I’m reading Brene’ Brown’s book Daring Greatly. She is a shame researcher. I don’t know how you get to be a shame researcher, but I know I’m a shame student. When I look back over my journey of recovery, shame has been one of my biggest teachers. Shame is painful. And, if you don’t believe me, Brown references research in her book that concludes that emotional pain from shame is the same physiologically as physical pain. There is no difference. But, I already knew this. I feel shame in my gut. And, it hurts.
Shame says, “I am bad.” Guilt says, “I did something bad.” There is a HUGE difference in these messages. If I am bad, then I don’t have a whole lot of motivation to fix the issue. I am not capable of fixing it because I am bad. If’ I did something bad, it’s actually empowering to fix it, make amends and/or make restitution. Guilt can be a positive force. I lived in shame for most of my second marriage. I was being told that something was wrong with me constantly. I take ownership for the fact that I wasn’t in a place to stand up for myself, but once the shame took over, all of my defenses were not effective. Being in a place of shame, where I was bad, left me angry, controlling, defensive, blaming and depressed. I always felt tired. I felt overwhelmed. I was afraid. I felt unlovable, and thus I became so.
Brown makes the point that everyone feels shame. She says it is a universal emotion. The only people who don’t experience shame are those people who are incapable of empathy – sociopaths. So, you have a choice…either you feel shame, or you are a sociopath. I’ll admit to my shame. There are ways to recover from shame when it strikes. Brown gives some steps in her book that she calls Shame Resilience. They are essentially the same things I’ve been taught to do in recovery when I feel shame. They are as follows:
A year or so ago, I got a speeding ticket. I was traveling from Illinois to Memphis, and I was really tired. In fact, I remember thinking I really needed to pull over. All of a sudden, I heard sirens, and I realized I was speeding in a work zone. I didn’t even know what the speed limit was but I knew it wasn’t 70. My heart sank. The police officer was nice and professional and didn’t shame me at all. I took care of the transaction. But, when the officer walked away, the wash of shame flooded my body. I started to drive away, but my energy started to sink. I started to cry. I felt like a criminal. I felt like I’d just been arrested for driving 100 miles per hour crashing through a work zone, knocking fathers all over the side of the road and leaving fatherless children destitute….on purpose. I felt awful. Once I became aware of how self-absorbed and out of control I was feeling, I exited the interstate.
I sat on the side of the road in the car and cried my eyes out, telling myself what an idiot I was. I finally decided I’d better call someone, and I called my friend Keri. I told her what had happened and how bad I felt. She laughed. She told me this story of when she got caught speeding, and the officer had been a real jerk. By the end of the conversation, I felt much better. I had accidentally been speeding. What I knew was that I had to deal with the consequences of my actions by following through with my legal responsibilities. And, immediately, I needed to stop and rest because I was so tired. I had followed the steps that Brown mentions in her book.
I’ve felt shame since that time. I’ve followed those steps because that’s what I do to deal with my emotions these days. Had I not done it with the speeding ticket, I may have gotten defensive and blamed the officer for setting a speed trap and put myself in a victim mentality. That would not have helped anything. By processing my shame I was able to act like an adult and do the right thing. The day I went to court for this ticket – it was a mandatory court appearance – I had to take a day off work and drive 3 hours each way to get to this tiny courthouse in this Podunk town. There must have been 200 other people in the same boat. Some were angry. One had driven all the way from South Texas for his court appearance. Another drove from Wisconsin. We had all gotten caught. I was not bad. I made a mistake. And, so did they.
The problem with shame is it can be paralyzing if left to fester. For years, my shame did fester. I kept it a secret because I was ashamed of who I thought I was. And, the longer I kept quiet, the worse the shame got. Shame dissipates in the light, and the light is shown on it when we are connected to others …… and ONLY when we are connected to others. We are hard-wired for connection. But, we have to actually do the work to reach out and be vulnerable when we feel shame. And, when we do it, we encourage others to do it, too. I’d like to rid the world of shame…one step at at time.