“Shame is an epidemic in our culture”, claims Brené Brown in her second TED Talk and it is difficult to disagree.
The first thing to understand about shame is that it is not guilt. We are ashamed of who we are, of who we are failing to be, while we feel guilty for doing something bad. Therefore guilt can be seen as a more pro-social emotional response. Both of course are a very powerful motivators and shape the response to emotional stimuli. There are tests in psychology that measure guilt and shame, and their correlation with each other as well as with other emotions. For example, guilt is negatively related to anger, shame is positively related to it. The latter is also linked to depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. The antidote to this toxic feeling is empathy and connection.
In order to be happy, you have to believe that you are worthy of happiness, of love, of connection.
“The ability to feel connected is why we’re here”, says Brené Brown on her viral TED Talk about vulnerability. That speech should be in videregående first year’s curriculum. Heck, make it ungdomsskole. It should be every Norwegian’s wake up alarm tone that you snooze to for 20 minutes, to every day be reminded that shame is… necessary. Everyone feels it so how come it seems to be the end of some of us? The answer seems to be: Don’t shut it out but rather get to know it and then leave it behind. Because the difference between happy people and unhappy people is one, according to Brené: In order to be happy, you have to believe that you are worthy of happiness, of love, of connection. You are enough. You as a human being, emotionally functional non-sociopathic human being, are supposed to feel bad in order to be able to feel good. It truly is like the horse and carriage because you can’t have one without the other. Ying and yang.
In modern society, the level of anxiety and shame of not being good enough leads to emotional numbness supported by alcohol, prescribed drugs, illegal drugs, casual sex, sugar, fat, TV, internet, porn, you name it. The perfect cocktail of despair and shame, a storm of disconnection, the fear of being rejected, is being covered up with “I don’t care” attitude in order to prevent, but really just postpone a major breakdown. Result? A kingdom of meh. A sea of emotional zombies. A true zombie apocalypse.
Carl Jung said that shame is a soul eating emotion, it is the swampland of the soul. Brené Brown noticed that it is a place where everyone should go but not move to. To get stuck in the swamp is not what you want. However, since every single individual has this swamp lying there on the way to happiness, the task is to maneuver through it. Like Gollum, who knew the way through The Dead Marshes but at the same time paradoxically was one of the most tragic prisoners of guilt and shame. And like Atreyu, who lost his friend Artax in the deadly Swamps of Sadness, the place that made you stop trying and caring.
There seems to be more shameful things here than anywhere else, things that are not shameful elsewhere.
From an outsider’s perspective, Norway seems to suffer from these fears in a special way. There seems to be more shameful things here than anywhere else, things that are not shameful elsewhere. Emotions, for example. How big of a no-no emotions are becomes clear after just a few weeks in this country. I have lived here for a few years and the only time I saw a grown Norwegian woman cry was on a slippery driveway in a little town in Møre og Romsdal. Her SUV slid down onto a crash barrier and got stuck. It was dark, she was alone in the car and scared from the uncontrollable slide, and the moment she stepped out of the car she fell on the ice. It took approximately one second before she broke into little child’s sobs. I don’t believe she saw me walking on the side of the road heading home before I asked if she was ok.
In this country everyone has a common denominator of being Norwegian and it evolves around small talk and loneliness. This common understanding is more than a product of a nation-building process. It seems almost genetic. Norwegian society is like the man in the hat in the classic candid camera elevator prank from the 50s. Everybody besides him are actors. They take off their hats for no particular reason, he hesitates but does the same. Than a moment later they all put them on again, and so does he. It is hilarious.
Why are some of our finest “young men” between 20 and 30 killing themselves at a rate of 6 a month?
But sometimes it is anything but funny. In 2014 in Aftenposten Bjørn Egil Halvorsen did a portrait of a women whose boyfriend committed suicide. It was a big debate in Norway at that time: Why are some of our finest “young men” between 20 and 30 killing themselves at a rate of 6 a month? This was peculiar, since they seemed to be among the least prone to do so. Who wouldn’t enjoy being young man in Norway? Turns out it means a lot of pressure. Earlier that year on Psykologforeningen’s website Per Halvorsen wrote about a study called “Exploring Vulnerability to Suicide in the Developmental History of Young Men: A Psychological Autopsy Study” by Mette Lyberg Rasmussen (et al.). The title of Halvorsen’s text became “Vulnerability Can Lead to Suicide Among Young Men”. What is the quality of psychological care in Norway if Psykologforeningen confuses “vulnerability to suicide” with “vulnerability leads to suicide”. What a shame. Brené Brown would turn in her grave if she wasn’t still alive and well.