Sunday, March 25, 2018

Overcoming Shame

This week our least favorite advice columnist Ask Polly outdoes herself. Apparently, she read the wrong book about shame and now thinks that she knows something about it. She does not.

She is not wrong to say that the letter writer’s issue is shame, but she gives the woman exactly the wrong advice. In Polly’s defense, most of our psycho professionals would give the same advice. Thus, she is conforming to the conventional stupidity, so you cannot fault her too much.

Without further ado, here is the letter. It is interesting because it gives us very little sense of what is wrong:

Having no childhood or college friends is a special kind of loneliness.

I just turned 30, and I’ve created a pretty incredible life for myself. I have a partner I love, a great job, and I’ve been making a lot of rewarding new friendships over the past few years. The problem is that I don’t have really close childhood friends. Or even college friends. I don’t have that bestfriend who’s been around for years or decades, and this bothers me more than I think it should.

The oldest friends I have pretty much all date back to the job I had after college. From childhood through college, I was going through a lot and struggling to find myself. I realize now that I had major anger and insecurity issues. I’ve been able to work most of them out since then, but in the process I grew apart from the people I was closest to when I was growing up. (This is largely because I was trying to be someone I’m not for many of those years. Coming into myself meant realizing we weren’t all that compatible.) In college I met a best friend who I truly thought was my platonic soul mate, but we fell out a few years ago. It wasn’t my choice to no longer be friends, but she sent signals that it was hers, so I respected that decision.

As happy as I am in life, I feel lonely without having an absolute best friend who remembers all the random people I’ve dated, who I pulled all nighters with in college, who I go on trips with every year. It’s not that I don’t have friends who date back that far — I do have some, but they’re not the BEST friends I feel like I’m supposed to have had for decades.

I also feel jealous because my friends who are getting married have maids of honor who they’ve been friends with since kindergarten. I worry I either won’t be important enough to make it into their bridal parties or that my bridal party will look weird with so many “recent” friends and not enough long-term ones. I generally feel like new friends really like me, but I’ll never compare to the friends who have been with them through it all. I keep telling myself not to expect to have a BEST friend ever again. Still, it’s hard to feel okay with having a bunch of great friends but no best friend who’s been there from the days I was learning how to use makeup, or who hopped around college bars with me years ago.

I’d really love some reassurance — or some tough love.

A Special Kind of Loneliness

To which Polly says that the woman is being crippled by her feelings of shame. In that, she is right. And yet, when she goes off on an extended rant against shame, she exposes the fact that there are different ways to overcome and avoid shame. Those who rant against shame are suggesting that we should all become shameless. It’s the wrong way. Harvey Weinstein and Louis CK felt no shame. Adults who tell people not to feel ashamed are encouraging children to sext images of their private parts to whomever.

As it happens, Polly has seized on one aspect of this woman’s problem, the way other people treat her. This woman feels like an outcast, a reject, a pariah. Perhaps other people have mistreated her in the past. We might imagine that since she has felt rejected in the past she feels unworthy of long term human friendships. She has lots of friends now, but she is afraid that people will discover that she did not have any friends from childhood and hold it against her.

She thinks it’s a problem. It may or may not be a problem. We really do not know enough about her to know what happened, why it happened, and where she comes from. She says nothing about family ties or about her birth community. We do not know whether her father was an embezzler or whether she grew up in a toxic cultural environment. The fact that she has not clung to her childhood friends might mean that they were useless and worthless… thus that she did well, in growing up, to toss them aside.

For all I know, she is suffering the results of social mobility. If she has discarded useless friends from her past she cannot as easily discard her family. Perhaps she fears the way her new friends will react upon meeting her family at her wedding. Again, for all we know, she might have good reason to feel that they will embarrass her. It's not as though it has never happened.

She could solve this by eloping to Las Vegas. If she excludes her family because they are peasants, she will have to explain the slight. Thus, it’s not an easy issue, but one trusts that Miss Manners will be able to show her how to finesse the issue.

One also suspects that the letter writer has landed in a culture that feels slightly alien to her. Perhaps the issue is not having friends who taught her how to put on makeup, but not having grown up practicing the social codes of her new community. If everyone around her obeys the rules naturally, she might be struggling awkwardly because it is all relatively new for her.

