The Value of Shame

The Value of Shame November 17, 2015
Samantha really does have gorgeous hair, doesn't she?
Samantha really does have gorgeous hair, doesn’t she?

by Samantha Field cross posted from her blog Samantha P

I have … unusual hair. At one point when I was a child, it was so long I could sit on it, but it wasn’t just the length that made it stand out. It was also full, thick, voluminous– or as my partner likes to call it, “robust.” I have thick, wavy hair and I have a lot of it. It was also fairly healthy, so, as long as it was, it kept its body all the way to the ends. Honestly, it didn’t even look real.

Because of that, I tended to attract attention in public. Complete strangers would come up to me and begin stroking my hair without even asking me first. It bothered me, but a part of me preened under all the “oohs!” and “ahhs!” my  hair got me.

So in graduate school, the first time a black colleague came to work with her 4c natural hair down and I asked her if I could touch it, I didn’t think much of my behavior. I was fascinated by her hair– it was the first time I’d ever seen 4c hair worn naturally, and it was so different. She took my request to touch her hair in stride, and I connected that interaction to the sort of thing I’d experienced as a little girl– as maybe a little bit weird, but complimentary.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized that asking to touch a black woman’s natural hair is a microagression. Not every black woman I’ve talked to feels the same way about this– one woman honestly doesn’t mind, she sees it as an opportunity for education– but being “curious” or “fascinated” are just examples of all the ways that our culture erases the experiences of black women.

When I started listening to black women talking about all the “curious” and “fascinated” people who’d touched their hair over the years, I felt ashamed. I think back to doing that to my colleague, and something deep inside of me recoils. What I did was racist– and that’s an amusing anecdote compared to other things I’ve done, said, and believed about black and brown people. The only word I can ever come up with is horror. If I could go the rest of my life without admitting to the heinous things I used to think, I would.


A little while ago a friend and I were talking about skincare products. I have extremely sensitive skin– I can’t tolerate washing my face with anything besides warm water most of the time– so I’ve been limited to a single line of moisturizers. The line my friend uses is one of the brands that are especially bad for my skin, and when she brought it up, I said:

“Oh, I’d never put that stuff on my face.”

My friend and my partner– who was sitting next to me– were legitimately and appropriate offended by my remark, and called me on it. But I did not understand why they were upset. To me I was purely thinking of how my skin reacted to that brand, and there wasn’t a shred of judgment in her using that line.

Except a listening person couldn’t hear anything except judgment in my choice of words, and regardless of what I meant, intent isn’t magic.

Later that evening I was recounting that conversation with my partner, upset that I’d been “attacked” for expressing an opinion. That was when he realized I had no idea how my words were received. He stopped dead on the sidewalk and said “Sam, you hurt her feelings.”

For a split second I couldn’t believe it, and then I burst into tears. I realized with perfect clarity that he was right, and I heard myself from the outside for the first time that night. I had hurt her, and I was deeply shamed. I cried for the entire car ride home, and the second I saw her I apologized. That whole night, though, I was wracked with shame. The thought I am a horrible person how could I do that to her kept spinning ’round and ’round my head.


If there is a writer I wish every ex-fundamentalist could read, it’s Brené Brown. If you have the time and you’ve never seen her TedTalk “Listening to Shame,” I highly recommend it. In the research I’ve done since leaving the fundamentalist cult behind, I’ve done a lot of reading on the differences between shame-based and guilt-based cultures, and I think Christian fundamentalism is a mixture of both. Growing up, shame was an integral part of my identity. Much of Christian culture glorifies shame, enshrining it in concepts like total depravity and calling each other and ourselves “worthless rags” and “worms.”

As Brené puts it, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging,” which sort of encapsulates total depravity in a nutshell for me. She also says that “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

Shame is paralyzing, especially for those of us who have survived fundamentalism. It was the primary weapon used to control everything about our lives, about the way we think, about what we thought, about what we said and did. For me, when I experience shame today– like after the incidents I related above– it still has the power to stop me dead in my tracks and send me into a feedback loop of I am a horrible, worthless person.

