Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Understanding Shame

I have a student (I'll call him Hal) who often triggers an essay or blog. His lesson yesterday was no exception. Hal had completed the score for an indie film. The director, producer, et al, were more than satisfied, they were thrilled. They thought his work would raise their film to a new level.

Then he said he had a piece for chamber quartet that he thought was really, really good, and he wished he knew how to break into "the system" to get it played. But he was "an outsider," didn't have the right credentials, his music degree wasn't even in composition, etc., etc. I gave him half a dozen suggestions about where to send the piece. He repeated all the reasons why no one would pay any attention to it, and added that all those thoughts were no doubt due to his "superiority complex," because he thought his quartet was so new, so different, that it would change music in a positive way.

A perfect example of what Brene Brown talks about in one of her TED talks (, and what I've written about in Speak Up: The Public Speaking Primer. Except that Brown doesn't seem to realize, at least in that lecture, that the shame affect is positive for our well-being. According to Sylvan Tomkins' affect theory, shame is an innate physiological mechanism that, when we get too excited - when our breathing and heart rates become too elevated - returns our bodies to a more normal state.

What happens when we perform  - and I consider that to be any time we expect to be judged - we get excited, anxious. In Brown's term, vulnerable. "Too" excited, and shame is triggered and, along with it, our entire humiliation biography. We know we've crossed over that line between excitement and shame when we begin to hear the negative thoughts about ourselves or our work running around in our heads.

After I told Hal that what he had just said made no sense at all (We have a long relationship, so I used stronger terms and banged my head melodramatically on the music stand.), I ran through the above explanation. He'd heard it all before in a different context, but hadn't related it to his composing.

Brown is right that "vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change." The reality, for Hal, is that his composition is not likely to change the world of music. A lot of people, string quartets included, are afraid of change. So if he takes his excitement - what he had called his "superiority complex" - down a notch, all those negative thoughts will fade away. He'll be able to market his piece in a clear-headed manner.

Listening to shame is a good idea, if we understand what shame is really telling us.

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