Shame is not really a word that is used that often in my every day life but it is a feeling I believe that most of us experience daily without even realising. I had an example this weekend where a friend, after a wonderful day on Sydney harbour, mocked me for wanting to go home and chill out instead of staying on for more drinks and partying. Whilst I absolutely know he would not have meant to deliberately hurt me, his jesting struck a chord.
This website and blogging is certainly a new medium for me, up until now the only writing I did was in my journal. What I know about this experience so far is that whilst my motivation is to help others through sharing my stories, I actually feel like I'm helping myself too through this medium of expression. It helps me recognise the progress I've made on my personal journey of self-discovery and reminds me that this journey will be one I continue to travel for the rest of my days. You see learning and personal growth is not something I feel I will ever give up on and I feel enriched for feasting on stories and lessons shared by others.
Back to this weekend, the conversation went something like this:
Him: 'Ah come on why don't you stay out?'
Me: 'Thanks but I fancy a chilled one at home'
Him: 'What are you going to do?'
Me: 'I don't know, perhaps watch a movie'
Him: 'Are you going to write some poetry or something? are you on a crusade to save the world? do you have a whole load of Tony Robbins tapes at home that you need to go and listen to?'
Me: 'Nope, just going to chill, thanks'
Now that sounds harmless enough right?
But that short dialogue itself was enough to have me feeling a sense of shame. I know this website is an area of vulnerability for me, so being mocked about it immediately made me feel uncomfortable. I sensed my stomach muscles tighten and my body stiffen a little and my smile went from feeling natural to one of those 'say cheese' smiles. I was trying to appear relaxed and nonchalant about it all but I knew I was feeling shame.
My friend had never mentioned my website to me before and we'd not discussed what he thought about it or where I might be headed with this new venture so when he mocked in front of several other friends that perhaps I was on a crusade to save the world it had me feeling shame, a sense of isolation that came with knowing I was doing something different but being unclear as to how it was really viewed by others, was it good or bad? The difference for me this time though was that I actually recognised what I was feeling and it got me thinking about all the ways I'd tried to avoid shame in the past.
Before I go on, it may be worth me sharing a definition of shame that resonated with me, it was developed by, researcher/storyteller, Brene Brown.
'Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging'
It's an incredibly powerful definition that will no doubt evoke some emotion and whilst some of you may think it doesn't apply to you I would guarantee that shame is universal. If you've ever felt like you weren't good enough, smart enough, attractive enough, slim enough, fit enough, charismatic enough, wealthy enough, popular enough, educated enough, upbeat enough, entertaining enough, achieving enough, cool enough, then my friends you have all experienced shame.
Here are some of those examples of how I've tried to avoid shame in the past:
- Only this year, when I first started writing poetry I set up a secret Instagram account that I didn't tell my friends about. I wanted to practise without worrying what friends would think of me, also because I didn't feel that my poetry was good enough to be shared.
- When I first started working full time after university and my colleagues would ask where I was originally from I'd tell them I was from a nicer part of my home city rather than the actual part I grew up in, which was a less salubrious rough inner city suburb. I didn't want them to know I grew up in a council house.
- At school when the kids used to ask me where my Dad was and why they'd never seen him I'd say he was working really hard and started early and finished late. I didn't want them to know that my Dad had left when I was three and that I barely knew him. I didn't want them to not be my friends because of it.
- When my sister wouldn't lend me her shoes because she thought I had wider feet than her and that mine would stretch her shoes I asked her to do an experiment where we each drew around our feet onto a piece of paper to prove my feet were the same width - I'm pretty sure I pushed the pen tightly into the side of my feet when I went around so that my feet were just as slim as hers, I didn't want to be labelled as having wide feet.
- Very early on in my career recruiters would ask me about the qualifications I had, when I mentioned I had a Mathematics A'Level I would leave out the detail that I was graded with an 'E', being an accountant I feared I'd be seen as a fraud for not getting top results in Maths.
The list could go on but I think it's clear for me that shame is a powerful emotion, it's something that kicks in at a very young age and shapes how we act. The power of shame lies in its ability to make us feel completely alone when we are experiencing it. Which is why we often do things to avoid shame, it's our way of protecting ourselves to help us be accepted by others and have that sense of belonging rather than isolation. The experience of shame will never leave us, there will always be triggers because shame works hand in hand with our fears of disconnection from others, and it often becomes difficult to separate the two.
I'll refer back to my original example to demonstrate how shame can be used to motivate. My friend's comments were inadvertently a use of shame as a method to try and motivate me to stay out, instead of just suggesting it would be really great to hang out his comments very clearly created a 'you' and 'us' situation by mocking what I was doing and therefore playing into fears of being disconnected from the group by stepping out.
I'm grateful for the awareness I have around shame and how it plays out in my life, for the understanding of how it limits me and takes me away from embracing who I really am. Having this awareness I was able to step away and not be consumed by my initial reaction. I was able to stay objective and whilst the feeling was strong I understood how to take the power out of the emotion.
Shame will always exist in our lives as our society dictates the social norms that either includes us or excludes us. We do it all the time ourselves, by determining what 'type' of people we are and therefore by default identifying what we are not - which immediately puts those in that are in the 'other' bracket on the outside. But we know all too well we could easily find ourselves on the outside too.
Take some time to notice what triggers shame for you, find people you trust to share your experience and don't be afraid to ask for their help even if just to listen. Remember you take the power out of shame when you speak it out. Shames feeds on our fears and our silence so don't let yourself retreat into isolation. Be brave, be you.
If you want to learn more on shame I'd highly recommend reading Brene Brown's book, 'I thought it was just me (but it isn't)' - The title for me say's it all, you will definitely be in good company!