-acceptance to such an extent that we can stay in touch with ourselves whilst in touch with uncomfortable Others.

As you’ll gather: this challenge and next level is extremely interesting for all citizens in a democratic society.

In democratic societies, difference is the norm, whether we are talking about cultural, religious, sexual or gender diversity.

[Listen to the radio show of 02.08.2019 on NPO1 (in Dutch)]

In preparing for this radio show, I had been reading up on shame through the work of three authors: Viram Verberk, Vera Helleman and Brené Brown. They all have inspirational stuff to say on the matter.

Pride and Shame in the Academic Context

Before we dive into their work, let’s shift our focus towards the academic context. As mentioned, the Medal of Pride and Shame is relevant in our academic contexts.

Just look up your most recent Newsletters from institutes or networks you’re affiliated to. Great chance that there will be some form of communication revolving around… Pride… Awards. Grants. Keynotes. What have you.

So, let’s pause for a minute and really get in touch with this continuum between pride and shame as academics.

So take a deep breath.

And another.

And a final one.

When you think of your last academic encounters and experiences, did you feel: ‘I am okay. You are okay’?

Or… were you in the one that declares itself superior? Did you linger in the inferior position? Or was the situation hopeless: ‘I am not okay, but you certainly aren’t either’?

Verberk, Helleman and Brown

Whatever was triggered, let’s tune in a little with what shame is and how it works. Of course there is lots of literature on the theme. So, let’s get acquainted with at least three different approaches to the theme.

Though Verberk does not address feelings of shame connected to (minority) identities, which is kind of a shame (pun intended đŸ˜‰ ), he does offer a useful distinction between healthy and unhealthy feelings of shame. He approaches shame as something social, caused by unfortunate behavior that calls for repairing the social relationship.

Unhealthy shame could be summarized as a ‘survival performance’. In order to survive, we pretend to feel ashamed and to try and better ourselves in order to remain accepted by the group that we want to belong to.

Healthy feelings of shame are unilaterally connected to behavior, in Verberk’s view. We did something wrong, we caused the Other harm, and we need to acknowledge it, and mend the relationship with the Other. His invitation is to slow down when we are feeling ashamed and ask ourselves: are these healthy or unhealthy feelings of shame?

  • Second, Vera Helleman, who has a background in Integrative Psychotherapy, has interesting stuff to say about shame.

She distinguishes thoughts, feelings and behavior.

We can feel ashamed about thoughts that we feel are weird. We can feel ashamed of feelings that we think are not allowed or acceptable. We can feel ashamed about stuff that we did or did not do and are convinced that was inappropriate.

She underlines how feelings of shame are connected with moral framing and distinguishing between good and bad, worthy and unworthy. This layer in our consciousness is about posing, perpetuating and defending an identity. Feelings of shame tell us what we are telling ourselves about what is not allowed according to ourselves. Helleman emphasizes how what we see and experience in our external reality is – and can’t be anything else than – a projection of our internal reality.

The most important answer to feeling that we are not okay is thus… self-acceptance in her view. Not easily done, she reminds us. For her it’s all about stopping the non-accepting of ourselves. Quite an intriguing and helpful approach if you ask me. Instead of pushing and shoving against feelings of shame, we’ll invite those feelings in, wholeheartedly.

Are you familiar with The Encyclopedia of Emotion by the way? I belief her work is a must-have for academics. Seriously. We can all brush up our skills in emotional vocabulary, and her encyclopedia turns that into something fun and extremely helpful.

She highlights the differences between guilt and shame.

Guilt is connected with behavior in her view: “I made a mistake.” Shame is connected with being in her view: “I am a mistake.”

You can probably sense that this take on the matter resonates with lgbtqi-people struggling with their identities in heteronormative contexts. Brown does not reflect upon this, however. She makes a rather binary distinction between (implicitly: heterosexual and cisgendered) men and women. Though these men and women feel the same feelings, when they are ashamed, the impact of shame on the two genders is rather different in her view. Do watch the inspiring video by clicking on the link above, if you want to find out why. Her advice on dealing with shame: acknowledging and embracing our feelings of vulnerability. I quite agree with her.

So, what about feeling ashamed of being different? Mind you: I do not have the definite answer to this question! I’d be very interested to learn what you think. I just want to ponder a little bit about this topic here.

Helleman and Brown have most to say about the relationship between shame and ‘abject’ identities, identities that are not ‘normal’, outside of the norm, evoking (sometimes even aggressive) response.

So, what about feeling ashamed of yourself for ‘being’ different, and viewed by your surroundings as inappropriately different?

