How I Learned to Love Shame


One of the stupidest online arguments I’ve ever gotten into was with a woman in a FB group telling people not to shame others and instead to name their needs. In theory this statement would make sense, but even her tone felt shaming--though to be fair it was online and difficult to gauge completely-- and it ignored the entire fact that we can’t predict when what we say will evoke someone’s shame triggers. It felt that just disagreeing about shame was creating more of it in both of us.

Sometimes even the softest language possible can still evoke shame, or be perceived as shaming. Because each of us has our own unique "shame formula" that creates our experience, one thing that seems insignificant can be the largest and most offensive thing someone has ever said.

I found myself defending shame, passionately opposed to the idea that we should avoid it in ourselves or others. Because the truth I’ve spent so much of my life attempting to avoid my own shame and doing everything in my power to avoid other people’s shame triggers. We can’t control when shame is evoked, which means we have to trust people to handle their own emotions. That is messy power and vulnerability of relating...to allow people to feel their own suffering and not try to take it away or fix it.

“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”-Brene Brown

Most of us experience varying levels of shame everyday and I want it the space to breath and release rather than fester. And I strongly believe my shame gets in the way of too much. Shame makes everything feel personal, shame has trigger wires that trip us into thinking we are being attacked. My hope is that looking at my shame as sacred will allow me to be a better friend, partner, healer, and family member.

Shame is so pervasive in our human experience that what is more obvious is often the response or reaction to it versus the emotion itself. I track moments of shame through the emotions that cover it more than shame itself.

My shame manifests in feeling of devastation and that there is something incredibly wrong with me. I feel like I have failed others and myself, that I am damaged. In many ways keeping my shame hidden has been the work of my life. It makes me want to keep relationships with a certain amount of distance, feeling ashamed someone may see the terrible things about me. I feel shame about all the anger I can't seem to express or the rage in my bones about the way women are often treated. I feel shame about how much debt I have. I feel too sensitive and easily hurt. That I'm too much because I want to uncover more and go deeper.

Shame makes me think I need to be a certain way to be loved or in connection. When in truth some days people may like me and others not, and visa versa that some days the same person I liked yesterday I don't like now.

In her book "The Gifts of Imperfection," Brene Brown highlights Dr. Linda Harling's research on the ways we defend ourselves from shame. I see them as similar to psychologist Walter Cannon's stress responses. We use them when we feel threatened and the inclination or even insinuation of shame can be enough to send us into a feeling of danger. Here is Harling's response compared to Cannon's :

  1. Move away from // withdraw, hide, disappear (Flight)

  2. Move toward // people pleasing, avoiding disappointment (Fawn)

  3. Move against // gain power by fighting back...shame against shame (Fight)

Harling's theories don't have a response such as freeze, as with Cannon's, but I like to think in myself they happen more in conjunction as a disassociation with my shame.

“When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don't go away; instead, they own us, they define us.”-Brene Brown

Brene Brown says that sharing shame helps it go away, so in the vulnerability vein...Here is a list of (cringe-worthy) moments from the past few weeks where I felt shame and the defense strategy I used:

  • When I dropped a glass bottle and it shattered in the middle of a busy coffee shop and everyone looked at me. (Fawn)

To my surprise I didn’t seem to have any response to this, I wanted to keep apologizing and lean into fawning mode, but I said thank you, helped clean it up and still went back to sit down without the need to hide. The feeling of hiding felt fleeting, though embarrassment is often a less severe experience of shame.

  • When the teacher in a class I’m in told me in front of the class that I shouldn’t be asking the question to her that I asked and that she was done talking. (Fight, at first I tried to defend my question, then went into flight and couldn’t wait to leave.)

This isn’t the first time I felt shame in her presence, but it is the first time I realized it wasn’t her fault it existed. She was naming her truth, I felt I had done something wrong, whether she was shaming me or not didn’t matter. I could name that it felt shaming and it may have taken away from the class itself.

  • When a friend online told me my response was inappropriate to an article I disagreed with (fight then did my best to come out of spiral by naming my shame)

Online interacts can be filled with confusion around tone and can often feel shaming if I feel I have disappointed someone or said something the wrong way. I feel fear about being disliked and feel confused how to voice my truth while still being liked.

  • When a friend told me something I said “feels toxic.” (Fight)

This one still makes my blood boil a bit, as I think "toxic" is perhaps one of the most shaming words we can use. It feels dismissive, judgmental and self-righteous. Toxic is a term we can use to shut someone down and make them think there is something wrong with them. I agree strongly with Adam Maynard who says "Judgment is the flip-side of the self-righteousness coin, but instead of signaling something about ourselves we’re trying to say something about another person. We have appointed ourselves the authority over them and issued our verdict on their lovability."

Looking at my list above and thinking about past experience my shame triggers are:

  • someone telling me I did something wrong or correcting my behavior

  • when someone comments on my appearance- weight or way I look

  • feeling as though I’m aging

  • someone saying I'm too much when I want to uncover more or go deeper

  • when someone is angry at me

“We judge people in areas where we’re vulnerable to shame.” - Brene Brown

I've gotten really good at not saying what I'm thinking or feeling, I would rather walk on eggshells around someone that share what's going on inside. Despite my best efforts, I can trip someone's shame wire and it can either damage the relationship and lead to shut down or can be a bridge to deeper intimacy. In these cases it led to the first, but I'm hopeful my increasing comfort with my own shame will evolve into more intimacy with others.

Here is where I think I witnessed shame recently, though can’t be sure because I didn’t ask and even if I did am not sure it was named. I felt their response as a reaction to shame, though realize this could most certainly be my own projection:

  • When I named to a client that her bank had taken money out of my account and I asked for it to be returned. She responded by telling me I was accusing her of taking my money, I used the most cautious language I could to make it clear I didn't blame her...even so the defense suggests a shame response.

  • When I asked someone to pick up after their dog. They got angry and said they were planning on it but didn't see what the big deal was.

  • When I someone in the theater kept talking and I asked them to be please be quiet. They ignored me and kept doing it, then I realized they were drunk so I think the fight response was inevitable.

  • When I told a friend that she was the only one not to come visit me in my new home. I understand me not phrasing it perfectly and the background anger was there, but she then started telling me about how I need to name my needs and then evoked my own shame of being corrected.

I kinda feel like I'm falling in love with shame. Knowing where it resides in me has softened my entire being, I feel more alive and trusting. Because if I can trust the emotion that is the darkest, deepest part of me, the fear of being myself can't exist in the same way. In many ways my resistance to shame has been the work of my life. I suddenly feel more powerful, less susceptible to others' opinions of me. Who would have guessed the healing of my niceness and wildness was in the same place as my shame...and the same place as my love.

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© 2015-2020 by Rebecca M. Farrar ​

Rebecca@wildwitchwest.com

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