The Anatomy of Shame

I didn’t see it coming. As I pulled into the parking lot, my only thought was to stay clear of the car coming out, so I cut the corner sharper than I’m accustomed to. And then there was this high-pitched screeching sound that could only be metal screaming against another hard surface. That hard surface belonged a low post I hadn’t seen, and the metal turned out to be the passenger’s side of my car.

The realization brought an embarrassed flush to my cheeks. The car pulling out stopped briefly and then continued on its way. I maneuvered my car off the post and got out to survey the damage. Pieces of side bumper lay on the road. Both doors were scratched and dented. The remaining section of the side bumper was loose and needed to be fastened with a tie-wrap so it wouldn’t flap all over the place. My beautiful car now looks like a wreck.

How could I be so stupid? My garage was matter-of-fact: the repairs will cost a lot of money, so it’s going to cost me a few years of accumulated no-claim on my insurance. But – and this seems even worse – because everyone is on vacation, repairs can’t start for another 3-4 weeks. I have to drive around in the car that bears the mark of my shame.

My first impulse was to tell no one what happened. If I keep it a secret, I don’t have to think about what I’ve done. But I can’t conveniently forget it. Every time I take the car out, I imagine everyone looking at the passenger’s side and thinking, ‘How could that woman be so stupid! Look at the mess she’s made of her car!’

So, I’ve become aware of the fact that secrecy is the way I, and many people, deal with shame. I can’t say that talking about it makes me feel better. Responses like, ‘Oh, you poor dear!’ or ‘These things happen, I did something like that once!’ fall on deaf ears. I don’t deserve sympathy or understanding. I was stupid and, to be honest, I secretly think I deserve punishment. Shame poisons us and saps our self-esteem.

Those of you who’ve read my autobiographical book, Passage of the Stork, know that my mother lived most of her life with the secret of my birth. What had happened filled her with so much shame that she couldn’t bear to tell anyone. People would no longer love her if they knew. But secrecy also helped her conveniently forget what happened, even though I was a daily reminder. Divulging her secret to me late in her life didn’t bring redemption; the habit of shame and secrecy was too ingrained in her being. However, it did, in part, alleviate the guilt she felt towards me.

And so I drive around with my guilty secret and even write a blog about it. Gradually, the sense of shame recedes to ‘mere embarrassment.’ I can even make jokes about it, so it looks as though I’ve accepted it. But it was pretty stupid; I’m looking forward to a time when I can conveniently forget it.



  1. Ouch! Glad there were no human bodies involved in the damage. I have a friend going through shame recovery right now. And I remember an episode of my own. One kind of “secrecy” is staying out of the public eye—it’s an impulse that is hard to ignore. But that, too, doesn’t help. It’s understandable, certainly, but hiding out seems to perpetuate the shame.

    Thanks as always for the thought-provoking copy!

  2. Oh, dear! But looking at the bright side of things, at least you weren’t injured!! And if that’s the biggest thing you feel shame over, I’d say you in pretty good shape, Zus!

  3. We have ALL done something like this. I’m not sure I felt shame but I was certainly embarrassed & felt like an idiot. I’m sorry about your beautiful car but that can be fixed & nobody was hurt which, to me, is the most important thing.

    I wonder how many other have done the same thing on that low post. Maybe you could suggest to the store that they have a higher post installed or some way of marking that hazard.

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