I have a very intimate relationship with shame. Not to be stereotypical, but growing up as a white Catholic American female, shame is my middle name. The ancient root of the word shame literally translated means, “to cover oneself.” This is pretty much what many of us do when we experience shame. We try to hide, make ourselves small, disconnect ourselves from the situation that is causing us to feel shame.
Shame is a dense purple knot that lives in my stomach. Shame makes me shrivel up, close in on myself, lower my eyes to the ground. I remember being scolded or criticized as a child by my parents or teachers and feeling a sense of panic and dread, as though the people I cared about most would now love me less because I wasn’t thoughtful enough, responsible enough, smart enough.
It’s so strange the memories that come flooding back as I sit here and write about shame. When I was in kindergarten, I was riding the bus home from school and playing with my friend in the seat in front of me, popping my Mickey Mouse umbrella over the seat and doing my best Mickey Mouse club imitation. My friend giggled, so of course I continued, ever the performer. When we approached my stop and I walked to get off the bus, the bus driver grabbed my arm with her skeleton-like claw and shrieked at me that if I couldn’t behave myself on the bus she would never let me ride it again (Listen, context is everything. As far as my five-year-old brain recalls, this woman was the Wicked Witch of the West, Maleficient and Cruella de Ville rolled into one dried up husk of a crone. In retrospect, I’m sure she was actually a kindly elderly lady who was just trying to keep her sanity on a bus full of tiny lunatics). I ran and hid under a bush in my backyard, sobbing inconsolably. I was certain the bus driver would tell my parents, or worse yet, my kindergarten teacher, and I would be a pariah. I was awake all night dreading getting on the bus the next day, sure that she would fixate her evil beady eyes on me and reduce me to dust with her stare. She would announce to the entire bus that I was a bad girl and nobody should talk to me. I would be mocked and hated.
The next day, I walked to the bus, shaking. The driver nodded in my direction as I hesitantly climbed the steps and then began to drive. Nothing else happened. Life continued.
That little kindergartner lives on inside of me still, and often I have found myself in the same pit of panic, self loathing, and fear of losing the trust, respect and love of others. Why did I eat that sixth cookie? Why did I wait so long to reach out to that friend who experienced a great loss? Why didn’t I go home more to spend time with my mom during my first year of college? Why did I sleep in this morning instead of hauling my lazy butt to the gym? Why didn’t I do more to keep my dad healthy? Why did I lash out at my husband for nothing today? What’s wrong with me? Why am I such a failure? Who could possibly love me?
Believe me, I am an extremely happy, healthy, fulfilled individual with a great deal of positivity and self-confidence. So don’t get the wrong idea! I’m simply admitting that I, like all humans, experience shame when I am afraid of losing connection with others. Yet, by tumbling into the pit of shame, where I turn in on myself and cower, I’m actually robbing myself of the connection I so very much crave.
Brene Brown, an acclaimed researcher in social work, has written a great deal about shame and vulnerability. She makes the point that people who are most happy, who are living life with a sense of worthiness, are courageous, compassionate and connected. They acknowledge shame but don’t let it own them. Brown goes on to say that the Latin word for courage is actually translated into “telling your story with your whole heart.” Courage is not about living without fear, rather it’s living with the willingness to be vulnerable in the sight of oneself and others. Wholehearted people are willing to be compassionate not only with others but with themselves, willing to give themselves a break when they make mistakes, to forgive themselves for their failures or transgressions and move on. Wholehearted people are connected, which means they are willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order be their authentic, real selves.
I love this vision of being a wholehearted human being. The five-year old inside of me loves it, too. It doesn’t mean I should live my life without respect for others, or lack of awareness of how my actions impact them. It does mean I shouldn’t apologize for who I am. I can make mistakes with friends and then patch things up. I can accept what my body and intuition are trying to tell me when I snooze past my alarm. I can laugh at myself when I eat a whole bag of bulk candy in one sitting and then have an upset stomach. I can rejoice in the love and care I showered on my parents while they were alive.
Shame is an innate part of my being, egged on at times by social and cultural conditioning and my own individual desire to be liked and seen as “a good girl” by everyone. Shame will always be lurking in the shadow, ready to pounce when I mess things up. If I can acknowledge its existence, nod politely to it when it provokes me, and then step away from it, I can spend more of my precious time on this planet telling my story with my whole heart. If there is one lesson I can pass on to my child, let it be this.