We all need to learn how to relate to difference, and for lgbtqi-people especially it’s kind of urgent to learn to relate to difference from a place called ‘inner seniority’. Hence my plea on air for refocussing upon self-acceptance instead of social acceptance and upon the coming-in process far more than the coming-out process.

Yellow trousers and odd women

From a young age, I have been interested and intrigued by feelings of shame. I grew up in a quite traditional Catholic and large family. Despite the large number of people, there are only a few lgbtqi-people in my generation. There are no lgbtqi-people in the generation of my parents in our family… Almost all married and had multiple children. We’re exceptional in the sense that we have a family song… and maybe because we rent the village hall of Odijk for our annual New Years Inn…

I found out at a young age that I did not fit easily with traditional expectations and roles. As a six- or seven-year-old I fought for the right to wear pants and to have to never wear a skirt again in my life. It took some protesting and some stubborn refusing to wear skirts. In the end, I succeeded.

I received my first Holy Communion wearing beautiful new yellow trousers, a white blouse and a blue vest. Gosh! I was over the moon with those trousers. I felt slightly unnerved by being so visibly different in that ceremony. I also pitied all of the girls in their stupid white dresses.

See my life theme of dealing with positions of inferiority and superiority?

The academic environment and toxic dynamics

Back to the academic context and the relevance of shame as a theme first, and then onto the most common polarities our life themes can revolve around.

If you’re into science, your job is to question the given, to contemplate what people find ‘natural’ and ‘logical’. In Dutch the quintessential question an academic asks, always, is: “Is dat wel zo?” (Is that really the case?)

It is the sphere where authority has no bearing upon the knowledge that we produce and question. It’s about finding the most convincing take on a situation, the most plausible story about a phenomenon and articulating the most convincing argument together.

Okay: this is ideally what the academy revolves around. Point taken.

Our daily academic environments, unfortunately, consist of ‘violent’ newsletters, unnerving conversations during lunch breaks, and alienating staff meetings as well. Toxic dynamics. Profile neurosis. Anxieties.

Your Favorite Polarity

So, as I am getting to know myself on deeper levels, enhancing my skills to really be present here and now, observing whatever enters my internal landscape with heightened skills of loving kindness… – which remains a challenging exercise… – I now acknowledge how one of my favorite polarities to have my hassles with somehow became high versus low, superior versus inferior.

So, whenever there is stress on my system – when I feel pressured, awkward, uncertain, fearful or something else uncomfortable – I tend to either declare myself inferior vis-a-vis the Other or superior vis-a-vis the Other. In the meantime, whenever this happens now in my internal landscape, I know:

Ah! Something is unnerving me. I’m doing it again. I’m looking down/up upon/to someone. Okay. Time to slow down and start being open and curious! Congrats, Anna!

The themes and feelings that keep popping up in your life are asking for your attention, and they offer an opportunity to really develop yourself both personally and professionally. Once you learn to observe your own (self-defeating) dynamics, you’ll enhance your skills to observe those in your students in more subtle ways, enabling yourself to improve your skills in guiding them.

So, what are the polarities that you can get entangled in?

  • power and powerlessness
  • longing and fear
  • longing and betrayal
  • openness and concealment
  • transparency and withholding
  • large and small
  • superior and inferior
  • peace and war
  • staying and going
  • together and separate
  • simplicity and complexity

These are at least a few of the polarities that we can be struggling with primarily, as enlisted by my teachers: trainers/therapists Eline Brinkhof and Eddy Stap at Begeleidingskunde (Professional Guidance).

Which one of these polarities feels most familiar to you? And if your polarity is not in this list… what words rise to the surface now that you’ve seen this list? What is a recurring theme in your life?

Feeling ashamed: a smoke alarm in the academic context

Feelings, in my view, are just smoke alarms. Therefore, we need to welcome them. Ofcourse we all love the wonderful feelings that we experience. We can grow towards welcoming unpleasant feelings with as much enthusiasm as we welcome pleasant feelings with, though. This takes practice. Especially when it comes to shame… Feeling shame is quite literally an intensely painfully experience.

So much so that we can dissociate from it almost on the spot: “It was not that bad,” or “That did not really happen.”

The answer to the question why shame holds such golden data for our personal growth potential is simple.

Pain is, without exception, the clue to your next step in fully developing yourself.

If you can be here and you can be real at the same time, you’ve taken a major step. Raising our awareness to how shame and pride operate in our day-to-day experiences of the academic work environment is very useful if you want to get connected to your highest potential!

So, whenever you catch yourself feeling incredibly ashamed: celebrate your experience as a wonderful opportunity for slowing down, getting in touch with yourself, and really listening empathically to what that smoke alarm has to tell you…

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