We all feel it. Some of us more than others. It is not the same as guilt. Guilt happens when we violate some sort of moral principle we believe in or believe we should believe in.
Shame is a pervasive belief that there is something egregiously wrong with us. We are bad, we are wrong, we are inherently unworthy. Shame seems to be a collection of stories, myths and perhaps passing comments to us as we grew up that led us to the conclusion that we are not worthy or are bad, wrong, or are forever damaged beyond repair.
We all have shame to some degree about something. There is some story that exists in our minds that cause us to feel unworthy. Perhaps it is a story that centers around our body type, our intellect, our emotional nature, our past, our actions, our intentions, the things that have happened to us or how we handled (or didn't) the things that happened to us. Whatever it is that we feel shame about is sort of immaterial, what is common across the board is that it is pervasive, very believable and stands in the way of forward progress for all who allow shame to take center stage in their interiority.
Shame exists like a mold that grows silently in the dark. Because we feel so inherently wrong and bad and awful about this part of ourselves, we do not talk about it, not even to the pricey therapists we pay to help us. Shame dictates that we remain forever silent about the beliefs that we hold onto about ourselves, for ourselves. Shame requires silence. We believe erroneously that we are so bad, wrong, unworthy that we cannot even speak about whatever it is. That to give this awful thing voice would be our complete and final undoing.
I have seen addicts and alcoholics be killed by shame. Sure, they get sober and stop using. They begin to work steps and they share in a very general way the atrocious acts they committed while substance seeking or using. But the ones who die are usually the ones who shame claims victim of their soul. Their belief that they are so damaged, wrong, awful, unworthy the baseline that they can never, ever get away from...there is no amount of love, understanding, or compassion that can interrupt a well told shame story. Shame is a very convincing belief system that seems the only true one. It goes like this:
I am not worthy of being loved because...
This is very true - look at all the evidence in your life to prove that...(never mind that there is more evidence to the contrary...shame capitalizes on a few key moments where you did or said or didn’t do or didn’t say something that you now wish you had or hand’t)
I feel so badly about ______.
And you should...no one on the planet would act that way.
Yes. You should be ashamed...forever. And for God's sake...do not EVER tell anyone what you thought, did, said! It would be your undoing!
I feel so badly about the things I have done or thought...
That is because you are a horrible person. No one on the planet sucks as much as you do.
Wait, I am not a murderer.
But you did that thing or thought that thing or said that thing and that makes you unworthy. You aren’t the worse person on the planet but you are still super bad and the best thing for a bad person like you is to be quiet and keep that to yourself. Do not let anyone ever know what you thought or did or didn’t think or didn’t say...they would hate you and you would be forever rejected.
I really wish I hadn’t done that or wish I had done something different.
I know but you didn’t and that makes you a bad person. Unworthy of love, affection, attention. Do not ever let anyone know this thing. It will be your undoing.
And on and on it goes. It is the baseline conversation of a person’s interior dialog...forever.
One of the things that I think made AA such a miraculous invention was how it sought to deal with shame from the get go...
In AA, part of the 12 steps requires that you tell another living soul all your conduct that has resulted in you feeling shame. You share about it openly at meetings. You share about the most shameful stuff with your sponsor. You shed light on all the dark corners in which shame lurks...whenever it darts out from the shadows and grabs you, another member is there to help you process it. It does appear that shame cannot survive being spoken. And when shame is met with empathy and compassion, it evaporates to a much more manageable amount and the storyline is interrupted long enough for a new thought, idea or dialogue to begin.
The key to shame evaporation seems to be in careful selection with whom you share it. Sharing with the wrong person can really fuck you up more. So it seems to be crucial to make a careful, loving connection with anyone with whom you want to do shame or worth work. You are going to have to trust that person a lot. More than you think is possible or feasible.
In my lifetime, I had a shame story. (I actually had several...). It actually had nothing to do with anything I did in the beginning. Something happened to me which made me feel horrible about myself and then I took that feeling and wrote a whole other script about how I was damaged, bad, wrong, awful, and unworthy. My biggest and most significant role was to then continue to select people who would treat me in a manner that reinforced this story. And that is the real kicker, life is full of people who will tell you what you already believe to be true about yourself. Some will help deepen the story and give you new evidence that you are a bigger piece of shit than you previously realized. These people will help you feel worse and you will let them because by this time you will so believe that you are unworthy at your core, that that is the only thing that seems true.
For me it has been a long process. I couldn’t talk about what happened for a very long time. Really I only started to really heal about five years ago. My shame story was well told and reinforced for most of my life. Then I met someone who, for some unknown reason, was able to hear my story with love, empathy and compassion. He listened to me and was there for me in a way and manner that no one else ever had been before. He gave me something that I needed even though I couldn’t have ever even formed the words to articulate what I needed. He somehow just knew.
