Shame is a debilitating experience for many of us. It’s that voice in our heads that tells us we aren’t good, or good enough, that encourages and delights in our failure and demise. It paralyzes us with fear when we try to live our best lives. I know shame well, and I know my particular brand of shame very intimately. It’s at the edge of every risk, every challenge, every unknown, every hard conversation, every unsavory feeling.
We all experience shame, some more crushingly than others. And we may know it’s not “right” or feel it’s not “normal” for that voice in our heads to control us, but without some frame of reference or sounding board, we often don’t identify just how cruel it actually is.
It has taken a lot of talking about what brings me to my shame place - which is an overwhelming number of things, each taking root in a smaller number of much more unwieldy things - to realize just what that voice in my head does to me. Until I started hanging out around people who could name it, my shame was just a normal part of the day-to-day, making me feel small and insecure and insignificant, poking at my oldest and tenderest of wounds.
Simply put, shame is a jerk.
When I started taping my therapy sessions for clinical supervision and my supervisor and I first watched the tapes, I groaned out loud in disgust at myself. At the way my body looked, at what I said, at how I said it. And my supervisor said something that I needed (and continue to need) to hear: “Wow, your inner critic is mean!” And she was right. So right. There was no denying it. (Cue shame about how she can see my shame and maybe that means I’m not ever going to be a good therapist because I still have so much shit to deal with in myself etc. etc. etc.).
I was a BEGINNER. Of course things aren’t going to look or be or feel perfect or anywhere near it. You have to start somewhere! Shame is that thing that skips over logic and any sense of compassion, and goes straight to your core, righteously exclaiming: “This imperfect thing you did or said indicates something wrong about who you are as a human being. I see it. Everyone else sees it, and it ain't pretty.”
But here’s the thing... Shame isn’t some exterior bully that haunts me. It is largely the result of
outside influences and things in my life that I couldn’t control or didn’t get to hear or haven’t yet healed from, but that voice in my head and in that room during supervision?
When it all comes down to it, that’s me.
That’s me talking down to myself, insulting myself, punishing and torturing myself. That’s me monitoring my every move so as to identify and judge every imperfection. That’s me holding on for dear life whenever positive things happen, because I’m not so sure I deserve them. That’s me wincing at the sight of change, because I know that I may fail. And I know what my inner critic is going to have to say about it.
I’m not sure when it became okay for me to be a jerk to myself, and that’s probably because I didn’t realize that this kind of inner dialogue could be any different than it was, or that it needed to change, or that it even was an inner dialogue. But somewhere along the line, I accepted this voice as accurate and right and true. I deferred to it. There was not even an attempt to confront it, because of how sure it seemed of itself and of me (just like any other bully).
What I’ve started to confront now is the reality that shame and I are ever-connected. And when I can see that truth, when I can take some ownership, those things I thought I couldn’t control because I didn’t know they were mine start to feel more manageable. I realize that I have a choice in how I treat myself, just as I have a choice in how I treat other people. I realize that I’m better at treating other people kindly than I am at practicing kindness with myself. Instead of being debilitated by it, I start looking for the tools to get me out safely, and I start finding some.
More and more, I allow gentleness and compassion to steer the ship back to its course, back to my core. I allow myself to see that voice for what it is. I allow myself to get to know where it comes from and why. More and more, I can see the positive impact of intention and attention.
The real work comes in when I realize I’m not “there” yet. I’m not at that place where shame doesn’t have much of a say at all. Mind you, there is no way to erase it completely, and that’s not the goal. The goal is to acknowledge and accept it while still knowing that it doesn’t own you, to notice it and still experience the things that are uncertain or challenging or risky or feel unsavory. To be brave even when shame raises its angry voice. To know you are more than the story shame tells you. And with that goal in mind, I know that there is work yet to be done.
Can we forgive ourselves for that, and honor ourselves for how far we’ve come?
Until next time: Be gentle with yourself.