Shame, humiliation, failure, etc., etc.

I'm going to be making some performance works about failure, humiliation, shame, awkwardness.

Here are some notes from a discussion I had with some friends about shame. They also kindly supplied me with stories of their own humiliation.

Following those notes are some quotes from an essay I found online about Thomas Scheff's writing about shame. You can read the original here.


Embarrassment often comes about because of a failed attempt to keep things fluid in social situations: not wanting to ask someone to repeat themselves, or pretending you know about something (a band, a film, a mutual friend, etc.) when in fact you don't.

The shame of hearing someone talking about you, or dismissing a creative act. (Here, a friend told me about doing a performance which involved giving people pieces of paper with stories written on them, then later, seeing someone read the story, make a face, screw up the paper and throw it away [I think, over the shoulder - a visibly dismissive action]. From a distance, watching in silence: the person that humiliates you is completely unaware of the act of humiliation.)

Embarrassment is exacerbated by power structures: the awkwardness of having to tell your boss that they have made a mistake.

The shame of someone else being blamed for something you did wrong. Rather than failure/punishment/redemption, the shame here is the very fact that you weren't punished, that you got away with it. Karma, superstition. I guess all this depends on your upbringing. Are you shameful? Do you feel you deserve punishment/humiliation?

The further shame of confessing to someone that doesn't care. Didn't even know that you thought you had done something wrong. "It was me. IT WAS ME!" "What was you?"

Someone taking something as an apology that wasn't meant to be one.

Coincidental embarrassment  - someone meeting with two people and their baby daughter, realising that she had to go just as the mother starts breastfeeding. There is no way to say "I am not embarrassed by your breastfeeding".

(Reminds me of a friend's idea to put up an advert for a fake maths tutor in his local newsagent's window: VERY EFFECTIVE TUTORIALS. NO CRIMINAL CONVICTIONS FOR PHYSICAL OR SEXUAL ABUSE.)

Being shamed and being witnessed. In a performance, does the performer take on the role of the shamed? A public shaming? Are we conduits for shame? Is that why a proud artist is a bad artist? They have lost their magical role.

Laughing out of shock/embarrassment (finding a neighbours dead dog - no way to explain "I wasn't laughing at your dog dying".)

Hitting someone with a car, and then apologising so profusely that the other person begins to feel embarrassed and sorry for you.

The anecdote, the fiction. Trying to control the shame, reconfiguring it to make the teller of the embarrassing anecdote seem like they were in control all along.


Notes from an article called Thomas J. Scheff: When Shame Gets Out of Hand.

Read the article here.

"The virtual self is made up of the idealized expectations that go along with a particular self or identity. The real self is made up from the individual’s actual behaviors. Embarrassment is an interactional device that keeps these two selves from getting too far apart"

"Embarrassment works among people, shame works within people"

"[...] pride and shame are the most basic and powerful of all social emotions"

"Pride and shame are intense emotions, because they guard the social bond"

"Typically, the football player doesn't shrug his shoulders after dropping the ball. He may hang his head or shake his fist in a downward movement, indicating shame and one of its companion emotions, anger. Or, he may do nothing at all—shame is often unacknowledged."

"[...] the shame was never named. When feelings were named, they were called low self-esteem, feeling foolish, stupid, inadequate, awkward, exposed, vulnerable, and so forth; but they were never called shame."

"Bypassed shame appears to be directly experienced as shame yet it is avoided. With undifferentiated shame, the mind seems to slow down, burdened under the inability to identify the emotion. With bypassed shame, the mind seems to be working hard at keeping away from the issue. Patients experiencing this type of shame became obsessive. Their talk sped up and they endlessly repeated a story or series of stories. These patients were intellectually active but unable to make decisions or resolve issues."

"Adults are virtually always in a state of either pride or shame, usually of a quite unostentatious kind."

"We can thus experience pride repeatedly, but pride doesn’t act back on itself: we usually aren’t proud because we experience pride. Even saying “I’m proud of my pride” sounds intuitively odd. We can, however, experience additional shame because we feel shame: 'My shame shames me.'"

"[...] shame and anger cycle back and forth mutually reinforcing one another."

"These repeating loops can potentially take place within three locales or levels: within a person, between two people (embarrassment is contagious), or a combination of both."

"[...] embarrassment is the outward and shame the inward expression of a broken social bond."

"Laughter is directly related to shame in the moment."