When I was nine, I got the lead in the school musical. I ran excitedly to my dad after school, singing, “Dad! Dad! I got the lead! I’m going to be a star!” He looked down at me and said, “Keep talking like that and we’ll take the part away from you.” He turned on his heel and walked out of the room. At that moment, my brain was re-wired to feel shame when I had done something wonderful. Certainly there was more than one experience, but in his religion, pride was a serious sin. He was rewiring my emotions not to feel pride in order to be more godly.
We moved frequently. Once we had a whole litter of kittens die from distemper. But feeling sad was rejecting God’s plan for me. I would be happy for God’s grand plan in the move if I were a good Christian. The kittens were in a better place, and I was being selfish wanting them to be here in this veil of tears. I felt shame about my sadness, but unlike the pride, the sadness got worse as time went on. I became sad on my birthday, holidays and family gatherings. I became sad a lot despite my parents’ explanations of how it was sinful to be sad.
Emotions are not natural, automatic responses. Emotions are originally named and identified for us by our parents, and different cultures have different emotions. Tahitians have no word for sadness. Korean has more words for sadness than English does, identifying different sources and kinds. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a researcher on emotions in the brain, says that emotions are part of a domino effect, most of which happens outside the conscious mind, as a combination of our analysis of the situation in light of our history, and what we are physically feeling.
So my default reactions are to feel shame, guilt, or sadness. I was ashamed of my Ph.D. and job as a professor, and usually just said that I taught when someone asked what I did. I didn’t go to the graduation ceremonies for my degrees. I didn’t want to seem proud. As a researcher, I analyzed how people expressed emotion and attitude. In academia, researchers often study what they suck at.
I feel guilty about everything. If my class doesn’t study, I blame myself. If there is a school shooting, I ream myself out for not having taken action earlier. And my mental wildness is due to my essential defectiveness. I may no longer believe in any higher power, but its values of humility and guilt cannot be ferreted out.