The glass of dirty water: working with shame sociopolitically

Shame and women of colour 

I have been working specifically with women of colour (and migrant women) for some time now. I am writing to share a few reflections. One issue I have been paying increasing attention to is shame. It has become a major clinical theme. Over the years, I have heard so many stories of shame. Many triggered by trauma, shame for experiencing humiliating and degrading acts of torture or abuse. Shame for surviving when loved ones might have died. Shame for feeling violated or soiled thus becoming ‘damaged goods’. Shame for dishonouring families. But also, many shame stories of powerlessness linked to shame for being unable to stop loved ones from being raped or killed…or shame for having to leave children behind in search for a place of safety or to make a better life for them. 

Those stories were usually played out within other broader shame stories about occupying devalued social positions. For example, shame for being detained against one’s will. Shame for being a lesbian. Shame for being an undocumented migrant. Shame for having a disabled child. Shame for being disabled…Shame for contracting HIV. Shame for being on benefits or otherwise dependent on the state. Shame for being confronted with various stories of inferiority. And shame for believing in them too. Many of the stories above are naturally not exclusive to women of colour. Nevertheless, the intersections of systems of oppression and the prevalence of trauma in this group, often render shame a prominent fixture in their lives. Doing this work, I have come to realise how difficult many women I have met, seem to find identifying shame and naming it. 

The psychosocial functions of shame 

Shame is not only used to ‘self-regulate’ often, it functions as an embodied compass to evaluate our value or, as evidence/reminder of our lack of the same. As a result, when we experience shame, we may become fearful that speaking of it may lead others to evaluate us in the way we evaluate ourselves. To know we are worthless rather to know that we feel worthless. Basically, to be found out. Perhaps this helps explain why shame can be difficult to ‘own up’. Perhaps too, this is about avoiding the pain and embodied manifestations. No doubt, however that it is also to do with the power of hemogenies to force us to comply and conform despite the violence they do to us. 

Shame has long been considered a marker of ‘psychopathology’. I have previously written about the problems with formulating shame from individualistic lenses. As a reminder, shame is a powerful and effective tool of social control. It is this understanding that I have tried to impart in my therapeutic work by connecting the sociopolitical to the lived experience of shame of the women I have seen. So, when working with women of colour, I do not consider the stories of shame I hear to be manifestations of intrapsychic phenomena or psychic conflicts. I consider them to primarily be social products handed to and internalised by certain bodies and, which serve various sociopolitical agendas, interests and functions.

Patriarchy and all perpetrators of gendered violence for example, clearly have stakes, in women or in their victims experiencing shame. Not least because it reduces the possibility of accountability, in fact it shifts it altogether, silently reproducing the oppression of women. Similarly, the myth of meritocracy is reproduced when poor and socially disadvantaged groups feel shame for not achieving the social success of their more privileged counterparts. When inadequacy rather than unjust disadvantage is internalised as an explanatory model, it is less likely that unfair structures will be dismantled. In other words, the burden of shame is placed on the shoulders of the less powerful, shame is handed to survivors rather than to perpetrators. To the oppressed rather than to the oppressor. And this is simply power protecting itself. Systems reproducing themselves. 

The glass of dirty water

I have used the above ideas in my practice by asking women, to think of shame as a glass of dirty or unsanitary water that has been and, indeed continues to be handed to them to drink. The choice of the word handed here is purposeful. It aims to establish a boundary or some distance between shame and the person who experiences it. Further, doing so implicitly counters individualistic and decontextualised notions of shame as something intrapsychically generated. This aims too, to highlight the possibility of agency in shame, since something which is handed symbolically can be handed back or refused. ‘Handed’, implies an external origin(s) encouraging the scrutinisation or personification of the ‘giver’, the gaze, so to speak shifts. Finally, the fluidity of water is quite useful here. It reflects that whilst shame can so easily be taken in, it can similarly easily be shared.

The dirty glass of water metaphor has led to interesting reflections and therapeutic conversations facilitated by the use of relevant questions such as: when was the glass first handed to you? How full was the glass? How much of it did you drink? What did drinking this water do to you? How much of it are you still drinking today? Who has been handing you the glasses? 

From these biographical significant  considerations, the sociopolitical context, and in particular power relations, can be introduced, continuing on with the metaphor. Who tends to be handed glasses of shame socially? In situations of abuse of power who hands the glass? What makes people more likely to drink the water and why might that be so? Specific examples may be discussed to highlight the role of racialised and gendered hierarchies in the distribution of shame. So I might ask, in situations of gendered violence (against women) who tends to be handed the glass? Or again, when it comes to economic exploitation who drinks the water? In colonial situations ect…And, knowing what we know, how might we respond to being handed a glass? Who does the water  belong to? 

As we consider illustration after illustration, it becomes clear that something is shifting in the room. I have seen demeanours almost transformed. Often women come up with their own examples, sometimes they remain silent and reflective. Sometimes they cry. For most, it is the first time, a conversation situating shame within wider socio-political contexts was had. They realise their emotions are no testament to their inadequacy. Their experiences are not inherently shameful.  It is quite humbling to witness this epistemic shift in the room. All the more so, because it seems to happen so quickly, often one session is all it takes. It is important, to remember the glass of dirty water is about engaging and primarily, about meaning making. It is also about avoiding epistemic ignorance. It is too about starting to chip at internalised social hierarchies and oppression and thus, it is a humble attempt at quietly dismantling inequalities in the ‘real world’. I often have a glass of water in the room, following a session on shame. I usually do not draw attention to it. Some women will do so. I find it has a grounding effect and perhaps too, it helps to bring the sociopolitical into the room.

Thank you for reading.

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  1. This is such an important discussion about colonial oppression and internalized shame. I love the metaphor of “dirty water.” Water is sacred to many Native American tribal nations, as is each child who is born. Colonizers have played a powerful role in disregarding people’s inherent sanctity and defiling water’s purity. The present power structures are accelerating the process of destruction, making your efforts to raise awareness even more urgent and essential.

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