Shame. Blech. The word alone makes me cringe. Like many of the difficult emotions, I want to escape and avoid this one—to take a quick, ice cold bath in it and call it done. The past few years, I have worked through boatloads of shame over past choices and actions I have made in the hopes that I could move on from this painful emotion and never have to deal with it again. Ha! If only it were that easy.
Am I Shameless, or Shame-Free?
I thought I had gotten myself to a place where I can claim that I have no shame, and in a sense, I have worked past the shame of those particular situations. I can talk openly about them. I know and believe that my past actions don’t define me or make me unworthy of love and belonging. However, I’m kidding myself if I think I am free from feeling shame.
Our shame work is never done. Just when we think it’s all good, another thought, another behavior, another situation occurs. BAMb! We’re stuck again. Another. Fucking. Shame. Attack.
Brené Brown, a shame researcher, says that “shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it—it can’t survive being shared. Shame loves secrecy. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes.” The problem is, when we are in a shame attack the last thing we want to do is share our story.
Shame is tied to the belief that we are inherently bad, that we are unworthy of love and belonging. We think if people knew our shame, we might be rejected. This is a scary belief. Why the hell would I want to share something that could possibly lead to rejection?!? It seems counter-intuitive. But the research speaks for itself. We must do the thing that we don’t want to do if we want to be free.
Combat Shame By Seeking Connection
We need belonging, love, and connection to survive and any perceived threat to that can keep us from sharing the thing that we think will make others recoil in disgust and disbelief. The problem is when we hold in our shame it metastasizes like a disfiguring cancerous tumor, determined to suck the life right out of us. Our shame keeps us small. It keeps us from practicing vulnerability, which is the exact thing we must be practicing in order to have deep, intimate connections with others. Vulnerability is the antidote to shame.
In other words, it’s a vicious cycle. We fear not having love and belonging, so we hide our shame. We close off and turn away from vulnerability which then keeps us from the love and belonging that we are so desperately trying to protect.
Brené says, “Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen. It’s tough to do that when we’re terrified about what people might see or think.” However, it’s the very thing we need to practice if we want to authentically show up in our relationships. If we want to deepen our connections and intimacy, we must practice vulnerability.
So why am I writing about shame? Because I had quite the shame attack this holiday season. My shame is related to my sobriety from alcohol: I spent most of December wanting to drink. The thing is, I have secretly prided myself on the fact that not-drinking hasn’t been that hard. I haven’t gone to A.A. I’ve been able to be around other people who are drinking, I have been to parties and gatherings and have had a general sense of “I’ve got this thing handled.” I made it through summer, the biggest drinking time of the year for me and my friends, and I thought that if I could handle that, I could handle anything. I was wrong.
Dealing With Holiday Horrors
This holiday season, my sobriety felt fragile at certain moments. There are three thoughts that generally lead to relapse.
1. I deserve it.
2. Fuck it
3. No one will know.
My thoughts were swirling in the camp of “no one will know” and “fuck it.” Luckily, I was on to myself.
Here’s where the shame creeps in. I thought, “I can’t let people know about this,” and “What will people think of me if they know what I am thinking and feeling?” I imagined they would think I am weak. That I don’t have it figured out. As if I am supposed to have it all figured out and be strong all of the time. Basically, the independent, I-can-do-anything-without-help 16-year-old in me was rearing her self-righteous, cocky head.
Break The Pattern To Break Through
These are the kind of thoughts that lead us into shame spirals. Knowing that shame can’t survive when it’s shared, I reached out to my friends, though it was hard for me to admit how I was feeling.
It’s important to acknowledge that none of us can do this thing called life alone. We need each other. We need our friends and family to lean on when we are feeling vulnerable. That doesn’t make us weak, it makes us strong. To banish shame, to get it in its free-flowing state, it needs to be shared. That doesn’t mean you go and shout your pain from the rooftops to anyone and everyone. It means sharing it with those who love and support you. Shame cannot survive when it is shared in a safe place.
Curing Shame, One Connection At A Time
The next time you find yourself in the midst of shame attack, turn towards those who love you. Practice vulnerability. Don’t allow your shame to metastasize. Remember, you are not alone in your shame. We all have it. It is our shame, our imperfections that connect us. You are perfectly imperfect just as you are supposed to be. As Brené says, “Imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we are all in this together.”
Yes, we are all in this together, my friends. Let us not be afraid to lean on each other.