I just penned a piece for our main blog about being ourselves, what this really means and what it really looks like. One of the psychologists I interviewed shared this story with me: A young man was deeply ashamed about his enormous debt from student loans and credit cards. He didn’t want anyone to know, including his friends, because he feared that they would judge and exclude him.
This reminded me of the power of shame. And it reminded me that all of us feel it (about all sorts of things). All of us feel the kind of a shame that keeps us silent. The shame is that don’t want someone else to find out just how flawed and ugly we really are. The shame that says no one will understand. The shame that assumes our past bad decisions, our past mistakes, our mental illness, our experiences, our struggles make up who we are: Unworthy. Unloveable. The Only One Who’s Experienced This.
Margarita Tartakovsky is an associate editor at PsychCentral.com, an award-winning mental health website, and the voice behind Weightless, a blog that helps women deal with body image issues and disordered eating. She also writes a monthly feature for Beliefnet.com, covering topics such as patience and procrastination.
Editor: Muhammad Talha
Why did I let those people into my life? I am a failure because I failed that super easy test. Because I failed that program. Why do I still struggle with emotional eating? I’m a terrible parent. I hate my body. I hate myself. I am so humiliated over that botched presentation. I’ve had so many panic attacks, I’ve lost count. Why can’t I just be normal? Or brave? Or at least not so disgustingly weak? I have to keep my depression a secret. I have to take medication for my ADHD. Why can’t I just control it on my own? Why did I let that person rip me off? I should’ve known better!! I’m really having money problems. I can’t stop thinking these crushing thoughts. I am hurting.
In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown, Ph.D., defines shame as: “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” She further writes, “Shame keeps worthiness away by convincing us that owning our stories will lead to people thinking less of us. Shame is all about fear.”
When the young man (from above) finally shared the truth with his friends, most of them had a similar story. Most of them also had a lot of debt and also felt anxiety and shame over it. During that conversation, they decided to be more honest with each other from now on—and to do more affordable activities.
As Brown writes in the book, “We have to own our story and share it with someone who has earned the right to hear it, someone whom we can count on to respond with compassion. We need courage, compassion, and connection ASAP. 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. The most dangerous thing to do after a shaming experience is to hide or bury our story. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes.”
Speaking about our “shameful” stories with the right person helps to lighten our load. And if you don’t have a compassionate, supportive person in your life just yet, consider joining a support group online or in person. Consider working with a therapist.
When we share our shame, the shame isn’t so dark and overwhelming. It isn’t so big. Because here’s the reality: We’ve all struggled. We all struggle. Everyone has experienced something painful, heartbreaking—maybe even triggered by choices we’ve made. Everyone has thoughts of deep, gut-wrenching self-doubt and insecurity. We are human, after all. Keeping these struggles to ourselves shrinks us (as the shame only grows and grows). It makes us feel terribly alone.