That’s not a healthy reaction.

In that TedTalk, Brené talks about exploring shame without letting it paralyze us like that, to wade through the “swamp” of shame without staying there and settling in. Shame shouldn’t control us, because all it can do is deaden us to the opportunity this new awareness is giving us.

However, I think the ex-fundamentalist community might be going a little bit too far with the “no shame!” bandwagon. We were either a) not given the tools to manage feeling ashamed properly, or b) stripped of those tools– so I completely understand the overwhelming need to try to avoid experiencing it. It’s hard to confront shame head on because we can feel the fear trying to choke us. Feeling ashamed feels like letting ourselves being tugged back under the sometimes inexorable tide of fundamentalism that stills roars in the back of our minds.

When we’re faced with shame, it could be emotionally and mentally easier to not let ourselves experience it; except, when we avoid any opportunity to feel ashamed of ourselves, we’re deterring self-growth.

This is where writers like Brené talk about the differences between guilt and shame. Typically, guilt is portrayed as the positive alternative to shame, but recently I’ve come to disagree. Guilt is an easier emotion to manage, but for me at least that also makes it easier to ignore. Shame, though, is compelling. It’s blinding. The realities about shame that make it so dangerous are also what make it important.

If I didn’t feel bone-deep shame for my racism, or my tactlessness, or my internalized misogyny, or my ableism, if there wasn’t a part of me that felt the part of me that is racist is horrible, I don’t think I’d be as fierce about overcoming those things.

The hard part is not letting shame become a part of my identity. Being racist– and I am racist, not just a person who explicitly or implicitly contributes to systemic racism– is not who I am. It’s a nuanced separation, but it exists. I am bisexual: that cannot, will not ever change. I am and always will be a cis woman.

However, I don’t have to continue being racist: I can unlearn it and change.

But racism, or ableism, or whatever else, are so deeply buried inside of me that it takes moments of heart-stopping shame to overcome it. We can’t let ourselves bury ourselves in shame, to flagellate ourselves with it, to wallow. Shame shouldn’t stay. It should be an emotion we use constructively to motivate us to change, not a weapon we use to punish ourselves.


Samantha blogs at and is a member of The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network


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  • There was a book I read on the subject back in the 80’s, called something simple like Shame as I recall, that began from the premise that shame is the emotion you feel when a boundary has been transgressed. That made a lot of things clear for me, like why the victims of assault, sexual and otherwise, feel shame even though they are not at fault.

  • BlueVibe

    I had below-the-waist hair when I was in high school but mine is perfectly straight, silky, and baby-fine. Like, barrettes don’t stay in it, fine. I stopped going to pep rallies (ok, because I hated pep rallies) in part because I was captive on the bleachers and complete strangers would start petting and braiding it (without asking)! It would take me *forever* to untangle it after some yahoo wouldn’t leave it alone.

  • Julia Childress

    I had that same kind of hair (a gift from my mother and grandmother), and though it’s salt-and-pepper now, and I keep it in a bob with bangs, it’s still very fine, but thick, shiny and silky. In school it wasn’t unusual for the person who sat behind me to just start randomly braiding it if he/she were bored. I still have people wanting to touch my hair, though it’s usually people that I know. I’m glad I won the hair lottery, and try to take it as a compliment when people want to feel it.

  • Portia McGonagal

    I have 3C curly hair and a LOT of it. If straightened right now it would reach my lower back. I have lived a lifetime of people wanting to touch it whenever I’ve worn it natural, and depending on who and how someone asks I don’t generally have a problem. It took me until my 40’s do wear it natural full time because our society disses curly hair in general (loving Dove’s curls campaign) and really dissed black women with natural hair.

    My issue is with people just touching it without asking. Not only is it an invasion of personal space (and I don’t know where your hands have been!) but for black women, we have experienced a history of people, white people, feeling entitled to our space and bodies. I am not some exotic animal for public petting consumption.

    I’ve been told I’m hypersensitive, they’re just curious, it’s so interesting etc. And then I ask “so you’d be comfortable with some random black person running their hands through your hair” and silence.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences Samantha.

