Monica Lewinsky, Brené Brown and why we need to talk about Shame

by Melinda Glenister

Can you be humiliated to death?  I was struck this week reading excerpts from Monica Lewinsky’s interview in Vanity Fair magazine, (the first time she has spoken of her affair with Bill Clinton) by the power of shame and catastrophic effects it can cause.  That you can actually be humiliated to death, as in the case of 18yr old Tyler Clementi who committed suicide after being filmed kissing another man and having that streamed on the internet.  

It seems that Monica Lewinsky was not far away from the point of suicide at points in her life.   After Clementi’s death Lewminsky says of her mother

    “She was reliving 1998, when she wouldn’t let me out of her sight. She was replaying those weeks when she stayed by my bed, night after night, because I, too, was suicidal. The shame, the scorn, and the fear that had been thrown at her daughter left her afraid that I would take my own life—a fear that I would be literally humiliated to death.”  

Lewinksky says that the abuse happened on the internet following the revelations.  And with the full force of the presidency, and the whole world watching- what 22yr old wouldn’t crumble under the strain?  It is credit to her that she says after what happened with Clementi,

    “My own suffering took on a different meaning.  Perhaps by sharing my story, I reasoned, I might be able to help others in their darkest moments of humiliation. The question became: How do I find and give a purpose to my past?”   Monica Lewinsky


In the Guardian Megan Carpentier writes

    ‘Reading Monica Lewinsky’s first-person Vanity Fair article, it’s hard not to go back to that place with her, the place where it seemed totally within bounds to talk about how she could “rent out her mouth” for a follow-up act (author Nancy Friday), or refer to her as “a dessert cart” (Camille Paglia), or write her off as “too tubby to be in the high-school ‘in crowd'” (Maureen Dowd).

    It wasn’t just Monica who read all that. The rest of us did, too – and we all wondered which of our bad decisions could stand up to that sort of scrutiny, and whether we could ever risk making any.’

How indeed can we risk making mistakes if the price can be so devastating?  And how can we cultivate the courage to be seen?

In this Brené Brown has done the most incredible work bring the subject of shame out of the darkness literally and onto the TED most watched list.  The underlying issue of shame is addressed when we talk about our feelings of worth.  When we learn we can share our stories, and that it doesn’t kill us.  It’s the secrets that are killing.  They cut us off from people around us, and from ourselves in an attempt to hide them, and they cut us off from our bodies.  

Shame leaves it’s toxic effects on the body.  In this working with Feldenkrais can help bring back a level of acceptance and presence, and a way to begin to be with yourself without running away from yourself again.  When all else is lost it can be hugely healing to come back to your body.  And when the body is the source of the shame – as happens with abuse, and eating disorders,  then an especially gentle approach is needed.

I can’t recommend enough finding out what Brené Brown has to say on this, and her 3 TED talks are some of the best.  Please give them your time and watch what she has to say.