Shame: like Justin Beiber on the Panflute

Shame is the background music in a lot of people’s lives.

Like that little bit of Justin Beiber played on the pan-flute that you barely even notice playing in the grocery store, it’s just there – lurking. You wonder why you’re irritated until you realize it’s the subliminal muzak in the background, impacting you without even being aware of it. Sometimes our feelings of shame function in a similar fashion: we find ourselves shrinking, or wanting to be invisible without really recognizing that it’s shame operating in the background.

Fun Fact: Muzak, is more than just a genre of crappy canned music. It’s also the name of a company that has been pumping music over wires into the elevators, retail stores, and public spaces of our lives since the 1930’s. In some workplaces, including the White House during the Eisenhower presidency, muzak was used according to a plan called “stimulus progression” in which the pace and instrumentation were altered in 15-minute increments with the aim of increasing worker productivity. Whether this kind of subliminal input has a positive effect is debatable, and listening to tapes while asleep probably won’t make you fluent in Mandarin. But if a simple message is repeated over and over, and you’re already prone to believe it, there’s evidence to suggest it may have an impact. I’m starting to think that one way that shame shapes our perceptions, thoughts, and beliefs, is like a kind of personal muzak that quietly torments us.

I suspect that kind of song shame plays quietly in our minds does as much harm as the more obvious and loud versions, precisely because it goes unrecognized.

From what I’ve observed, shame’s repertoire is limited. It has only a few variations on the same theme over and over. “There’s something wrong with you” is the essentially the lyrics it chants over again in the verse. Sometimes it has a little more flourish: “You’re defective,” or “You’re unloveable,” or “You’re terrible.”

Often there’s an insinuation that your particular brand of ugliness is somehow unique. As in, “you’re the only person that’s this f—-ed up. Other’s may have their flaws, but yours are particularly gross.“

The chorus of the shame song is unmistakable and repetitive. It’s always something pretty close to: “and you must hide it.”

shame1Altogether now:

You’re bad.
Worse than other people.
And you must hide it.

You’ve heard this song, haven’t you? The insidiousness of muzak so often is that it plays songs we know, but performed on a different instrument and in a different style, so that we don’t readily recognize it. So you may subconsciously be feeling your shame, without recognizing its song. The song that shame sings about you is compelling. It feels so true that you probably wouldn’t even question it if you even noticed it in the first place. You’re so entirely accustomed to feeling embarrassed of your body, your failure to meet expectations, or all the ways you’re not “enough,” that it happens many times subliminally.

If any of this resonates with you, it’s important that you know this:

You are not alone in your shame. The rest of us have our own private shame muzak playing along telling us similar lies and making us feel small. We’re hiding it, just like you.

The secretive nature of shame is likely an evolutionary adaptation that developed in our ancient forbearers to protect their social bonds with the tribe. Until recently humans lived in groups of families and counted on this arrangement for their survival. Food, water, shelter, and protection from predators, were at the center of human life for almost all of our history. We’ve always depended on the bonds we had with others to stay alive. Shame has helped us keep our weaknesses, our failures, and our violations of the rules and social norms hidden, by giving us a strong emotional kick in the pants. “Don’t let other people see your flaws; they might leave you behind or make you the bait in the bear trap.”

A minor digression…

Illness, in particular, has elicited shame throughout history, in part because we fear transmission or contagion. Being sick may evoke caring responses from other people, but it may also result in being shunned and abandoned to avoid passing the illness to other members of the tribe – so there’s a risk involved that shame has been trying to mitigate for thousands of years. I’m not remotely justifying the stigmatization of mental illness (or any disease), I’m just pointing out that our reactions run much deeper than a mere lack of societal awareness.

Now all of this may sound like ancient history, but the neural networks of our brains that became proficient at using shame to hide our perceived deficiencies are still working overtime even though so much has changed around us. And the message (the shame song) remains essentially the same: “Try to keep it a secret that you’re an inferior member of the tribe. Try not to let anybody notice that you’re unfit, weak, weird, deviant, mentally deficient, ill, or some type of net loss for the group”. And if anybody posts it on Facebook or Instagram – you’re toast.

Sheer transparency with everyone around us is a bad idea. Vulnerability can be useful, but we have to be judicious with whom and in what ways we allow ourselves to been “fully seen,” warts and all. Shame is still valuable. Ask anyone who’s said or done things they regret when they’re drunk, and they’ll tell you that disabling your shame mechanisms with alcohol can cause real damage.

But shame can also be truly problematic at the same time. It deceives us that we will be unloveable if we let anyone know about our struggles and flaws. In reality, appropriate disclosure of the qualities that feel shameful can actually help bring us closer and strengthen bonds with other people.  By providing an emotional incentive to hide any sign of failure or weakness, shame detaches us from the very people who can support and help us. It distances us in relationships. It causes us to take fewer risks and play it too safe. It keeps us stuck in our troubles, and insulated from things that could help us. Like self-imposed blindness, shame keeps us in the dark, even if we’re surrounded by people with flashlights.


A crucial step in working our way through shame is the ability to recognize the feeling, and the hiding or shrinking that comes with it. That’s why the muzak version of shame is so tricky. If we don’t notice it’s there, or if we don’t pay attention to it and call it out for what it is, we’re likely to get stuck in chronic patterns of covering up and believing what shame tells us.

It’s the equivalent of actually listening to the music they play when you’re on hold and waiting for the next available customer service representative. Listening to the song and naming it.

“Was that U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday played on the saxophone?”

Do I wear that coat everywhere to hide the curves and bulges I hate about my body?

 “Did they really just play Usher on the harmonica?”

Do I appear overconfident in social settings because I’m covering how ashamed I am of my job or my education?

Do I avoid family get-togethers because I still feel like I don’t measure up?

Name it. Even if you begin by saying it in your head or writing it down, it’s a good start, because at least you’re not hiding it from yourself. Then find someone trustworthy to talk with about your shame. Remember that others hear some of the same distorted accusations in their heads too.

Try singing the shame song out-loud. The power of its lies are made weaker when we engage, and even make fun of it.

So if you’re riding to the 77th floor in an elevator and a clarinet is playing covers of Bob Marley’s greatest hits, try singing along, maybe even put in the words. If the shame song is playing in your head tonight, talk it out, sing it out, or write it out. And if you have the good fortune of being around someone who has your best interest at heart, tell them about it.

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