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  • Writer's pictureLuke Pemberton

Franz Kafka and the elephant in the room

The last time I went to Prague was on a typical British stag night, lots of beer, night clubs, titty bars, and watching premier league football in an Irish pub. This was during the calm before the storm, the period in my life when things really went AWOL. I always knew something was not right with me. I always assumed it was some form of software glitch in my mind, a faulty program which ensured that I was eternally insecure, always scared of how much I disliked myself internally. Even on a stag night I could feel the emotional pain churning around inside me. Even after 8 pints of strong Czech beer I could feel the strong sense of inadequacy trying to pull me back from ever revealing my awful inner self to others who seemed so confident and self-assured. Well luckily Prague gave me more than just a hangover and a sense that I didn't want to repeat such a stag format for my big day, whenever that was to come around. That's because Prague gave me Franz Kafka.

Now I have never been into more serious literature, if that is indeed the category that Franz Kafka falls into. I guess these categories are anyway somewhat meaningless, as the only thing that should matter is whether the writer in question has a serious impact on you. Well he certainly did. I have never read books by a single writer that have captured my sense of despair so accurately. Reading 'The Metamorphosis' was like being understood for the first time. This is a somewhat bizarre short story about a young man who wakes up one day to find out that he has taken on insect form and appears repellant to all those around him, including his close family. It is full of poignancy and sadness, but most of all it is a study of self-loathing. Lots has been written about this work but much of it, at least to my mind, has missed the central, driving emotion at the heart of the story, and the emotion that no doubt drove the author to write it, and that emotion is shame.

In all the analysis of mental health these days, discussion seems to overlook this key emotion, which to my mind often lies at the heart of anyone dealing with a deep sense of insecurity, self-loathing and acute vulnerability. Shame is different from guilt. Guilt is I did something bad. Shame is I am bad. Shame has been described as the master emotion (and a must read on this context is an amazing book my John Bradshaw entitled 'Healing the shame that binds you'). A bit of shame can be a positive thing. It can make you determined to never repeat whatever caused you to feel the emotion in the first place.

However, it's a uniquely powerful emotion and if one is shamed as a child too much, its effects can be life crippling. In addition, shame can be applied in quite subtle ways, and is at its most devastating when applied by one or both parents. This passive form of abuse acts like a stealth bomber. Nobody really knows it's there apart from the person being targeted (wherever there is shame, there is a shamer. It's often used for emotional control). A continued sense of shame can lead to it overwhelming any other emotions in a child, such as pride in, and love for, oneself. In my situation, I never received any positive feedback as to who I was as a person ("am I valued, am I worthy of attention, should I value myself, do I have any intrinsic goodness" etc).

Because children are like sponges when young, sucking up whatever emotional information and cues they can see, and because shame is such a powerfully felt emotion, it led to me defining myself by it. "Ok, my mother always seems exasperated by me, and I seem to be such a burden on her, and my father is much more interested in anything else apart from me, this obviously means this is all my fault. At least I now know where I stand. I am clearly not worthy of attention, even from my own parents, who are right to punish me for being such a burden and for being such a failure as a son." This all led me to being shamed to the core.

I felt a bit like Obelix who had fallen into a cauldron not of magic potion, but of shame, and that I had sucked up all this shame potion so that it inhabited every cell of my body. Once this occurs to you as a youngster, you are in big trouble. While many people who suffered awful physical and sexual violence as children are able to point to specific events in their lives as being very destructive, someone who is shamed to the core cannot, and often will not even try, as they are so convinced that they are inherently bad as people to begin with, so any suffering in life is their fault, even though the destructive force of passive emotional abuse, as it's known, is often equivalent to sexual our physical abuse.

Shame also flourishes in silence, so it's the ultimate destructive weapon. The more you are shamed to the core, the less likely you are to look for help, as you are just not worth helping (and indeed even considering asking for help feels like a shameful thing to do).

So if any of this strikes a chord with you, I urge you to read the Bradshaw book and then anything by Franz Kafka. The first revealed to me my deep sense of internal shame and the second articulated it so poignantly that I felt, at long last, understood. And as a footnote, if you're going to Prague on a stag night, ditch the Irish pub in the afternoon and visit the Franz Kafka museum instead.

This article uses some content and images from the book “How to find the way out when in despair” by Luke Pemberton. The book is available from Amazon with some of the proceeds being donated to the Campaign Against Living Miserably (

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