Friday, May 8, 2009

The Shame of Being the Torturer

During these past months there has been a great outpouring of information regarding the torture of detainees in various government run prisons throughout the world at the hand of Americans. It is now apparent that the leaders of the American government at the time became terrorized as a result of the attacks that occurred here on September 11th, 2001. The fact that warnings were ignored and folks were asleep at the wheel, created such feelings of shame that the leaders of our country set out to create programs to protect themselves from ever feeling shamed like that again. Some of those programs have violated our core values as Americans. The torture program, researched before even one detainee had been captured, is one of the most embarrassing moments in recent American history.

The point of this discussion is to give a concrete example of how affected people are by shame. Shame is one of the most difficult emotions we may face in our lives. Unlike guilt, which happens when we do something that doesn't agree with our inner values, shame targets our self esteem. Where guilt reminds us that we have violated our own principles, shame attacks us at our inner core. Guilt reflect upon our actions. Shame reflects upon us.

Feeling shamed is so painful that grown men and women react with extreme efforts to prevent shame from re-appearing. In the preceding example, our leaders felt shamed when the attacks of September 11th occurred. Part of the job of the government is to keep our citizens safe from harm. In that regard, the administration failed.

This reality was so painful that our leaders launched a series of reactions designed to prevent themselves from ever having to re-experience the shame of failure again. The fact that many of their reactions were not well thought out (those would have been responses, not reactions) and did not achieve the ends required (stemming the tide of terrorism) was not part of the consideration. The administration was concerned with never feeling shamed by failure again.

When we think about the reactions of those who were in the past administration to the torture policies that are now being aired, we are again brought before this same truth. Those who participated in creating the torture program are once again reacting to being shamed for their actions. Some are getting out in front of the media trying to sell their view of the issue. Some are silent. Some are trying to collect allies. All these reactions are attempts to stem the excruciating pain of once again feeling shamed.

In our relationships we may face feelings of shame, either within ourselves or from our partner. If we keep in mind how exquisitely painful the emotion of shame feels, we can be empathetic toward those in our circle of life who are dealing with shame. It requires great effort to respond rather than react when dealing with such strong emotions. We use our tools and seek help if needed. As we conquer our shame we increase our self esteem. We practice self care in our daily lives. In this way we give our partners and ourselves the gift of empathy as either we or they wrestle with our shame.

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