According to one friend of Adam Lanza, he was excruciatingly shy as a teenager. If you have ever felt shy, embarrassed or humiliated in public, or the victim of cruel teasing or ostracism in your peer group, you know the feeling. Multiply that memory of the pain of shame by a power of 10 or 20 and make it last for years and we might be able to understand a craving for revenge that could overwhelm reason.
Shame is a normal and powerful emotion designed to help us surrender and survive when we are defeated by overwhelming force. When, if we continued to fight, we would lose and die, shame forces us to accept defeat. It is a painful but necessary emotion. In social situations, shame determines the pecking order of any group. The lowest on the pecking order usually does not enjoy life.
Shyness is a word used to describe the experience of shame in the presence of strangers. People who are extremely shy never get comfortable enough with anyone to get past this. Everyone is a stranger. They may feel like outsiders in their own families. They may force themselves to go through the motions, but always feel the imminent danger of humiliation and exposure. Some of them experience the lowest rung on the social pecking order and it feels like the valley of the shadow of death. They often detest themselves, but may get tired of hating themselves alone and resent others who can walk so easily in the social world.
Victims of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse – or of persistent and cruel teasing or bullying (which is a form of emotional abuse often overlooked in the social jungles of early adolescence) can feel some of the self loathing and craving for power shared by the desperately shy. Some are not victims of abuse by others so much as victims of their own emotions, and of ignorance about what we can do about that.
Perhaps you remember fantasies of having super powers or even harboring fantasies of revenge against someone who made you feel small or ashamed. These are very common fantasies. Why else would superhero movies make such millions at the box office? Multiply this common mental solution to the problem of powerlessness by twenty thousand hours of shame and anger.
Does the painfully shy person or the victim of emotional abuse in childhood tell everyone about it? No, because that would shine a spotlight on their pain and shame, intensifying it. The normal instinct is to hide your shame as well as you can. Avoid eye contact. Mumble denials if asked. Don’t admit weakness or failure. Be suspicious of compliments or friendship.
We don’t even talk about the pain of shame much, because we don’t understand it well and often confuse it with guilt. We don’t hang out much with outcasts, partly because we fear becoming outcasts ourselves, and partly because they don’t welcome our company. If we feel sorry for them, that really makes them mad. Another spotlight on their shame.We leave them alone in their world of self contempt and revenge fantasies.
What if the Adam Lanzas of the world knew all about the emotions of shame and anger and shyness and that there were effective things you could do about these painful experiences? What if their families and teachers and counselors understood that revenge fantasies are normal but not helpful and it is critically important to learn better ways of dealing with our powerful emotions? What if everyone learned, early on, that there are teachable strategies to deal with emotional difficulties like fear and anger and shyness and shame? Violence would not end. Teasing and emotional abuse would not end. But the terrible echoes of pain and shame and their consequences could be much less.
Want to see a true superhero movie about solutions to the pain of shame? Go see The King’s Speech.