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A Phenomenology of Shame, or, Life (and Death) in Graduate School

Oh Grad School, where is thy victory?

Oh Grad School, where is thy sting? – Paul (Paraphrase)

Graduate school was one of the most painful times of my life. Sure the academics were challenging, as was the insane schedule and newfound demand of being responsible for psychotherapy clients. But none of that is what made graduate school painful for me. Grad school was painful because of the ever-apparent distinction between how I was perceived and who I became. Like many 24-year-olds in Ph.D. programs, I came into graduate school immature and prideful and thought my intelligence and eloquence were gifts that needed constant recognition in order to find validation. Admittedly, I was (unknowingly) a jerk and difficult to deal with. I assumed that other people in my program enjoyed, we’ll say, vigorous debate in finding truth. I learned very quickly that telling people not only that they were wrong, but why I thought they wrong, did not create the welcoming environment I was hoping for. As hard as this may be to believe, I was genuinely confounded by my peers’ and professors’ dislike of argument, as I saw graduate school as a place to discuss and debate the veracity of truth claims. Apparently, clinical psychology students prefer to “wonder” about truth more than make assertions.

The pain I experienced my first year in graduate school was further inflamed by a recent break-up. Just before entering my program, I ended an off-and-on 4-year relationship. The relationship had been particularly painful because the woman’s mother passed away in the middle of our dating, creating a grief that changed her, and subsequently me. I came to school thirsting for understanding like a sunburn’s hunger for aloe. I was seeking truth as a means to survive my pain and depression, not just as a means to argue for argument’s sake. While my peers and professors saw me as difficult and prideful, I was desperately trying to understand the world and how people endured deep pain. I had hoped graduate school would be a place to heal, a place to understand my pain and become who I had always wanted to be. 

The void between how I experienced myself and how I was perceived would only grow as graduate school progressed. By the end of my first year, it became apparent that I, like many of my patients, needed therapy. I began seeing a therapist and was able to find a place where I could feel understood and began to heal. As I began to change, I grew quiet in classes. I was able to reflect more on my role in my cohort’s life and how I wanted to present myself to others. I changed the language I used and was able to be more inviting to those around me. Yet, none of my change seemed to have any impact on those around me. My professors still saw me as difficult to work with and my classmates still liked to keep me at an arms’ length. I remember on one particular occasion, my classmates and I were at a party and discussing our first few years in the program. I had mentioned that I was sorry for how I acted and even explained some of the pain I was going through. Not only was this apology not accepted, but was brought up time and time again at subsequent parties, often with a mocking chuckle and a tone of superiority.

As time progressed, the reality of who I was and how I was perceived only grew further and further apart, creating a void that was filled by other’s projections of me and my fear of actually being those projections. My last experience with my classmates was about 8 months ago when I finally graduated. Much like my experience in school, the graduation ceremony consisted of the same dynamics. The same professors who were cruel to me in school grinned through their teeth as I received my diploma. The same students who saw me as arrogant continued to keep their distance. It seems that first impressions do indeed last, and my first impression was louder than the transformation I had gone through.

As a psychologist, I frequently discuss shame with my patients, but too often is it narrowly understood as a person’s negative judgment of an action. Whether it is something as obvious as judging sexuality or as subtle as a glower from a parent, too often shame is only understood as disapproval. While we can certainly label disapproval as a form of shame, it is much better defined as a refusal to understand the other. Shame, at least phenomenologically, is experienced myopia; an uninvited distortion of perception.

Reflecting on my graduate school experience, the one word that comes to mind is shame. Every day I walked into class I felt shamed, shamed for hurting, shamed for wanting to understand deeply, shamed for trying to pursue an authenticity that was far from the desired mold of a Christian psychology program. When I met my peers in the hallways, I knew they would not even begin to want to understand where I was coming from. When I spoke in class, I knew my thoughts would be disregarded not because of who I was, but because of who my professors remembered me to be. If shame is experienced myopia, it is also the ceasing of time. A refusal to understand a person for who they are in the current moment forces them to be merely a figment of who you remember them to be, a relic of an impression passed, an idol that only serves ease or ego. Shame, then, becomes a functional time machine, a perspective that transports the shamer and shamee to a previous epoch, a time when understanding might have been possible.

