shame and suicide

In Aotearoa New Zealand, the recent loss of loved television presenter Greg Boyed has raised again the topic of depression and suicide.  Aotearoa, the “land of the long white cloud” has high suicide rates, particularly for teens aged 15-19, where it is the highest.  Too many of us have loved ones that have brought this issue directly into our lives.  It is an urgent topic and healthy and honest thinking is therefore urgently needed.

I don’t think there is one single emotion or social dynamic at work behind suicide.  A unifying theme however, is quite simply the feeling – which can swell up fiercely and quickly – of wanting to be free of whatever toxic cocktail of pain one is facing.  I want to focus here on one type of pain, the pain of shame.

Many who take their own lives will have been overcome by shame.  Whether the shame is connected to past or recent behaviour or a sense of not measuring up personally to a perceived standard of personal worth, the sad reality is that too many people respond to shame by isolating and withdrawing from others.  Tragically, suicidal feelings themselves may be accompanied by shame, thus making it even harder to seek help and community.

I’ve been thinking about shame recently.  In summary, I think it is often treated simplistically.  Shame = bad.  I get the logic behind this.  But could it be that shame (and pain in general) is simply an unavoidable part of navigating life?  I’d even go so far as to say that there are times where we want people to feel shame for what they have done.  Just as healthy guilt (as opposed to unhealthy guilt) helps us recognize in our minds that we need to take responsibility for our actions, so also helpful shame (as opposed to harmful shame) happens when we not only think about the wrong we’ve done, but actually feel remorseful about it.  Healthy guilt plus empathy equals helpful shame.

What on earth does this have to do with suicide?  Well, I guess I’m wondering if one way to reduce unhelpful shame related to suicide and depression is to recognize and appreciate the role that shame can have as a normal, everyday and even healthy emotion.  This, I think, is what is intended by the slogan “It’s OK to not be OK.”  If there is no such thing as being “not OK”, if everything and everyone is expected to be in a constant state of “everything is awesome” then there is no more shame-inducing thing than the everyday reality of not feeling OK.

If we can reclaim that it is OK to feel shame, then maybe a few more people will feel less ashamed of their shame, their guilt, their suicidal feelings, and will maybe, just maybe, take steps toward, rather than away from, the help, support, and community that we all need.

varieties of shame

Following on from the last post, I’ve been thinking more about possibly helpful – or at least unavoidable – forms of shame.

First, I want to acknowledge just how unhelpful some forms of shame can be.  I think shame is most unhelpful when it focuses on the person and not the behaviour.  “You should be ashamed of yourself…” “Shame on you!” “I hope you’re ashamed…”  All of these focus the shame on the person.

Behind these statements is probably some kind of distorted sense of protective fear that wants the person to see what they’ve done, to take responsibility for it, and to change.  But the problem with focusing the shame on the person is that it actually does the opposite.  It takes their focus off of their behaviour and onto themselves as being shameful.  They feel labelled, categorized, tagged-and-bagged as ‘bad’.  This make a person feel trapped in this ‘bad’ state, and can make them feel like ‘bad’ people are simply bound to keep doing ‘bad’ things.

Let me quickly say that I don’t think the opposite is helpful either.  To say with glee simplicity: “It’s OK, you are awesome!”  Such popular positivism is well-meaning, and probably intends on letting kindness make a space for people to be their own guide and learn in their own time.  However, it can also have the opposite effect.  I don’t think any of us can truly or completely silence our conscience which reminds us that we are not perfect.  Overly-positive commentary from others, whilst well-meaning, can actually end up reminding us of our negatives.

The goal is the acceptance of our behaviour and taking responsibility for it.  And some forms of shame may just be helpful, necessary or unavoidable for this.

I am happy to be shown otherwise, but maybe it is helpful for us to feel some kind of shame when we have done something wrong.  And I am distinguishing shame from guilt.  Guilt is, I think, a logical admission, a verdict, in our minds that we did something.  Shame, in this sense, makes our admission a felt reality, an experience, in our hearts.

But now… what about shame that is sourced not in our own judgment of our own behaviour, but shame that is sourced in the judgment of others, our family, our church, our city, our society?  Can that ever be helpful or healthy?  I am daring to suggest it can.

One possibly helpful example is an anti-smoking campaign in Aotearoa-New Zealand: “smoking: not our future”.  This, it seems to me, is a movement that attempts to use shame in a helpful way.  Rather than pointing the finger, negatively, at people who smoke, it signals the future, positively, at a society which smokes less.   In principle, at least, it should be a good thing to promote good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour.  Some forms of shame seem to be unavoidable for this, right?

How does this basic dynamic become unhelpful or even harmful?  I reckon it happens when people use shame in ways that are a) disproportionate to the behaviour, b) self-righteous, c) impatient or d) forceful.  In principle, even putting someone in prison can be done in ways that are a) appropriate for the crime, b) humble, c) measured and d) gentle.

So much moral discourse in our culture seems to assume that the way to help people avoid depression and self-harm is to avoid anything that makes people feel shame.  I wonder if some of our overly-positive language serves to trap people in their own prison of self-judgment?

What if we accepted that sometimes people feel shame for good reasons, such as to come to a place of surrender and acknowledgement and taking responsibility?  Our role is to empathise with one another in our mutually-experienced guilt and shame.  We all get it wrong all the time about all kinds of things.  It doesn’t have to be a morality contest… It can just be life.

Shame doesn’t have to be linked to self-hatred and self-harm.  Shame can be re-claimed in a context of self-care and self-honesty.

If shame is such a wrong thing to feel, then it only makes us feel even worse when we feel ashamed.  But if shame is a normal part of human living and learning, then maybe we are strangely enabled to not stay trapped in our shame, but to work through it to acceptance and change.

Theologically speaking, the Gospel of Grace doesn’t imply that we are ‘basically good’ people who have never done anything shameful.  Rather, it is precisely because we have done those things, and (hopefully) have a healthy sense of regret, guilt and shame about them, that the Gospel of Grace is such good news.