I wrote this post on a train a few weeks back, in one of those inspired moments when I just had to get the words down onto the page or the screen. I didn’t have wifi at the time so I didn’t post it and when I re-read it a few days later, it didn’t feel so urgent, so raw or so relevant. In fact, it felt exaggerated and self-indulgent.
But last night, I had what I can only call a shame attack. Something triggered me and I felt so small, so in the wrong, so not good enough, so like crawling back into my shell. I felt I didn’t have a right to be here. What was I doing, pretending to be grown-up in this world full of grown-ups, pretending I can hold my own? What was I thinking? How could I dare to believe that I could navigate this world, do normal things like normal adults do, speak up for myself, assert my rights, be seen, be heard?
Beset with shame but needing to cook dinner, I opened up my laptop and re-watched Brené Brown’s TED talk on shame while I chopped onions, peppers and mushrooms. I then re-watched her talk on vulnerability, then clicked back to her talk on shame again.
Tears came and went (and not just because of the onions), but I grew calmer as I listened. I felt less alone. I heard how shame is the swampland of the soul, how it’s fed by secrecy, silence and judgement, and how empathy is the antidote to shame. I understood that others felt as I feel sometimes.
I then promised myself I would post what I had written a few weeks ago about shame, with some tiny edits and additions, and I would share it with you. Because that’s one of the ways I have learned to deal with my shame, with that sense of worthlessness and wrongness that comes and goes, with that deep feeling that I’m flawed or not OK. By writing it down, working it through on this page, speaking my truth and hopefully connecting with some of you on a deep level, I can heal, I can feel less alone, like I belong, like there isn’t something fundamentally wrong with me, like I’ll be OK and it’ll all be OK.
So here it is.
Let’s Talk About Shame
Shame is a topic I’ve only skimmed over to date, on this blog and on my personal development journey.
I’m not sure why. Perhaps I was scared, scared to explore just how much shame I carried, scared to go there. But lately, I’ve been getting a strong sense that I need to go deeper with shame, to get to the root of it and to understand how my shame has impacted my life and continues to do so and to find ways to heal from it. I’ve been reading about shame, hearing about it and it’s been on my heart. I guess I’m shedding another layer of the onion, one that’s very close to the core.
So here goes. Deep breath. This isn’t going to be easy.
The bottom line is I’ve always had this sense that I’m irreparably flawed, that there’s something wrong with me, that I’m wrong, my life is wrong and whatever I do or choose is wrong.
I could say I’ve worn a cloak of shame all my life because that’s a nice metaphor, but it wouldn’t be true. My shame hasn’t cloaked me. It hasn’t been on the outside. It’s been on the inside, festering, eating away at me, hollowing me out, pulling the rug from beneath me, dragging me down.
I can see it now in a way that I couldn’t before. And it makes me feel sick. And angry.
I believe I inherited shame. I inherited the idea that there’s no space for me, that I don’t have a right to be here while others do, that there’s something wrong with me. I’ve just had my mum visiting and I could hear and sense her shame and it made me very sad. “I don’t want to be a nuisance”, “I don’t want to be in the way”, “Won’t I be in the way?”, “I’m going to be a nuisance”. She repeats these phrases often. Somewhere, at some point, she sadly got the message that she was a nuisance (what a horrible word), that she didn’t have a right to breathe her air or to take up her seat or to allow her truth into the world. I must have grown up hearing that or sensing it.
I imbibed shame and then I grew it by doing things in my younger years that I was ashamed of: drinking to excess, throwing up, binge-eating so my body took on a shape I was ashamed of, striking up inappropriate relationships and always, always, trying to cover my shame, trying to compensate for it by being a good girl, by being perfect. That generally backfired. The more I tried to be the perfect weight through undereating, the more I binged and grew in size. The more work I did and the higher I climbed, the more I felt I was an imposter who didn’t belong, and the more I ate to cope with that shame.
I don’t do things I’m ashamed of anymore but the historical, deep-rooted shame is still there.
I feel my shame when I try to market by book or my work. I feel it in the way I phrase my offerings or price what I do. I am downplaying my talents and skills. I am undercharging. I am giving away my time. I know I am. I can see it clearly now. I’m out there doing what I love but not to the level that I could be or with the professionalism or price tag that I know, deep down, deep beneath my shame, that my work deserves.
I feel it when I interact with people who I believe have got things much more sorted than me or who are cleverer, richer or happier or who seem to have made better choices in their lives, which, in my mind, is pretty much everyone.
I feel it acutely when I’m around people who apparently have it all – husbands/wives/partners and children. I feel the odd one out. Despite now being in a lovely relationship and recently engaged, I still feel different. I feel like I got it wrong. I feel like this path I’ve taken and this journey I’m on can’t possibly be right. I got engaged at 46, not 36 or 26, and it’s highly unlikely I’ll have children. Whether I wanted them or not, I still feel ashamed.
I feel like others are judging me and feeling sorry for me, for the way my life has turned out and for the choices I’ve made, even if they’re not, even if they’re unhappy in their lives and envy mine.
How hard it is to embrace my path. How hard it is to accept that this life of mine, these choices I’ve made, the way things have turned out is OK, spot on, more than good enough. It’s easier to believe I got it wrong, to hang my head in shame.
