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Dealing with Shame


There’s shame and then there’s shame. Sometimes it’s okay and a good thing, sometimes not.

We have to deal with it, one way or the other.

Every one of us with a conscience has had the experience of feeling shame over bad behavior. We’ve done something totally inappropriate, or hurt someone else, or failed to do something we should have done, and we feel ashamed of ourselves. This can be quite healthy if – and this is a big if – it leads us to make amends and behave better.

If we simply wallow in the shame and continue to screw up, it can be drastically unhealthy.

And that leads me to another kind of shame – the unmerited, unhealthy kind of shame foisted on us by others or by circumstance. It can eat a person alive, and actually lead to bad behavior.

I just read a fascinating book, The Velvet Rage, by Alan Downs, Ph.D. In it he posits that all gay men are shamed – not only by the society we grow up in, but first and foremost by the simple fact of being different, no matter how accepting our parents and peers may be.

He contends that this fundamental sense of shame compounded by the shame of rejection, or perceived rejection, from the world around us is what leads to many of the unhealthy behaviors stereotypical of gay men – emotional extremes, inability or unwillingness to form long-lasting relationships, obsessive focus on physical appearance – you know the drill. This kind of shame can trigger bad behavior which can lead to more shame, and therefore to more bad behavior. It’s a cycle that can take over a life.

I don’t know that I agree 100% with Downs’ thesis and I can only speak for myself here, but I do know the shame of being different. It’s characteristic of every gay person I’ve ever talked to about his or her childhood. We all knew there was something different about us from our earliest awareness of self. We react to this in different ways, but in many of us it leads to shame – shame we can’t understand, or even recognize as such.

This was certainly true of me. And it was crippling, not only in matters of love and sex, but in all sorts of other human relationships – work, friendship, you name it. The sense of shame that pervaded my life colored and harmed everything I did or attempted to do. I felt unworthy of anything good happening to me, and at a very deep level, I was angry about it.

This kind of embedded shame isn’t the sort of thing you can just wish away. For me, and I think this would be true for most people, it required time and hard work in therapy to finally get free and accept myself. But recognizing it is a very important first step.

If  you haven’t been through therapy, I recommend reading The Velvet Rage. It may help you see yourself more clearly, and begin the process of freeing yourself from the straightjacket of shame. In the final chapter, Downs gives ten practical suggestions for overcoming shame-base behaviors. Practicing these alone will help you.

And if you have been through therapy, a little review never hurts. Despite all the progress I’ve made over the last six-plus years, reading this book was almost like holding a mirror up to myself, and shining light into corners I hadn’t looked into very deeply before. A good thing.

Regardless of who you are and where you are along the path, shame is something to look for and deal with before it does any more damage than it already has. I still wrestle with it, and likely will until my dying day.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Margaret Ellis permalink
    08/27/2012 7:09 AM

    I will read this book. As always, good writing, David.

    • 08/27/2012 9:00 AM


  2. dolphin permalink
    08/27/2012 8:55 AM

    I read an article recently where the author made the distinction you are making in your opening, but I really like that she made the distinction by using the words “guilt” and “shame.” Guilt being the healthy option, shame being the dangerous. The reason I think it’s such a great way to make the distinction is because it feels truer to the words themselves. For instance, it’s common to hear “I am guilty of X” and “I am ashamed of myself;” But far less common to hear “I’m guilty of being me” and “I’m ashamed of doing X.” Guilt says “I did something bad” while shame says, “I did something because I am bad.”

    • 08/27/2012 9:01 AM

      That’s a very good point. Thanks.

  3. 09/12/2012 10:30 AM

    This sounds like a great book to follow up on. I will read it when I have the chance to…back in middle school I went through a lot of changes and had a very hard time due to the fact that I was not accepted by everyone (save for three). Now that I have a good idea of who I am, I started helping out my close friend with her confusion and the shame she feels because she has to hide her bisexuality. I hope this book will help both of us with this ordeal.

    Your companion,

    • 09/15/2012 5:03 PM

      Thanks for your commment, and sorry for taking so long with the reply. I was on vacation and off the grid this past week. Hoping you find the book enlightening helpful – maybe to your friend as well as yourself.

      Best – DP

      • 09/17/2012 10:03 AM

        ah, don’t worry about that. I’m glad you replied and I will get around to reading it 🙂

  4. ryan lundvall permalink
    01/30/2014 10:53 PM

    Every time I am with a man I enjoy it but then I go into shame and then denial. I think I was born straight but am turning gay. How do I come to terms? and love a man without hating myself?

    • 01/31/2014 11:45 AM

      Loving yourself – just the way you are – is key to dealing with unmerited shame. Therapy helps a great deal in this regard.

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