Jeskai Angel continues our Holy Week series on anime and disability by examining a condition that might quality as the latter, but which as he mentions, can certainly be significantly disabling.
Shame is an extremely common result of being abused, and it can happen with any kind of abuse: physical, emotional, sexual, etc. Shame isn’t a disability, at least not in the usual sense of that word, but it is indeed disabling. It constrains one’s choices, paralyzes one to the point of inaction, prevents one from considering new possibilities, blinds one to the truth, and gets in the way of relationships. Of course, in ordinary everyday language, “shame” is a synonym of “guilt,” both words being used to describe a distressing awareness of having done wrong. This raises obvious questions about what I mean by “shame.”
Some years back, my psychologist, Dr. Geoff Weckel of Fort Worth, Texas, explained to me that there is a profound difference between “shame” and “guilt” as mental health professionals use those terms. In this paradigm, “guilt” is a feeling that says “I did a bad thing.” On the other hand, “shame” is a feeling that says “I am bad.” To put it another way, guilt is a negative view of specific actions one has committed, while shame is negative view of one’s very identity. Someone who feels guilty thinks “I shouldn’t have done such-and-such, I should apologize for doing such-and-such, I shouldn’t do such-and-such again,” etc. But a person suffering from shame believes that their fundamental nature is flawed: “I am a terrible person, my inner self is irreparably flawed.” Real and even imagined failings are regarded as proof of one’s own corrupt character.
I’ve read books and articles by various other mental health professionals, and they consistently define shame and guilt in terms similar to those my therapist used. Since I don’t want you to rely on a secondhand recollection of something I heard years ago, I tracked down some direct quotes. First, a 2013 quote from Dr. Brené Brown, professor of social work:
I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort. I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.
Second, a 2017 quote from sociology professor Dr. Thomas Henricks:
Guilt is distinguished by its focus on particular actions… Guilt, it may be recalled centers on improper actions – things done and undone. Even in its free-floating form, it focuses on failed actions to come. By contrast, shame centers on the self in its fullness. Guilty people regrets their moments of “deviance.” Shamed people, that they have become, profoundly, “deviants.”
Hopefully these examples suffice to clarify what I mean by “shame.”
Shame is a liar, hobbling its victims with false perceptions of reality. Shame is a voice in one’s head insisting at all hours of the day that one is dirty, not good enough, unworthy. Shame says that one never does anything right, and even if one does something right, it must have been from wrong motives. Shame says one has nothing of value to contribute, that one’s very presence is a net negative for other people. Shame says that one doesn’t deserve to enjoy good things and that one is unlovable.
With that typically long-winded intro out of the way, let’s…err…have a slightly less long-winded intro? I Refuse to Be Your Enemy, a fairly recent entry in the reincarnated-into-a-video-game subgenre of isekai light novels, opens with an ominous letter from fourteen-year-old Kiara’s nominal guardian Count Patriciel announcing her arranged marriage to the noble Lord Credias. This letter proves to be the last piece of a puzzle, helping Kiara connect the dots with the strange, recurring dreams she’s had as long as she can remember—dreams of being a different person in a different world. All the details add up and she deduces that she’s living in the world of a tactical RPG (e.g., Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics) that this other self was fond of playing in her past life.
Most importantly, she recognizes her soon-to-be married name “Kiara Credias” as the name of a villain who dies by the hand of the game’s protagonist: “I was a character in a video game. And even worse, I was an antagonist.” Being sensible, Kiara flees. Immediately. She takes a few moments to gather her meager possessions, then hastens to get away from the school her guardian had her attending. Naturally, book-protagonist Kiara soon winds up involved with game-protagonist Alan and his associates. Lots of fun and sweet stuff happens, so go read the book once you finish this article.
All this is relevant because Kiara is a remarkably well-written example of a character who suffered childhood abuse and now lives with the shame those traumatic experiences caused. In short, her mother died when Kiara was quite young, her father never loved her, and her stepmother hated her. Then her father died and her stepmother treated her like a slave for a while, before finally selling Kiara to Count Patriciel for a large sum of money giving her up for adoption to Count Patriciel. Her new guardian doesn’t treat her like a slave, but he does some pretty sketchy things, like force her to drink mysterious concoctions, train to fight with a dagger, and carry a vial of poison with her. Finally, at age eleven, Kiara goes off to boarding school to become a proper noblewoman.