  • Astrin Ymris

    Odd, I have similarly-textured hair, and no one EVER asked to touch it, or tried to braid it without permission. Admittedly, I never wore it past shoulder length after age 9, and it has enough waviness to frizz up unless the humidity was exactly right, but I still got verbal compliments on it when the weather was cooperative.

    Oh, and it was brown-black. Suppose that had anything to do with it?

  • Suzanne Harper Titkemeyer

    I had waist length black hair with the same texture as Samantha’s. When I was in my teens people would ask to touch it, and the Vietnamese boy that sat behind me in English used to touch and play with my hair. I asked him why and he said he’d never seen thick hair like mine. As a adult people will comment on my hair type but rarely ask to touch it…except for the time I got the perfect razor cut flappers bob a few years ago.

    I’m not sure I’d call all attempts to touch someone’s hair a microaggression, some folks are just curious.

  • Astrin Ymris

    Asking to touch– perhaps not.

    But anyone past preschool age ought to know not to just make free and play with someone’s hair without asking. That shows a lack of respect of the other party’s personal space.

    My rule of thumb for microaggressions: Can you imagine yourself treating a white male CEO that way without incurring shocked affront? If not, it’s probably a microaggression.

    It’s Primate Body Language 101. The dominant troop member can touch subdominants at will, but not the converse.

  • Astrin Ymris

    I’ve been moving over to the “No Poo” method myself! Measuring and mixing is a pain in the mitka, but the results are a lot better.

    I’ll be turning 50 in a couple of months, and there’s a lot of silver in my hair. I don’t mind that nearly as much as the thinning. 😛

  • Mel

    It is completely not ok that people mess with your hair without asking.

    My twin sister is profoundly deaf and uses American Sign Language to communicate.

    About once a year, a random stranger will decide that it’s a great idea to walk up to her, wave their hands around, and ask, “What does that mean in sign language?” Acceptable responses include, but are not limited to: “You have no social skills, do you?” , “What the hell is wrong with you?”, “Wow….that’s going on the dipstick award board.” and my favorite “Oh, you just said that you’re going to die alone because you suck. But you knew that already.”

    Add in a few people a year who see us using sign language and then ask “Are you talking about me?”. My most common reply is “No. Should we be?” followed by “No, we weren’t……” because seriously now we will be talking about that dingbat for a while.

    I have coarse blonde hair that is 2a – which is a nice way of saying it manages to revert to looking like I’ve never brushed it within 30 minutes of any hair treatment. I also have a few chunks on either side of my temples that grow to about 4 inches long and fly free. (I lovingly call those my bat wings.) I’ve had a few people to start messing with it without asking me by either attempting to stroke my bat wings back against my head or just….I don’t even know what they were doing. I was horrified and whipped my head away and yelled “What the hell is wrong with you?” (I’m realizing that “What the hell is wrong with you?” works as a go-to for many situations….)

  • YaddaYadda

    I don’t think you need to beat yourself up about this stuff and you shouldn’t let other people beat you up about it either. Do not label yourself as something bad, nor should you allow other people to label you. If they know you, they should know you’re not intending any insult. What they *should* do is explain to you why what you did was offensive without being judgmental about it. Life is a learning experience. We all go through it and we all learn our lessons from it. The key is to use what you’ve learned the next time you interact with someone. You seem to be the kind of person who would do just that, and you seem to be the kind of person who is much harder on herself than anyone else could possibly be.

  • zizania

    I used to have ridiculously thick dark brown hair that I once grew out to the point where I could sit on it. I don’t remember anyone ever wanting to touch it. But that changed when I became completely bald due to alopecia several years ago. I once even had someone walk up and kiss the top of my head. I get a lot of questions from small children, (“Are you a man or a lady.”). This doesn’t bother me at all, and I’m happy to answer their questions, although it does mightily embarrass their parents. The hardest part is having people always assuming that I’m undergoing chemo. Once an elderly man offered to carry my suitcase at the bus terminal, obviously thinking I was in the city for treatment.