How many of us could do with reinterpreting our mistakes and accepting that as humans we will all continue to make them?, writes Joyce Feegan.
Monica Lewinsky is my role model. In January 1998, when the story of her affair with president Bill Clinton broke online, I was 13 years old. She was 24.
In her own words she says: “I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one worldwide. I was patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously.”
Pause for a moment to reflect on what that might feel like. You, as a private citizen and a single person, fall in love with someone who is married and is a parent. You act on that love.
So too does the other party — except they are the one with the family, the legal commitments, and international leadership status.
Then, as fibre-optic cables have been connecting millions of homes around the world to the internet, your mistake becomes all anybody talks about. For months. Your photo is on the front page of every single newspaper, every single day, for weeks.
You are threatened with 27 years in prison if you do not co-operate with an investigation into your love affair. Your own mother is told she too will be prosecuted unless she discloses private confidences you shared with her.
It is even hinted at that your father’s well respected GP practice will be investigated.
Recordings of private phone conversations you had with your lover, where you confess your love, are played on TV and posted online. Your mother makes you shower with the door open, because your parents think you may well be “humiliated to death”.
From 1998 until late 2014 you are shamed into silence, finally breaking it to give a very public speech about your experience to 1,000 bright young things at the Forbes 30 Under 30 summit.
“I seem nervous, forgive me, because I am. I’m a little emotional too. My name is Monica Lewinsky. Though I have often been advised to change it, or asked why on earth I haven’t. But, there we are. I haven’t. I am still Monica Lewinsky,” you say.
Monica Lewinsky is my role model, but not because I idolise those who have intimate relationships with people who are already in one, that is, frankly, none of my business.
She is my role model because after she made her “mistake” as she describes it, and was publicly filleted for it on an international stage, she chose to not be silenced. She chose not to be shamed.
She decided to not allow everyone else’s opinion of her actions define her as a human being. In the era of trolling and instantaneous public shaming, Lewinsky has given us a masterclass in how to overcome it.
What’s more, when she did come out in late 2014, and again in 2015 with her TED talk, the Price of Shame, she did so without attacking anyone, instead she detailed her role and her actions and took responsibility for them.
This week she wrote an essay for Vanity Fair, ‘Emerging from the ‘House of Gaslight’ in the Age of #MeToo’.
She talks about how she recently ran into Ken Starr, the independent prosecutor who had led the investigation into her 20 years ago and threatened her with those 27 years in prison.
Lewinsky was out for dinner with her family last Christmas Eve and he happened to be vacating the table at which her party would be sitting.
“A student of karma, I found myself seizing the moment. Whereas a decade ago I would have turned and fled the restaurant at the prospect of being in the same place as this man, many years of personal-counselling work (both trauma-specific and spiritual) had led me to a place where I now embrace opportunities to move into spaces that allow me to break out of old patterns of retreat or denial,” she says.
Her choice to shake this man’s hand, whether you condone, condemn, or pass no judgment on her presidential affair, is an act to be admired.
Shame is a funny human emotion, but a hugely powerful and motivating one, too. You may not have had an affair with your married boss and been publicly shamed for it, but from the moment you were born to right now, have you always been proud of how you’ve behaved?
The thing about shame is, out of the entire palette of emotions, it can be the trickiest one for us to identify. Think about it like this: You are walking down the main street in your local town and you trip — chances are you feel embarrassed and your face glows red. Say you are cut off in traffic by a large juggernaut while you maintained the speed limit — you probably feel a little angry.
You get home from a long day of work and your significant other said they would have the place tidy and the dinner ready, but that is not the case you might feel disappointed. In all three cases you will perhaps express how you felt and tell someone about falling on the main street or about the so-and-so who cut you off.
With shame, it is different. Shame is when we are walking down the road and you cross it because you see an
old friend approaching who you may have had a falling out with — and you had a part to play in it. You don’t tell anyone about this. Shame comes with denial.
Researcher and sociologist Brene Brown has a far better definition for it: “I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging — something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive,” she explains.
Irish psychotherapist Joanna Fortune gave a TedX last summer called Social Media: The Ultimate Shame Game, in which she explains the difference between healthy shame (say you are caught parking in a disabled spot and you move) and toxic shame.
“With toxic shame we are made to view ourselves not so much as having done a bad thing but that we are the bad thing. In order to reinforce that negative sense of self we project those feelings outwards and being to experience others as also viewing us as the bad thing,” states Ms Fortune.
We all make mistakes but we must remember they are absolutely not the same as punishable crimes, no matter how much neighbours or acquaintances or former friends may want to shame you for them.
This is where Monica Lewinsky can be a role model; she has not remained hidden. This week she wrote about how she continues to re-evaluate what happened back in 1998, as opposed to just accepting other people’s interpretation of events and interpretations of her moral fabric.
“He was my boss. He was the most powerful man on the planet. He was 27 years my senior, with enough life experience to know better. He was, at the time, at the pinnacle of his career, while I was in my first job out of college,” she said.
She now interprets it as a “gross abuse of power” instead of assuming she is a flawed human being.
How many of us could do with reinterpreting our mistakes and accepting that, as humans, we will all continue to make them? In doing so, we could take a kinder view of our fellow man and woman, and choose to hold back on our judgment and discharging the weapon of shame.