Some months ago I decided to do a deep dive into shame. Inspired by the work of Brene Brown, I began to look at everything in my life that had to do with shame. Any shame about who I was, about my weaknesses, about my past, about my decisions, about things as trivial as my sleep schedule and as loaded as my divorce. It was all fair game.
I feel uncomfortable talking about shame. That is because shame thrives best in the dark places, in the crooks and crannies, in secrets and things left unsaid. Shine a light on it, and it writhes and squirms and hurts like the devil. And begins to shrink or dissipate like it’s allergic to the sun.
Shame feels like the kind of thing we’re not supposed to talk about. Shame breeds shame breeds shame. Shame encourages us to keep that big bright light far away from it. Shame has a strong survival instinct.
I feel uncomfortable talking about shame, but I have had such positive results from looking at it and working with it, and I want to share that with you. Especially because now that I’m looking for it, I see shame around me all the time. Shame about how we look physically. Shame about how “successful” we are. Shame about mental illness and chronic illness. Shame about lifestyle choices. Shame about not being good enough. Shame about needs and boundaries. And on and on.
Shame is different from other emotions that we typically think of as negative. Sadness, fear, anger, these are challenging emotions with dark sides, but they also have positive functions. Sadness honors the losses we suffer. Fear reminds us to watch over our safety. Anger can give us the energy we need to set boundaries or fight injustice.
But shame? Shame feels deeper to me, and more toxic. I haven’t found any positive functions of shame. Shame keeps us isolated and lonely, and it’s the source for astonishingly cruel self-talk. It fights against the sense of worthiness that I think is an essential component of inner peace. It keeps us from being with ourselves, and it keeps us from sharing ourselves.
We learn shame from our families, especially dysfunctional ones, and even if we get lucky there, we learn shame from our society. We also learn shame from individuals, people who are often struggling with shame themselves. And so shame marches forward.
Doing a deep dive into shame is…well, it’s unpleasant. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of courage. It requires looking at the things we don’t want to look at, talking about the things we don’t want to talk about, acknowledging the painful emotions and behavior of both ourselves and others. And it also calls for a lot of compassion because otherwise, honestly, it would be too hard. Once I started, it was amazing to me how much muck there was to clean out. More of it kept bubbling up.
I hesitate to use the term life-changing because it sounds like hyperbole, but in this case I think it is merited. Cleaning out shame has been life-changing. Those of you who have been following the blog for a while know it’s become something of a chronicle of personal change that started with me wanting to stop being such a people pleaser. That simple goal has taken me on a journey I never could have anticipated, and shame feels like it’s the very root of the problem. Finally. Here we are, performing a root canal on my psyche.
And the results? Well, this is a process, not a one-time fix and then it’s over. But over the last month or so I’ve been seeing the effects of the deep dive, and so far, this is what I can tell you.
I feel lighter. Everything feels different. My friends have been telling me things like “It seems like you have really found yourself” and “You seem a lot happier” and “Your choices seem to have really paid off.” I’m more likely to call bullshit, and when I do, I’m much more likely to think it’s stupid and much less likely to buy into it. I am slowly easing out of my protective shell because I don’t have as much need for it anymore. I am talking casually about things I didn’t use to talk casually about, if at all. I am being more direct, and I am being more authentic.
This isn’t a cure-all. I still feel uncomfortable sometimes (like talking about shame, for example). I still have attacks of writer angst. I still have emotions, I can still be disappointed, I still cry. I still sometimes dither, I still sometimes worry. I still have trouble sometimes saying no, or asking for help, or not apologizing, or remembering my needs are important.
But imagine shame as a heavy stone in the pit of your stomach. Imagine it weighing you down, getting heavier year after year, until you can barely walk from the burden. And then imagine realizing it’s there and chipping away at it. Imagine throwing it out of your body and far, far away, piece by painful piece.
It feels fucking incredible.
It feels like freedom.