“Silence is golden.”
-A proverbial saying, often used in circumstances where it is thought that saying nothing is preferable to speaking.
“It is the false shame of fools to try to conceal wounds that have not been healed.”
-Quintus Horatius Fiaccus, Roman Poet
“Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It is the fear that we’re not good enough.”
-Brene Brown, Scholar
“When you go through a traumatic event, there’s a lot of shame that comes that comes with that. A lot of loss of self-esteem. That can become debilitating.”
-Willie Aames, Actor & Screenwriter
Dear Dr. Kane:
I am a 54 year-old African-American male. I have a good corporate job, I am married with two kids, one beginning college and one left in high school. I have a lot to be thankful for. However, I have been carrying a lot of mental baggage that I just can’t seem to get rid of.
My father was a career military officer who wanted me to follow in his footsteps. As a child, I was sent to a military academy to complete my high school studies and thus prepare to attend college and seek military service.
My time in school was traumatic. I was taunted by white students about slavery, and I was constantly on the receiving end of other racist comments and practices which were ignored by the teachers and administration. My parents were of no help. They couldn’t hear my pleas over their constant boasting to their friends about me attending a prestigious high school.
I attempted suicide when it became too much for me to handle. The school covered it up, sending me home and terminating my placement, stating that I was not a good fit for the school. My father never mentioned one word about the incident to me. My parents and extended family treated the incident as if it never happened.
Every day, however, when I looked into his eyes, I could see the shame he carried because of my failure. My father has since been dead for 8 years and yet, the shame in me remains as strong as ever. I simply cannot go on like this.
I have isolated myself of late. I have distanced myself from my wife and sons. I now sit in front of the television drinking the pain away, but it always returns. This is not living.
Please tell me how I can conquer the shame that is within me.
Desperate in Seattle
My Dear Readers,
I am often lauded when I write about the negative impact of racism, oppression and discrimination upon African-Americans. Others cringe when I shine the light on the psychological injuries we inflict upon ourselves. Our silence is one of the most damaging of those psychological injuries.
White blindness may be the societal disease that severely disables and impacts transformation for the dominant culture, but we can see the same impact of silence on our own African-American communities. It is in our silence that we show that we are willing to sacrifice the health of our most viable resource, the self.
We as African-Americans have made numerous contributions and achievements to this country in the 400 years since the first slaves arrived on a Portuguese slave ship from Angola at Jamestown in 1619, and yet, we are a shame-based people. Shame can be defined as the following:
- A painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace (e.g. felt shame for having dropped out of school)
- An act that brings dishonor, or dishonor, disgrace, or public condemnation (e.g. brought shame on the whole family)
- An object of great disappointment
- A regrettable or unfortunate situation (e.g. being born into poverty)
“Healthy shame is an emotion that teaches us about our limit. Like all emotions, shame moves us to get our basic needs met.”
-John Bradshaw, Educator, Motivational Speaker
This is wrong. There is nothing healthy about shame, particularly in the way that it impacts African-Americans in this country.
Shame is mired in humiliation, and humiliation is defined as the infliction of a profoundly violent psychological act that leaves a deep, long lasting wound within the psychological self.
The painful experiences of humiliation are vividly remembered for a long time. This includes:
- The enforced lowering of a person or group, a process of subjugation that either damages or strips away a person’s pride, honor or dignity.
- A state of being placed, against one’s will, in a situation where one is made to feel inferior.
- A process in which the victim is forced into passivity, acted upon, or made to feel helpless.
The concept of “healthy shame” as a mechanism to “get our basic needs met” fails to account for the humiliation that accompanies shame. This concept effectively punishes African-Americans repeatedly by psychologically reinforcing the maintenance of life at the level of survival and in doing so, prevents and/or restricts the individual’s or the community’s collective movement towards self-empowerment or self-actualization.
As African-Americans are a shame-based people, mired in humiliation and impacted by 13 different subtypes of cumulative complex traumas on a daily basis, it behooves us to understand how humiliation differs from shame:
- Humiliation is public, whereas shame is private.
- Humiliation is the suffering of an insult. If the person being humiliated deems the insult to be credible, then he will feel shame.
- One can insult and humiliate another, but that person will feel shame if his/her self-image is reduced. Such actions requires the person who is being humiliated to “buy in” that is, agree with the assessment that shame is deserved.
- A person who is secured about their own stature is less likely to be vulnerable, to feeling shame, whereas the insecure person is more prone to feeling shame because this individual gives more weight to what others think of him than to what he thinks of himself.
The writer seeks assistance from me to “conquer the shame that is within.” I will not assist him in this endeavor. My clinical orientation is based on self-psychology and healing the wounds that lie within the psychological self. My ethical belief is “to do no harm.” I will not be a tool to either conquer shame or cause further psychological wounding to this dear man.
Furthermore, despite repeated or desperate attempts, he will not succeed in eradicating the shame he has carried for 40 years. This shame, which is mired in humiliation, is supported by cumulative complex traumas including micro-aggression, invisibility syndrome and race-based trauma. Complex trauma is a permanent fixture within the psychological self. It will never, ever go away.
At this point, the writer is struggling with the traumatic memory of the devastating experience he endured, but survived. He was shamed and humiliated, and then, endured the silence of his family. In order to progress, he must seek to honor his survival.
He can achieve this by embracing his shame and humiliation. He must seek to embrace his experience of emotional and psychological duress. To do this, he must accept that this happened to him, that it has had the impact that it has had in his life, and that he still is acceptable and worthy of his life despite it. Once he does this, instead of bearing the weight as a burden, he can learn to carry and balance the weight as a part of himself. As he begins and continues to succeed at this, the weight of those experiences will become lighter and the psychological self will become calmer.
“Slavery is something that is, all too often, swept under the carpet. The shame doesn’t even belong to us but we still experience it because we’re a part of the African race. If it happened to one, it happened to all. We carry that burden.”
-Lupita Nyong’o Actress & Filmmaker, Academy Award Winner 2014 “12 Years A Slave.”
True or False: African-Americans are responsible for their pain and suffering created from 400 years of slavery, segregation, domestic terrorism and racial profiling and the resulting emotional and psychological duress responding due to complex trauma?
Believe it or not, this is true. The mistake that is repeatedly made is to confuse or integrate the concept of blame within the concept of responsibility. It is ludicrous and serves no legitimate purpose to engage in re-victimizing behaviors by blaming African-Americans for the emotional and psychological damage done to them in the fulfillment of the dominant group’s agenda. However, the first steps that are necessary to respond to the emotional and psychological duress is to end black silence by:
- Acknowledging the existence of the emotional and psychological duress
- Accepting responsibility for carrying the emotional and psychological duress
- Viewing the emotional and psychological duress for what it is: pain and suffering.
- Understanding the consequences of pain and suffering; it impacts both the physical body and the psychological well-being of the individual
- Finally taking action; seek mental health wellness through psychotherapy or other forms of mental health treatment
“The African-American community consists of two parts: those who choose to remain uninformed, maintaining their silence by living in denial, and the others who seek knowledge, awareness and when necessary, mental health treatment in the pursuit of mental health wellness.”
-Dr. Micheal Kane
“The Black skin is not a badge of shame, but rather a glorious symbol of national greatness.”
Until the next crossroads…the journey continues..