“Being publicly separated from your truth is one of the classic triggers of anxiety, depression and self-loathing. And the greater the distance between the you people want you to be and the you you actually are, the greater will be your anxiety, depression, sense of failure, and shame.”
~ Monica Lewinsky
In a recent TED Talks, Monica Lewinsky spoke as the first and arguably most famous victim of cyber-bullying. In it, she masterfully articulated the crushing weight of shame.
For those unaware of her story—being a millennial or currently reading this via satellite connection in some tropical jungle on the fringe of civilization, where you’ve spent the past two decades—I will provide a brief overview.
In the late 1990s, Lewinsky was an intern under then President Bill Clinton. The two had an affair that ignited a scandal of epic proportions. Lewinsky has been an object of scorn ever since—an object, not an inherently imperfect human being, who committed a hurtful, but common indiscretion.
I was 16 at the time the media storm encircled them, just another sarcastic voice in the pitchfork mob. You might expect that from an adolescent, i.e., laughing along with the rest at the expense of others (which may be the crux of the issue). But even in recent years, her name would elicit feelings of contempt. The recent experiences in my own life have changed my perspective on the judgment of others forever.
I had an affair. I broke the heart of an extraordinary person I loved, by choosing to act on the love of another extraordinary person. I fell into that old cliché with the wide eyes of a blind poet chasing a muse into an abyss he could not recognize. I failed everyone in the world that was dear to me, from the incredible woman that bore my child and walked with me through 13 years of life, to our son, our families and my partner in this, whose heart I devastated with my own.
It was fast, a matter of weeks from start to finish. When the fog lifted enough to reveal the horrors of the path I was committing myself and my loved ones to walk, I swallowed my feelings, ended the affair and embarked on a path of introspection and redemption that would deconstruct and rebuild me many times over. I was met with a myriad of emotions, from compassion to anger, confusion, pain and palpable disappointment—but it was shame that devoured me from within.
Adultery and deception—our stories share these elements. But unlike mine, Lewinsky’s offense was witnessed by every goddamn person in the free world. Her understanding of shame is beyond that of all but an unfortunate few. Lives are broken by shame, ruined and even ended.
Shame is the ultimate, emotionally-destructive force. It is constrictive; a wet blanket that gets heavier with each anxious breath. It is a fog that encircles you, clouding your judgment and choking your lungs with its dense, heavy vapor. It is a self-perpetuating nightmare, fueled by fear and self-loathing. Is that enough metaphors? It is all of these things and more. Simply put, shame is your consciousness turned against you, a natural reflex for emotional self-preservation gone insane.
Shame has been my constant companion (and personal tormentor). Much of the time it was like a splinter in my hand; it only hurt when something brushed against it. But then, it would come in these terrible waves that washed over me, a flood of anxiety and remorse that carried off whatever hope and strength I had managed to muster in its powerful undertow.
Shame of this magnitude changes you; it takes something from you that you can never get back. What that is, I am still not entirely sure…innocence, perhaps. But my shame was nothing compared to that which Lewinsky suffered. See what I did there? I compared my suffering to another’s to humble myself further. It is natural for many to reach for gratitude even at their lowest, because no matter how shitty your situation, it can always be worse. Don’t fall into this trap.
There is all manner of suffering in this world, from a stubbed toe to genocide; the existence of the latter does not make the former any less real for the person who just kicked a chair. They have the right to own their discomfort. Humility is something we should all strive for in our daily lives, but the need to cast a “healthier” perspective onto someone’s suffering tends to just invalidate it, often fueling their shame further. There will always be a person, somewhere in the world, whose situation is exponentially worse than yours; but suffering is suffering—one person’s experience doesn’t diminish another’s.
“If I drowned in 60 feet of water and you drowned in 30 feet of water, is there really a difference? We both drowned.”
~ Monica Lewinsky
Lewinsky spoke out against cyber-bullying, but she is a victim of something simpler and far older: public shaming. We all experience it. The “compassion deficit” and “empathy crisis” that she described is not limited to the internet. We are compelled to punish and judge, without empathy, individuals who make poor decisions or fall short of our own expectations; we even do this to ourselves. In cases as visible as the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, we punish them forever. Their names become synonymous with scandal; they become symbols and cease to be people deserving of empathy.
Lewinsky is just a person, no better or worse than you or I…or our moms, for that matter (which is saying something, because my mom is amazing). In fact, she has shown remarkable character by using her experience to educate others. Most of us hide our indiscretions. If you have never done something you truly regret and felt true remorse and shame, then kudos, because you are doing something right (or you might be a sociopath); but it might be hard for you, however honest and thoughtful you may be, to comprehend how easy it is to hide. Any person, who chooses to transparently face their faults, rather than lock them away, deserves respect. A 24 year-old Lewinsky wasn’t given a choice, but she could have changed her name and tried to slip into obscurity. Instead, she is using the platform that we thrust upon her to do something positive.
She found the solutions: face your shame, own your story, and find a way to channel your energy into something positive. You can choose to be a tragic symbol or a positive force in the world. Never in my lifetime, did I think this would be my story. I have never been unfaithful before and I loved my wife and our family completely. But it happened; I made these choices and every day I face the consequences. Every day, I remind myself that I am more than the weight of this mistake. I look forward to the day I don’t feel the need to remind myself anymore. It is very hard to accept what I have done, even now.
So much of our shame comes from some external notion of what is good and right, or what is expected. This is only made worse by labels (which I am convinced is a contraction of lazy-bull). People use words like slut, cheater and home-wrecker as a way to brand a single opinion onto a person, so others can adopt that opinion without expending the effort of forming their own. Labels are lies. They are cheap, adhesive nametags that reveal more about the person using them than the ones they describe.
Don’t accept an oversimplification of your experience (or your mistakes). Life is ugly and beautiful; hopeful and terrifying; long and remarkably brief; rewarding and taxing; and so many incredible contradictions in a single package that is solely yours to unpack. There is no standard that applies to us all. Go ahead—take off your shoes and pass them around a crowded room; how many people do you think could comfortably wear them? Whatever the answer, it is much harder to find a good fit, when you are trying on other lives.
“I have said that behind Sorrow there is always Sorrow. It were still wiser to say that behind sorrow there is always a soul. And to mock at a soul in pain is a dreadful thing.”
~ Oscar Wilde, De Profundis (penned during imprisonment for gross indecency)
So, go easy on the people that fall short of your expectations or their own, especially when they are struggling to make amends. In situations such as ours, there are no winners. Everybody suffers, including us. Through this experience, I have learned that some people need to suffer in order to learn and grow, but nobody needs the spite of onlookers. Be kind. You can show compassion for the plight of another human being without condoning their choices. And be kind to yourselves. We are all human, we are all flawed and we are all beautiful; we are all just trying to feel our way through the treacherous terrain of life. So, please don’t make it any harder on yourself or others.
Author: Matt K.
Editor: Travis May