Understanding Shame And How To Overcome It
Twelve years ago, I was a mess. I could care less what happened to me. I stopped going to class and spent a lot of nights drinking till I passed out. I went shopping and put whatever I wanted on a credit card without a care in the world because it felt good. But after these binges I felt shame. I wouldn't leave my house or talk to anyone for days. The pain and flashbacks of being sexually assaulted were worse. But it felt good to escape those thoughts, even if it was only for an hour.
There were days I planned to get help. I needed to find a counselor and talk to my professors about not failing another semester. But when the time came, I froze. Fear and PTSD consumed me.
But I had to face the reality that I couldn't keep pretending everything was fine. I put my dream of engineering on hold and explored other majors. I took a beginner art class and fell in love with creating. I felt that fire in my soul again. I finally had the strength to get help and find a counselor with a long road toward recovery.
My passion became art and I excelled in photography. In one of my classes we had to come up with our own photo series to work on for an entire semester. I created a series called Dolly’s Shame. I used life-like dolls to portray the feelings of the aftermath of a sexual assault. They were haunting and beautiful photos. At the time, I didn’t realize it, but this project saved my life. Creating art about my experience helped me process my pain and emotions.
I remember the day I met with my professor to discuss my ideas for the series. I knew sharing my story would be difficult. I choked up speaking the words, "I was raped." But every time I said those words out loud, the shame I felt had less power over me.
While working on Dolly's Shame, I couldn't recognize when I felt shame, I couldn't describe it. I thought shame was similar to guilt or embarrassment, but I had no idea the voice of shame spoke to me every day. I didn't even notice the way I was thinking at all.
I was afraid to try new things and share my ideas because deep down I believed I wasn't good enough. I put on a mask to hide my true thoughts and feelings because I desperately wanted to fit in and be loved. I couldn't make any decisions. Some days I avoided leaving the house because I couldn't decide what to wear. For years I looked in the mirror and hated my reflection. I would stare at my imperfections and think why can't you be skinny. I hated myself and I put what others thought of me above everything else. I changed into someone I hardly recognized. I said yes to every request even when I wanted to say no because I was afraid of missing out. My heart was full of anger, resentment, insecurity, and doubt.
It's hard to live like that and experience any joy, love, or peace. I was in a constant state of depression and negativity. I got to the point of feeling worthless. But I would rather complain about my kid crying or the horrible winter cold than share my truth because shame told me no one cared or would understand.
One day I sat down to write and the word shame was on my heart. I wasn't sure what to write and out of curiosity, I looked up the definition of shame on Google.
a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.
a loss of respect or esteem; dishonor used to reprove someone for something of which they should be ashamed.
a regrettable or unfortunate situation or action
a person, action, or situation that brings a loss of respect or honor.
I felt angry after reading this definition because it's not helpful. I wish the dictionary had my story in it or the stories of other shame survivors. Where do experiences like sexual assault, mental illness, or miscarriage fit in this definition?
Shame doesn't fit in a box or a few sentences. Shame is messy and overwhelming. It takes over your life till there is nothing left. If I had the chance to add to this definition this is what I would write.
Shame is a feeling that starts as early as childhood when someone makes fun of you for what you’re wearing. They teased you because you knew all the right answers in class. Someone said your drawing was ugly. Or you made a dumb mistake and someone said you're stupid. Maybe you didn't get invited to a friends sleepover when everyone else did.
Then as you grew older, someone said you have no boobs. Maybe someone gave you a dirty look while you were feeding your baby formula or breastfeeding. Maybe your ex broke up with you with no explanation. Maybe people keep asking you when you are going to have kids but you've struggled with infertility for years.
After these emotional events, you start to tell yourself lies. Your mind tells you, my outfit is ugly, I am ugly. I could never draw like I am supposed to, I'm not creative. Why didn’t I do that right, I'm stupid. I didn't get invited to that party, I'm a loser. Whats wrong with me? I don't deserve to be loved. I don't deserve anything. You put yourself down more and more and you aren't aware of the damage you are doing to yourself.
You don’t speak of any of this. That is important to shame.
Over time, it grows, and grows, and grows, till you are paralyzed. You live in fear and numbness. You can function but your life is void of joy and peace. Shame changes you. It’s hard to be aware of it in your daily life. It likes to stay hidden in areas of your mind you don't want to go.
"In order to live and love you have to go to that dark painful place in your mind."
I've done a lot of work on myself with the help of a counselor. She shared a book by Brene´ Brown called Daring Greatly. And it was in that book along with cognitive behavioral therapy that I learned a lot about shame and the chokehold it had on me.
What do you do when you feel shame? Do you have a physical reaction? Do you hide? Do you get mad and act out?
I avoid whatever I did at all costs and everything gets foggy and confusing. I shut down and I don't know what to say. I retreat and find something to do to take my mind off of the issue and hope it will go away.
Know your triggers
Some of my triggers are:
when I yell at my kids or my husband
when I'm entranced on my phone during family bonding time
when I let go of keeping the house tidy
when I do any kind of emotional eating
I want to be perceived as calm, present, organized, and healthy. I don't want to be known as an overwhelmed, messy, out of control, yeller.
Think about the ways you don't want to be perceived, have you been labeling yourself with those characteristics when you feel shame?
Talk about it with someone you can trust
Someone that accepts ALL of you, the good the bad the ugly. Someone that you could say, "Hey I did something terrible." And their response is, "Okay I'm still here." I know, you have that anxious feeling, you’re afraid of being honest, or sharing your story. But talking about it lessens the feeling; it helps you realize you are not alone.
Don’t label yourself
Be conscious of the way your mind is thinking. If you’re telling yourself, “I’m a bad mom, or I’m stupid, or I deserve this, or I hate myself” it will be hard to find your strengths. It will also be hard to process what you’re going through because shame is overwhelming you. Speak to yourself like you would your mom or best friend.
Read and educate yourself on shame
The more you know about shame the more aware of it you are. Some books that helped me understand shame are:
Daring Greatly, by Brene´ Brown
Unashamed, by Christine Caine
Uninvited By Lysa Terkeurst
The Gifts of Imperfection By Brene Brown
You can also watch Ted Talks if you're like me and struggle to finish a book. Here are a few good ones:
It is possible to change, it takes a lot of courage, and digging into the pain. I know from experience, you can have joy and love in your life. I still battle shame often, this is a never-ending journey. These tools and God's unconditional love help me fight. I try to look into the mirror and see what God sees and know that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.