I would expect such a traumatic background to leave serious scars on the person who went through all that, and at first, I was rather annoyed by how well-adjusted Kiara seemed to be. She appears smart, decisive, friendly, and kind. I suspected the author was just using a melodramatic tragic backstory to build easy sympathy for the otherwise emotionally healthy protagonist. Thankfully, first impressions proved misleading. Kiara is deeply traumatized by her past, and the story reflects that. However, like many victims of abuse, she doesn’t fully understand how hurt she is, and she has grown capable of appearing psychologically functional around others. As a result, the symptoms of her trauma aren’t immediately obvious.
Kiara’s burden of shame is no less real for manifesting in subtle ways. Indeed, the subtlety makes her shame more realistic! The story never explicitly says “Kiara was traumatized by abuse,” but it does provide an accumulating series of examples of behavior that accurately depict a person dealing with shame from past abuse. For one thing, Kiara feels almost pathologically compelled to prove her worth to the people around her—even if they already like her plenty well. She believes that unless she demonstrates her value to others, they will soon cast her out. Second, she expects rejection at every turn, even when it’s totally irrational to think her friends would suddenly turn against her over this or that. She fully expects they will cast her out the moment she makes the tiniest mistake. Kiara is under the impression that unless she is perfect, she will be rejected by others.
Finally, Kiara is nearly incapable of considering that anyone might love her, or even just care about her as a friend. This is dangerously reminiscent of tiresome tropes we’ve all seen before involving stupidly dense characters, but Kiara averts them once we remember her background. She lives with shame born of trauma inflicted through abuse. That means it’s eminently realistic that she would believe others can’t like or love her. This being a shoujo story, there are three potential male love interests, though only one, Prince Reggie, goes out of his way to express it to her. But in Kiara’s mind, there’s obviously no way that any of these guys could be romantically interested in someone like her, which leaves her sincerely baffled and slightly worried by their inexplicable behavior. To the reader, it’s obvious that the guys are treating her with friendly, and Reggie’s case romantic, affection, but Kiara, with her distorted, shame-wracked perspective, just finds it puzzling.
Kiara’s sad backstory isn’t merely a pile of tropes used for cheap drama: abuse left her with shame that is reflected strongly in the kind of person she’s become. As someone who grew up in an emotionally abusive environment, I find Kiara deeply relatable on all these points. I remember more than once feeling mystified and disconcerted by kindness from others. “Why are they so nice to me? I don’t deserve their generosity, and I haven’t done anything for them to have earned their favor.” I’ve lived with the belief that people cared about and respected me only so long as I proved my worthiness by being perfect all the time. Worst of all was God: What with that whole omniscience thing, there’s no way God could be mistaken about how bad I am, and since that was the only basis on which anyone could care about me, I concluded there was no chance God could love me.
Shame is a liar, a vicious non-physical wound left in one’s mind by the sins of abuse others committed. This intangible injury to the psyche is harder to perceive than many of the issues that we commonly associate with “disability,” but it is no less a hindrance to living life as one wishes. I can’t say for certain, but I strongly suspect that like more concrete injuries or disabilities, shame will never be *fully* healed in this life. But even while we wait for the resurrection, when our minds and bodies alike will be completely whole, partial recovery from shame is possible right now. I can say from experience that good counseling with an appropriate mental health professional makes an incredible difference. I’m much more capable of fighting back when the voice in my head spews cruel lies. If you or anyone you know is besieged by shame, please don’t give up. Remember that shame is a liar, cunningly twisting our thoughts so that we see ourselves and others in a distorted way. Take courage, seek help from licensed professionals, pray without ceasing. You are lovable (and loved!), and you deserve to enjoy good things.
Beneath the Tangles recommends I Reuse to be Your Enemy!