It was his love for me that began to unravel the whole shame story and spiral. Somehow in his eyes, I saw my own worth. I saw the way he looked at me, felt the way he held me and knew that no one could love or look at me or hold me in that manner if I was really an awful human being. He also told me repeatedly that I was 1 in 7.3 billion. So often, that I dared to believe him.
To be clear, I had done a lot of work before this happened. But that work was really on other matters and areas. I had needed to deal with my addiction. I had needed to deal with some other mental health issues that vexed me. But it was his arrival in my life that made me really have to do the work on worth. Somehow, his love for me, made me find a way to believe that I was worthy of that love.
What happened for me was a clinging to him in a way that was likely unhealthy. I needed him to make me feel worthwhile. Then he left. His own issues on the very same subject matter brought an end to us. I won’t lie, I was devastated. His departure threw me into a very long walk with shame. I hiked it out and back so many hundred of miles because out in the great wide open was the only place I felt safe to begin to unwind the very complicated story of how unworthy I was.
Over the years I pulled forth a lot of evidence and really used his departure as the best example of my own lack of worth. Finally, I concluded that I would be alone forever because I was too broken, too awful, too hard to love. And I sat with that. For months. But the pain I felt made me talk about it because it was too much to bear alone. I had to begin to talk about this shame I felt in therapy. I had to do some EMDR on it. I had to begin to discuss it in my most intimate friendships and with my sponsor. I had to allow the light to fall all over the horrible tale that was evidence of my lack of worth...
I am a firm believer that no one else can love you until you love yourself. But I also believe that you can’t really begin to love yourself without having someone, just one person, listen to your shame story with empathy, love and compassion. I believe that this is the barrier to all love and progress and help: a stubborn refusal to allow another to hear your shameful tale. To put it all out there...that one fact will ruin your life, really.
Shame will always tell you not to tell. Do not let anyone know. Do not share it. Do not let anyone in. But this is not truth, no matter how much it tells you that it is. It is just shame doing what shame does...separates you from those that love you and keeps you alone, isolated and bereft forever. That is shames’ ultimate goal...to use the actual events of your life where you were not your best self and use those as evidence of your complete and total lack of worth. Shame is like a parasitic cell that feeds off of the cell that gave it life to begin with...it received the gift of life and now consumes that very life with no regard for the gift and no regard for the giver.
Shame is hard to work with because it really capitalizes on beliefs and fears long held. We believe that we lack worth so we hold back and don’t share things. We refuse to let others in because we are not worthy. We wound others in the process and then have more data to support our own lack of worth. Fear mounts to a ridiculously high degree and so we shut it all down and those who love us out because the anxiety is just too much to bear. And shame wins again.
Oh we will keep trying and failing because shame loves that. Shame creates an endless loop of trial and failure and repetitive patterns that feel so well worn that they are almost comfortable...pain becoming the thing that allows us to feel alive and deserving of more of what we already know we deserve...more pain.
So we do what anyone would do when faced with this proposition...shut down. Turn off. Hold back. Shame tells us this is the only way to protect ourselves. Shame says cut them out. Hold them off. This is the only way we can be somewhat safe. Alone but safe.
But that is a lie. Shame doesn’t want you to ever know or see that opening up at those places where you feel most vulnerable is the pathway out of the shame spiral. Talking about your lack of worth, in fact, makes you more worthy. Allowing someone to hold you, heal you is the best and most precious gift one human being can give to another. Oh, for sure, shame is going to tell you to shut up and just move on. Shame is going to tell you a lot of things that are going to feel very true...but they aren’t. Trust me, I know.
The best and surest way I know to begin shames eradication from our lives, is to allow that one person who loves you, who sees you in the loving way that they do, begin with them, tell them just one tiny shameful thing you have been holding onto. Trust that this revelation will begin a process of a new kind of shame spiral...the kind that moves upwards toward the light. Speaking that which we feel shame over begins to erode the long held belief that we are capable of change. All this time you thought you couldn’t possibly change and that felt true and right and real...and I am here to tell you that was only shame’s most convincing voice masquerading as your own.
For me, vulnerability was my final ticket out of my long held belief that I was unworthy. Until I committed to telling you all who I really was, shame dominated me and kept me cordoned off from my life and all of you. My willingness to step into the void and just tell you how I fuck it up, how I hurt, how I bleed the final blow that pushed shame to the perimeter and allowed me to take center stage in my own life. Oh, I know that shame lurks forever in the shadows which is why I keep writing and sharing and posting on an almost daily basis. Sharing this with you every damn day the best and most effective defense against shame's domination of my soul...