The comic sets up a joke by describing a private and/or embarrassing situation, often as though it were part of their own history. The audience instantly tenses up or cringes just thinking about such a scenario—even more so at having it described publicly. A wave of uneasy mutual recognition sweeps through the crowd as people realize they’ve each had a similar, if not identical, experience, but have never admitted it to anyone else. The comic seems to know their secret, and anxiety about being found out raises the tension level further. What the comic really knows is the universality of something considered unspeakable. Whatever the punchline, it carries extra punch: Not only do people laugh at the joke, but they feel tremendous relief about discovering the rest of the audience has had the same sort of experience. If this weren’t true, their laughter wouldn’t have that nervous edge. The precipitous drop in everyone’s anxiety finally makes them all laugh even harder.
Shame and embarrassment are functions of being seen, whether by another person in the real-life present, through the eyes of someone from our past, or even just in our imagination. Things can be shameful because they’re “bad,” like a physical flaw, a shortcoming, or a trait/thought/feeling others would judge negatively. Things can also be a source of embarrassment simply because they’re private. A person probably (hopefully!) doesn’t feel bad about normal bodily functions, as long as they’re not on display for others to see. Forget to lock the bathroom door at a dinner party, however, and an activity that felt perfectly fine one moment becomes a source of abject mortification when the unsecured door swings wide open in full view of every guest at the table. Obviously, every single one of the shocked observers has used a toilet before (multiple times that very day!), but that’s not how it feels. Suddenly, it’s as though you’re the only one who’s ever performed such a singularly disgusting act. Shame is a feeling about what you are, as opposed to guilt, which is a feeling about what you’ve done. You don’t feel guilty about using the toilet. Instead, you feel like you’ve been revealed as a horrible creature that uses toilets!, even though such a formulation is patently absurd. Feelings are not facts, and they don’t obey logic—you know, just in case this is your first day on Earth!
Listen to this column as Episode 8 of The Ride Inside with Mark Barnes. Scott Auld (the other voice of TRI) joins Mark and Wes to discuss our own embarrassing motorcycle moments. Submit your questions to Mark for the podcast by emailing [email protected].
Back to the comedy show. The comic bears the bulk of the perceived shame, since they said the stuff out loud, but in the process, everyone else is revealed to each other as deserving the same embarrassment, since getting the joke depends on it. The magic of such humor is how shame dissolves when shared. If everyone learns they’ve all had the same unacknowledged experience, they no longer feel like they’re each the only one and can more readily own it. This doesn’t require a mass confession articulated verbally. Just as shame can occur as we imagine someone seeing us in a compromising position, shame’s relief can come as we simply realize ours is a common experience. In the comedy show, this happens as everyone laughs extra-hard about the comic’s contrived (yet also in some sense universally true) revelation. If, after the aforementioned dinner party bathroom incident, others recounted the times they had been similarly exposed, and they all laughed heartily about their same exaggerated feelings of shame, the person who’d suffered this indignity that evening would (again, hopefully!) be able to chortle along with the rest.
Psychotherapy does something along these same lines. Part of the process, at least in some approaches, is educational. The client learns, while they are certainly unique in many ways, much of what they feel ashamed of is ubiquitous among human beings, albeit rarely acknowledged. Realizing lots of other people have similar issues makes those issues less shameful, which allows the client to relax a bit and speak more freely – perhaps for the very first time – about things that have weighed heavily upon them forever. We don’t take for granted others are maintaining the same secrecy we’ve maintained, so we each assume we’re the only ones to have had those thoughts, feelings, or experiences. Shame keeps everyone silent, and that silence exacerbates everyone’s shame because it preserves the illusion of individual uniqueness.
This is also one of the reasons voyeurism (sexual and otherwise) can be so intensely pleasurable. Finding out what other people do in their private lives (in terms of finances, parenting, housekeeping, etc.—and yes, sex) can make us feel better about ourselves. Maybe that’s because we consider others’ hidden deeds more condemnable than our own, but it can also be a matter of simply learning others do much the same things out of public view as we do. When we see this (on reality television or through our neighbor’s window), we feel less alone, less abnormal, less ashamed.
There’s a whole other topic I won’t get into now, regarding the need for public/private boundaries as individuals and as a society. Just know I’m not implying it’d be ideal for everyone to let it all hang out all the time or for us all to spy on each other. I am asserting it’s tremendously helpful to our mental health, self-concept, and perspective on others to learn what’s truly normal, as opposed to using idealistic (inhuman) societal myths as our standards. Aspirations are vital, but so is accurately informed realism.
Motorcycle culture contains an element of machismo running contrary to what I’ve just outlined. Riders can be quite competitive about their sport-riding abilities, their mechanical know-how, their accumulated mileage, or the elaborate farkling of their bikes. No doubt there’s fun to be had jockeying for position on these counts, as long as the basic relational dynamics are affiliative, cooperative, and supportive, rather than aggressive, domineering, and exclusionary. It’s crucial for those who would tease or criticize others to keep in mind everyone starts at the beginning and nobody’s born with advanced motorcycling acumen; the critic was once a novice, too. Unfortunately, that era may have been marked by cruel mockery and rejection, which the mean-spirited critic is now passing along like a hazing ritual. While this boosts the critic’s sense of superiority (after all, they “earned” the right to humiliate others by enduring humiliation themselves), it occurs at the expense of an innocent party who did nothing to earn such mistreatment, aside from trying to enter the fold or better themselves within it. Is shame really what we want new motorcyclists, or those in need of growth, to feel? That hardly seems beneficial to the motorcycling community, much less any individual member.
Self-disclosure begets self-disclosure. When I reveal more about myself, it makes another person more comfortable revealing something about themselves. Humility also begets humility. If I can acknowledge my own limitations and foibles, especially if I do so with a benign sense of humor, it allows others to feel safe acknowledging theirs, too. When people can talk without fear of judgment about problems or things they want to improve, it’s worlds easier for them to make progress. Good mentoring isn’t a matter of rubbing someone’s nose in their weaknesses and failures. If we really want to help someone do better, they not only have to trust we have something valuable to offer (more knowledge, skill, or experience), they must also trust we aren’t intent on making ourselves feel better by making them feel worse. Constructive criticism may be part of the process, but it should be paired with empathy for their struggles and references to our own. Humor—when pointed at ourselves or the learning process, rather than the person trying to learn—makes bitter pills much easier to swallow. Nobody wants their lack of mastery in the spotlight, even when close examination is key to their advancement. A few chuckles make it bearable, maybe even enjoyable in the right setting.
When we demonstrate the ability to laugh at ourselves and playfully kick our own tires, we actually look stronger and more admirable than folks who rigidly assert and defend their infallibility or superiority. You don’t have to be a psychologist to understand people do the latter out of brittle insecurity; their bravado is a transparent, though unfortunately also widely practiced, effort to disguise shame about what can’t be admitted, perhaps even to themselves. Ultimately, it’s an expression of, and defense against, their underlying fear of humiliation.
I’m writing this as the holiday season gets underway, so here’s a gift idea: Pull aside someone coming up through the ranks of your riding group and share a story about one of your own embarrassing moto-moments. You can both enjoy a good laugh, and the other person will feel better about working on their own rough spots. They’ll probably also feel more comfortable asking for your help as a respected and trusted friend. The gift works both ways—and not only during the holidays.
Mark Barnes is a clinical psychologist and motojournalist. To read more of his writings, check out his book Why We Ride: A Psychologist Explains the Motorcyclist’s Mind and the Love Affair Between Rider, Bike and Road, currently available in paperback through Amazon and other retailers.