She fears that she will make a faux pas, exposing her familial or community roots, showing that she does not belong. Perhaps she is exaggerating, but since we know nothing about her past or her present cultural environment we cannot sensibly say.

Anyway, the solution lies in hard work to learn the new customs, to become a member of her new community. She should not take Polly's mindless advice and think that she has no reason to feel embarrassed. Her feelings of embarrassment are telling her something. If Polly refuses to listen, the letter writer should reject Polly's advice.

If she takes Polly’s mindless advice to heart, she will probably decide that she ought not to adopt the new customs, but should keep doing as she did when she was growing up. Then, she would consign herself to social oblivion. If people recognize that your new table manners are not natural to you, it means that you need to work harder on developing them… until they become second nature. Trust me, it can be done. 

I recall a text by George Friedman, from his Geopolitical Futures blog. In it he explained how, upon courting and marrying a woman from Australia, he was obliged to learn an entirely new set of table manners:

I married a woman born in Australia, of that class that emulated English culture. Loving her as I did, I did not understand the British obsession with table manners. For her, eating a bowl of soup was a work of art, a complex of motions difficult for me to master, and to me incomprehensible in purpose. From the beginning of our love, dinner became for me an exercise of obscure rules governing the movement of food to my mouth. It was a time when conversation was carefully hedged by taboos and obligations. Some things were not discussed at dinner.

The rules of high Australian society did not resemble those practiced in the Bronx, where Friedman grew up:

I grew up in the Bronx, a place of fragmented cultures, of immigrants under severe and deforming pressure. There were many cultures – few any longer authentic, all in some way at odds with each other. Meredith’s table was a place of restraint. Mine was a place of combat. The hidden message about food was to eat as much as you can as quickly as you can, because who could really know when you would eat again? The table was a place of intellectual and emotional combat, where grievances were revealed, ideas were challenged and the new world we were in was analyzed for its strangeness. The grammar of debate took precedence over digestion.

When bad manners are considered shameful, the solution is to learn good manners. Simple, easy and direct. But certainly not multiculturally correct. No wonder so many people have missed the point.


Anonymous said...

ed in texas
I am so very lucky that I didn't become a psychiatrist. My first impulse would be to tell the woman: "Get over yourself. There's nothing wrong with your life, and you seem to suffer from Dilemma Envy."

sestamibi said...

I'm guessing George Friedman's experience was much like that of Alvy Singer's in Annie Hall:

Sam L. said...

I have no friends from my school days, nor my college days. (I was not outgoing. And I moved away.) My friends of longest acquaintance are all from my military service days. We've all moved away, but stay in touch.

Ares Olympus said...

It does seem like the human mind will feel some dis-ease, and try to imagine causes, and can get latched on a wrong cause, and if there is no way to test a conclusion, then the true cause is ignored. Self-pity over a lack of long time friends seems a false conclusion.

I wouldn't have recognized shame in this case at all. I suppose I would guess there is something missing from her current friendships, some authenticity, and what has happened is that she has adapted her outward persona to certain roles, designed to fit her surroundings and found it constraining.

The advantage of older friends is you can't hide things from them as easily, because you assume they can see right through it. Maybe focusing on wider customs and manners will make a difference, but probably there's already one new best friend within her reach she can't yet see, because they're both hiding behind personas that aren't quite who they are. And if she found that one friend, then the feeling of loneliness might evaporate. At least that can be tested.

Anonymous said...

Well I think that this one is pretty obvious, isn't it? If everyone else has someone with whom they share an important part of their history and you are the only one who hasn't.... of course you feel left out. I don't see what shame has to do with it. You can practice your table manners to perfection, but still you will not share the intimacy that goes decades back.

I had the pleasure of meeting my Best Friend from highschool after many years. She needed 10 words to describe my home situation. Let me assure you that it is pretty special to meet the only person on this planet who was able to see my life as I did as a teenage girl. I suppose the letter writer wants to acknowledge the difficult years of her own history one way or the other and does not find a current friend to speak about this.

Anonymous said...

Maybe this woman is under the illusion that life is like the TV show, "Friends," and thinks she's missing out. She can be given a reality check that life isn't the TV show and it might be a big relief.