A Story About Shame and Self-Acceptance While Ordering Pizza

Edward Hopper, ‘Night Shadows’ (1921)

I was in the second hour of wandering around my Brooklyn neighborhood on a glorious Saturday when I got an innocent text from my wife: “Want to pick up a pizza on your way back?” I responded immediately in the affirmative, relishing an opportunity to eat one of my favorite foods and take a break from the routine of cooking during quarantine. I knew just the place: a somewhat expensive coal-oven spot I could call and stop by in about twenty minutes on my way back to our apartment. Perfect!

Then something mysterious happened. As I read the pizza order my wife texted me the internal peace built up on my leisurely walk was shattered. I felt a spark of anger suddenly ignite. At the same time, the formerly benign world around me seemed to attack: the neutral sounds of cars, the brownstone building facades, and especially the glances of masked passersby began to frustrate me deeply, poking at my abruptly severed nerves. Even more remarkably, at the time I barely noticed this drastic gestalt shift. My entire world had gone from placid heaven to tumultuous hell, and somehow it seemed to be business as usual. It was only when I heard my own internal voice react that I noticed something wrong: “Wait,” I heard myself say. “Why am I so angry out of the blue? Where did this storm of negativity come from?”

I retraced my mental steps. I had looked up the menu of the pizza place on my phone, my frigid fingers swiping through topping options, when I received my wife’s order via text and the whole mess started. What did the text say? Innocuously, it said: “Something with meat on it for me? No bell peppers [kissy face emoji].” A-ha! I stopped in my tracks to mentally register what had happened inside myself. When I saw my wife’s text about meat, an internal dialogue occurred in a flash: since I do not eat meat, I began to negotiate how to order something that both of us would enjoy.

In the meantime, from somewhere deep within a familiar self-critique began to churn: How dare you. What makes you so special? My well-rehearsed inner voice was shaming me for standing even a little bit outside the box. I grew up eating meat; it was only within the last six months that my preferences changed, and, apparently, I wasn’t near done giving myself shit about it. Only then, after this cruel inner-excoriation began, did the anger emerge. The anger was a secondary inner voice, which responded in outrage: How dare I?!?! How dare YOU! I can order whatever the HELL I want — It’s a free country and I’m my own person! But this retaliatory voice wasn’t just addressed toward myself — the reactive spray of anger doused not only my self-critique but also my wife and my entire environment! I was instantly in attack mode. I had been attacked, after all — I just didn’t realize yet that I was playing both parts, assailant and protesting victim.

Martin Lewis, ‘Passing Storm’ (1919)

Now a new feeling prevailed: calm. I’d gone from heaven to hell in an instant, but by dissecting my internal state, tracing my anger to its source, I found myself back on solid ground, marveling at the power of my frame of mind. It turns out that just by going through a largely unconscious, habitual interior dialogue, not only could my mood shift radically, but also my perception of reality! All of Brooklyn received an imaginary punishment for my domestic war. If I wasn’t somehow able to catch myself, to become aware of my self-division, who knows what minor transgressions would’ve erupted. Perhaps I would’ve written something snarky back to my wife (like I in fact imagined doing); perhaps I would’ve snapped at someone in line at the pizza place. These potential outbursts are not dire, but the point still stands. Shame was at the root of my anger. My fear of standing out caused me to perceive the world itself as a threat. I felt like lashing out, all because I’d already surreptitiously lashed myself.

I am grateful that I was able to take a beat and think about what was happening inside me — that curiosity took over. Shame is something I’d been reading about for a while, first in journalist Jon Ronson’s book on social media shaming So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (2015), then in psychiatrist James Gilligan’s excellent work on the link between shame and violence (see for example his 2001 book Preventing Violence), and most recently in Brené Brown’s popular work on vulnerability and shame-resistance. All of this research perhaps laid the groundwork for seeing a mental pattern unfold (almost) in real-time.

Another interesting link is in the work of historian and literary theorist René Girard (1923–2015), who popularized something called “mimetic theory” (see for example his 1999 book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning). Girard thought that desire was imitative: we learn to want by watching and imitating others’ wants. If this is true, our motivations inevitably lead us into conflict: if we want what someone else wants we will at some point have to compete, to challenge one other over a shared desire.

René Girard

Girard thought that our usual way out of this state of conflict with others was simple and insidious: we randomly pick someone to blame for our problems. By turning our vengeance against an arbitrary scapegoat, we escape self-reflection on what caused our friction in the first place, settling for the illusion of peace based on unfounded revenge. The process is horrible and violent.

But does Girard’s theory really follow through in experience? If my pizza-story is any indication, I think it does. Without even thinking about it, I enacted the entire mimetic process: beneath it all, from the start, I longed for acceptance — for the “other” within myself to see me as worthy. In the absence of this acceptance, I had no choice but to choose a scapegoat. I looked for someone — anyone — to blame so I might feel the relief of unanimous hatred. As it says in the New Testament, a house divided against itself cannot stand (see for example Mark 3:25). My thought process began from a place of division, of non-acceptance, and instead of standing my mind attacked as it ran from itself. Girard primarily discusses his theory on a larger scale, a process of sacrifice and expulsion on the societal level. What I realized is that it must start somewhere. It starts with the individual — with, in this case, myself.

After years of focusing on non-violence and other-oriented acceptance, I am just starting to see how my external relationships can only reflect my internal ones. The way I treat others begins with the way I treat myself. The cycle of scapegoating must first be stopped within by addressing division at its source. There are many answers, but none of them involve self-flagellation or blame. The baseless inner critic — my inner self whose first response is to attack out of fear — must not be taken at face value. To resist mimetic scapegoating, I must pay attention to how it already occurs in my head.

I ordered a pizza — half sausage, half mushroom — committing again to reminding myself that it is okay to ask for what I want. For so long I thought the way to live was to perform kindness toward others through gritted teeth, suppressing any consideration of my own feelings and desires. Now I see my feelings can and should be heard, especially when they are difficult to listen to. By having faith that I may face myself, the world itself may no longer be my enemy. The pizza, though a bit over-priced, was delicious.

Thanks for reading. Follow me for more work — I’m trying to post something new at least once a month.

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Ross J. Edwards

Ross J. Edwards

Brooklyn-based musician, administrator, seeker; pursuing a master's in philosophy at New School in NY.