You wouldn’t notice my head is hung but it is all the same, much of the time. It’s so hard to claim my space, my air, my right to be here. It’s so hard to believe I am equal to you and equal to everyone else. It’s hard to believe we’re both right and we both made good choices. It’s much easier to think you’re right and I’m wrong. It’s easier because that’s the way I’ve always thought.
I remember someone saying to me way back that shame is a useless emotion. While fear can keep us safe and sadness alerts us to emotional pain or hurt, shame just hangs there, telling us we’re no good, that we’re flawed, that we got it wrong. More than that, telling us we don’t belong here, to go back to where we came from, to crawl back under our rock.
Now at 46, without children, engaged to a man who doesn’t want any and understanding that I’ve always been ambivalent about kids (I had options to do something about it and I never did), I am beginning to accept and embrace this path of mine.
I really want to embrace it. I do. But it’s not easy. I am programmed to believe I am wrong. I am programmed to feel shame. Especially next to those who seem to have it all sorted. I feel like you pity me. Maybe you don’t, but it’s easier to believe you do. That’s my default. That suits my shame.
But I owe it to myself to stand tall in my life, in my choices and in who I am. And I owe it to myself to remember that I’ve had a wonderful, remarkable life so far and that I am blessed to be healthy and to be in love.
My therapist reminded me the other day what a remarkable life I had led to date. I may sully it with tales of binge-eating, self-harming, over-working and dysfunctional relationships, but there’s been so much adventure and joy and there’s been so much deep, deep friendship, love, healing and incredible transformation. Some of you reading this have been part of that story and still are.
What a privilege to have lived like this and to have the opportunity to continue to live and love. What a privilege to be me – someone who feels deeply, loves deeply and hurts deeply, but feels fully alive.
But it took someone else to remind me how remarkable I am and how remarkable my life has been. And that’s often the case. Maybe that’s the case with you too?
Whenever friends or colleagues talk about me or my work, they point out the remarkable stuff. I don’t, or at least not often. I’m ashamed to talk about that. I’m ashamed to own my life and my journey. I’d rather play it down and I’d rather focus on the negatives and the bad choices. It’s familiar. It suits my shame.
So how do I break this? How do I get the shame out of my body and soul? How do I rid myself of it?
I begin by talking about it, by writing it here and by seeing if any of you can relate. That’s a good start. That makes me feel less alone and lessons my shame. I can let go of what you might think of me when you read this blog and publish it anyway, confident that it’s important to me to be real. That is part of my journey to wholeness.
That’s one approach. Honestly, though, right now it would suit me to hurl my shame across the room at great speed and with great force. I’m so over it. I’m so over this shame. I am so ready to be happy, precious and free. I am angry and that’s a good place to be. I’m angry that shame has dragged me down.
Enough is enough.
From here on, I will do my best to own my life, own my choices, breathe my air and take up my rightful space in the world.
I wish you the same.
So that is what I wrote, with a few small edits and additions. That’s how it felt then. It doesn’t feel quite like that today, right now, because I did a few things today to combat my shame – and they worked.
In the old days, my shame-management techniques were as follows: hide, eat, drink, overwork, self-harm, be perfect, keep quiet, stay small, be vague, undercharge.
Today, I am discovering more and more shame-defeating techniques: visibility, connection, support, clarity, knowing my value, stating my worth, fun, joy, playfulness, balance, self-care and spontaneity.
I am learning that to beat my shame, I usually have to do the opposite of what my shame-based mind wants me to do. If my mind tells me to stay home and isolate, I need to get out there and connect. If my mind tells me not to ask for support, I need to reach out for help. If my mind tells me to stay quiet, I need to speak up. If my mind tells me to be invisible, I need to do everything I can to be visible.
Visibility happened by accident this morning. I headed to the beach to do a Facebook live video about shame, to share all this stuff in this blog and to get it out there into the world. But when I got there I saw I only had 15% left on my phone battery, which meant I couldn’t do a live video. I had my book in my hand, because I was going to mention it – I was going to say that after putting my heart and soul into writing it, I often felt too ashamed to market it – so I decided to take some photos and videos of it, and of me, and of the book, and of me, and of the book on the sand, on a rock and in my hand. In other words, I decided to shout about my book from the rooftops rather than explain why I was too ashamed to do so.
It turned things around. The sun was out and warm, the waves were rolling in and I was being creative and having a lot of fun. I then posted those photos and video on social media – hitting right back at my shame.
Next, I went to a meeting of Creative Women in Business at my studio, The Old School House in Boscombe, Bournemouth, and talked openly about my shame with a group of supportive women, aided by the energy healing techniques of the wonderful Marie Houlden.
I cried, I shared, I cried and I healed – not all of it, but another layer of the onion. So again, I hit right back at my shame. I connected, I felt empathy towards others and I experienced empathy. I was open, honest and real. Shame didn’t stand a chance in that environment.
I wonder if you feel shame? I wonder if your shame holds you back? I wonder if you have shame-management techniques, such as perfectionism, overeating, over-working, drinking or hiding. And I wonder if you too can find ways to defeat your shame – through connection, empathy, support, visibility, honesty and courage.
Maybe we can do it together?
If you’d like some support with this, with beating shame, with being visible, with living the life of your dreams, or with finding love, have a think about joining my Facebook group, Being Real, Becoming Whole. It would be amazing to see you there.
As the fabulous Brené said at the end of her TED talk, that’s all I have.