At the age of 34, I didn’t think I’d ever live down my shame.
I’d struggled through a chaotic ten years. I’d ended two marriages, both for different reasons. Yet, the thread between them was me. I was struggling to even think of myself as a good person because of the voice that was ever present in my head.
What voice? The voice of shame. Deep, penetrating regret that I was allowing to eat me alive.
Nobody could tell at the time. I made jokes about my two trips down the aisle.
I looked like I was taking it all in stride. I was doing well in graduate school. I took pride in the fact that a professor seemed surprised when one of my colleagues mentioned my divorce our first year of school. “You got divorced? I’d never have known that.”
But at night, when I was alone, the shame was waiting for me.
The shame belittled me constantly, badgering me into the belief that I wasn’t capable of true intimacy. It insisted that I’d only continue to make to make other mistakes and hurt other people. It convinced me that I didn’t deserve anything better.
It’s only when I began fighting it tooth and nail, when I realized that I was shouldering all of the responsibility for what had sadly happened, that I could begin to believe in myself again.
I hear the same struggle with shame in people who feel that they did something they struggle to live with and can’t move on. I hear it from those who have been abused emotionally and physically, believing that somehow they were totally to blame. I hear it from those who’ve convinced themselves that they are unloveable because of a problem or secret that feels unmanageable.
“I don’t know why I can’t stop.”
“I don’t know who I am anymore.”
“I let this happen. Who in their right mind would allow this? I should’ve left long ago.”
“My mother always told me things were my fault. That’s my first thought now when something happens.”
Years ago, a supervisor I had talked about shame. He was a lanky, opinionated, boots-and-jeans Texan, who I didn’t care for initially. However, he had written some very good books which I admired, so I listened to what he had to say.
“Shame is helpful if it lasts for ten seconds and leads to a change of behavior.”
I didn’t believe him. At the time, I thought shame kept you in line. You needed to hang on to feeling bad; it was the same thing as having a good conscience.
What do I think now? The ten second time limit sounds a bit dramatic, but overall I know he was right.
Shame is not the same as a good conscience…
Shame is punishing yourself, over and over and over, for what you regret, and continuing to cruelly chastise yourself for mistakes that you’ve made.
Shame absorbs itself into your very being, so you believe that you’re someone bad or inferior. Rather than accepting that you made a mistake, that you hurt someone or yourself, that you did something you believed that you’d never do, shame turns that act into all of who you are.
You can also absorb shame for something that was done to you, that you had nothing to do with creating. That can especially happen when you’ve been victimized.
Letting go of shame today helps you avoid more self-destructiveness. In fact, if you hold onto it, if shame leaps into your mind every moment that you’re not distracted by something else, you’re likely to continue on a self-destructive path.
Sometimes it’s possible to do things to try to atone, things that will help you move past whatever mistake you made. It takes work. And yet sometimes, the very people involved prefer for you to carry the shame, instead of taking responsibility for their part. They have no trouble in you believing that all was your fault or that you carry some kind of emotional burden.
But what can you do about shame? Here are some ideas.
Three things you can do to manage shame…
Stay in the present.
I get wrapped up occasionally in the “what if’s” of life. It’s then that I can feel the remorse, echoes of the pain I was a part of creating back then. But then, it’s important to step back into the present where I belong. If you find yourself ruminating about the past, then write out what is on your mind — what you can’t seem to work through. Often when you journal, new revelations or emotions come to you that can help you work through your shame.
Take your part of the responsibility, but only your part.
Take responsibility for what may have been your part in whatever you feel shame about. That’s integrity. But don’t make the mistake of bearing all of the responsibility yourself. Most dynamics are based on interactions with others. You had your part; whoever else was involved has theirs.
If you’re carrying shame about trauma or actual victimization, please realize that anyone at anytime can be a victim. You did the best you could to handle the shock of whatever happened.
Give yourself the gift of compassion.
Try to see yourself with compassion; talk to yourself as you would talk to your best friend. Realize that you were doing the best you could at the time, and that you were learning something vital. You can write again about what exactly it was that you learned and how you’re applying that learning to today. That gives those “shameful” years a much more positive meaning.
I’ve been married for over twenty-eight years to “my current husband,” as he jokingly calls himself. Certainly, loving someone to the best of my ability for all of these years, and being loved, has helped me heal. I know now that I’m capable of intimacy and I’ve left the shame back in the past where it belongs.
If you struggle with shame? Please join me. Here. In this day. Today is where you belong as well.
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This was originally published on September 18, 2015 and was updated on November 3, 2018.