The problem with shame is the same problem with time machines, it kills new life. People often invoke the idea of a time machine in order to imagine how a scenario could have been different, how things could have gone, what could have happened, or what they could have said. If time travel were actually possible, it would lead to an infinite loop of trying to maximize benefit and minimize loss. Life would no longer be spontaneous and new, fresh and exciting, but an endless and tedious algorithm. When we are shamed, we are placed in an infinite loop of previous being, hoping that we can find some key to unlock the repetitive cycle of others’ subtly communicated perceptions. Shame, experienced myopia, transports us to the moment of our transgression and refuses to let us live a new life.

We have to recognize that the time machine of shame transports both the shamer and shamee into this repetitive, imprisoned being. To draw again from my experience in graduate school, those around me lost out in the new life that I was creating and I lost out on the new life they were creating. Because we were both living in a shameful relationship, we were unable to access the newness that was created in and around us. Our experiences of one another were limited to a moment that had been, a time that had already passed, and both our beings were forced into a narrow world. This context caused me to feel doubtful about myself and hurt for being misunderstood and, if I had to guess, fueled their spite toward me. Clinically, this insight has been particularly valuable. Individuals who are shamed often become a hated object because the relational context created with them feels narrow and valueless. Shamers feel they need to continue the patterns they have created in order to maintain a sense of relational safety but often hate who they have to become as a result of this need. This hate gets displaced onto the shamee and further solidifies the relational prison each participant experiences. Treating shame requires clinicians to understand the relational context that shamers and shamees live in in order to break the relational gaols. 

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For years, I couldn’t figure out why I felt so imprisoned by my graduate school experience. Then it struck me, I couldn’t escape because I was not yet done with my shame. I still created fantasies where my professors or peers recognized who I actually was and regretted their years of purposeful misunderstanding. Yet, those dreams always ended with the same hollow conclusion that my graduate school ended with: I, and they, were still imprisoned by myopia. This thought led me to the petrifying but true idea that shame is so lasting because we are dependent on other’s willingness to understand who we. I am dependent on others to have an openness to my being in order for me to be me. I am dependent on each new person I meet to be willing to cross the chasm of subjectivity to meet me. I am dependent. My fantasies only try to demonstrate my value in order to ensure that if I am ever again faced with shame (which I will be) that I will be able to overcome it with my inherent worth. In reality, I’m just scared that I will have to endure the pain of being refused to be seen for who I am.

In trying to find a way out of my shame, I had to realize that my dependence on others was fueled by my hoped for identity with them. The idea of graduate school made me hope that I could finally find a way out of my deep pain and be recognized for who I am. Instead, I was shamed into believing that my pain would be an unending reality and that I was to be kept at a distance. Relief from my shame came when I was able to embrace the vulnerability of my dependence and gave myself the freedom to let my hope die. I will never be valued by my graduate school peers and I will never be seen for who I believe I am by my former professors. I have to let the idea of who I wanted to be perceived as die in order to find myself. The odd reality of facing this death is it ushers in an incredible amount of freedom. Because I no longer need to become anything with them, I am free to fully delight in what I want. Because I have died to their myopia, I can finally be seen. As the false hope of change is dashed against the sharp rocks of their short-sighted understanding, I have the freedom to explore new waters.

Breaking the relational context of shame requires that we recognize our dependence on others and die to the identity we had hoped the relationship would create. This death gives us the freedom to destroy the time machine that continues to imprison us and to find new, perceiving life. Experienced myopia endures only to the extent to which we hope for life within shaming relationships. Unlike other problems of perception, shame cannot be corrected by a mere shift in optics; rather, it requires the hope of who we are to be die so that we can finally exist. Because I was able to endure the death of my hope I found life in graduate school. Because I was able to embrace my dependence, I found the freedom to stand alone. Because I have died to a hoped for identity, I can, with a chuckle and smile, say, “Grad school where is thy victory? Where is thy sting?”  

A Phenomenology of Shame, or, Life (and Death) in Graduate School

Matt Varnell, PhD

Matt Varnell is a psychotherapist at The Center for Psychological and Family Services in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina area. Matt does therapy, writes, and gives talks on psychotherapy and mental health. You can contact Matt at 919-408-3212 ex. 27 or [email protected].

APA Reference
Varnell, M. (2018). A Phenomenology of Shame, or, Life (and Death) in Graduate School. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 12, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 10 Jun 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
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