This is actually a post about writing, but I’m going to start out talking about Bikram Yoga.
There is a pose, called standing head to knee. It’s supposed to go something like this:
1. Lift one leg and balance on the other with a locked knee.
2. Reach down to grab under the lifted foot with a firm, locked grip.
3. Keeping your hands locked under your foot, kick out the lifted leg so that it is at about 90 degrees from the standing leg.
4. Curl your torso down until your forehead is on your lifted knee.
5. At the final stage, your lifted foot will be flexed back, your lifted leg will be just as straight and locked as the standing leg, and your arms will be slightly bent.
Part 2 of the setup has always given me trouble. Everyone else in class seemed to be able to lift their leg until their thigh was parallel with the floor, and then reach down and clasp their hands under the foot with no trouble. But even when I could finally get my hands down to where it seemed like they should be able to clasp under my foot, it felt like my knee was being jammed into my armpit, and I had to sort of…crawl my fingers together awkwardly to get them barely clasped, and usually I would lose my balance in the meantime. If I managed to get my fingers together, I could usually kick out, then adjust my fingers to have a stronger grip.
Once my leg was kicked out I didn’t have any more problems. But the setup was killing me.
I tried for the longest time to figure out why I couldn’t do the setup “right.” Did I have freakishly short Tyrannosaurus arms? Was I not bending my torso down far enough? Did I not have enough flexibility somewhere? If so, where? I couldn’t seem to locate the exact point of the problem. It felt like I was doing the same thing everybody else was doing, and somehow not getting the same results.
So I tried something else. I tried clasping my hands first and lifting my foot into my clasped hands with my knee still outside of my arm. The teacher didn’t tell me that was wrong, so I kept at it. Once I was comfortable with that, I was able to slide my arm to be outside my leg, achieve a setup that looked more or less typical, and proceed from there.
I have done standing head to knee this way hundreds of times, in front of perhaps a dozen different teachers, and none of them have ever told me that my method was wrong.
Then, one night, I had a new teacher who told me I shouldn’t be kicking out yet, because my hands were “on the side.” I wasn’t quite sure what she was talking about, but assumed she must be calling me on my nonstandard setup, the first teacher in seven years to do so. So I immediately felt kind of unfairly picked on — if nobody else had ever told me it was wrong, what was her problem? But I also had the hope that maybe she would be the teacher who could finally help me figure out why I couldn’t seem to get into the setup in the standard way.
She said, “you should do it like this” and showed me the usual method. I got a bit frustrated then, because I’ve spent seven years being unable to do that, in spite of spending a lot of time trying to figure out how. So I said, “I can’t do it that way.” A lot of teachers take that as a cue to work with you briefly to try to figure out why you can’t seem to do a pose in a certain way, but what she said was, “well, keep working, you’ll get it eventually.”
Suddenly, in my head, I was screaming at her. NO I WON’T YOU IDIOT I’VE BEEN TRYING FOR SEVEN YEARS ARGHHHHHH!!!!!!!! I felt such a rush of negative emotion that I seriously considered just walking out of class.
But then I got ahold of myself and realized that if one of the key points about Bikram Yoga is learning to process physical discomfort (specifically, the sensation of exerting physical effort in a ridiculously hot and sweaty room) then processing emotional discomfort had to be a part of that too. So I stayed, and went through all the poses, and thought really, really hard about why I felt so negative.
First, I asked myself why I took her criticism so badly, when usually I like teachers correcting my poses — it makes me feel like they’re paying attention, like they care. But usually they are telling me to do something that I can easily do, once my attention is brought to the matter — like lifting my chin, or shifting my weight. So I don’t usually feel the frustration of being told to do something that I already know I can’t manage.
Most of the teachers are regulars, so I know them and they know me. I think that establishes a comfort level with the act of being corrected.
I probably bristled most at the way she told me to keep working and I’d get it eventually. Not only did it seem disrespectful of my seven years of trying, in which, no, I hadn’t managed to “get it,” it also conveyed an assumption that I was brand new at this and implied, subtly, that I must therefore suck at it.
When we went into our first inverted pose, standing separate leg stretching, I felt even worse, like I was about to burst into tears. And I was able to suddenly pinpoint my emotion as shame. I felt as if the teacher had shamed me, and it felt like the worst thing ever. It felt like I wanted to die. And I realized that this same emotion, of poisonous shame, is the thing that strikes at me whenever I get a fiction rejection (or even think about getting a rejection).
Not ordinary disappointment: deep and bitter shame.
So I thought about shame, as a noun, a thing you feel, and also as a verb, a thing that is done to you. I think we have an idea in our society that shame is a useful corrective, that you can actively shame a person into better behavior. Look what happens if you object to fat shaming, or slut shaming — the shamer will inevitably claim that they’re just concerned about the self-destructive behavior, is all. Just trying to help.
It is true that people sometimes get publicly shamed for engaging in truly bad behavior. But it rarely has the vaunted “corrective” effect — they don’t learn a lesson, they just slink away to lick their wounds and rise again.
Shame is a weapon — a way of removing status from somebody. But that means it’s far too easy to ignore shame that could teach you something (hello, Paula Deen) on the grounds that it’s just mean people trying to hurt you, and also, far too easy to internalize shame that really shouldn’t find a purchase at all (witness the way teenagers shame each other to the point of suicide over things like having last year’s hair or being too good in math.)
Street harassment is a way to shame women for having the gall to walk around in public without worrying about it, almost like they think they’re men or something. Gay people have pride celebrations to counteract traditional attempts by society as a whole to shame them just for being gay.
On the Internet, sometimes people get shamed for being jerks, but just as frequently — maybe more frequently — the jerks are the ones trying to shame people for pointing out their jerkishness. Shaming becomes a contest: who is more alpha, who is allowed to shame whom. It’s retaliatory. You try to shame me, I’ll shame you back. Or, I don’t care what I did, I still refuse to feel shame because I refuse to acknowledge that you have any shaming authority here.
We can feel shamed even when that was not at all the intent. Crit groups, fiction rejections, a teacher making a pose correction — none of these people intend to make us feel shame. But if we’re sensitive to it, we feel it anyway.
Shame hurts. It’s one of the most painful emotions we experience. But, just like depression, shame lies. We seem feel the most intense shame when there’s no good reason for it, and wrap ourselves in thick bubbles of self-justification when we really do harm others.
Even when shame is felt appropriately — as a response to bad or thoughtless behavior we have engaged in — it seems likely to prompt avoidance rather than amends. The problem with shame is that it’s too painful. It hurts too much. So we avoid situations where shame seems like a risk– we avoid speaking up, going out, yoga classes, crit groups, or submitting our fiction.
Well, I reject shame.
Get thee behind me, and all that.
I’m not saying I’m completely over you — emotional habits are hard to break. But I think I recognize you now, you dirty liar. And I’m trying hard not to listen to you anymore.