I have a rule about when I have an experience of shame: I tell 3 friends immediately.
I do it because cognitively I know that shame thrives in secrecy and silence (thank Brené Brown!)… so by sharing this experience with folks I know love me, I receive empathy and understanding. In turn, the shame can’t survive.
It is super hard.
Now here I am, not just telling my close circle about my shame… but writing about it publicly. The shame I’ve been carrying for much of my life is destroying me. I need to let it go… and I recognize putting it all out there is how I will facilitate that process. My conscious journey with shame beings in 2017. I had a breakup that prompted me to seek intensive therapy. It was a very valuable experience. Now, 5 years later, my focus is no longer on changing myself… but embracing the person I am. I want to be perfect, and never hurt anyone ever… but it’s not realistic and it’s not serving me. So, in an act of self-compassion, I share my shame as I find my strength in my extreme softness.
I’m on stage in an improv class. There are 3 other players with me, and we’re doing some sort of theatre game. I approach my improv friend Iris and get quite close. I do not touch her, but I am closer than I would get to a stranger. She shifts away from me. I do it again. She does it again. I do it a final time. She again moves. I had initially thought we were playing, but something in her body language is telling me that I’m invading her space. I stop. Instead, I turn and do the same action to another classmate, who leans right in. The scene carries on, class continues, and I forget.
Until days later, I am walking along Broadway when Iris texts me. It was a sunny day, and I had been feeling pretty good. Iris lets me know she felt uncomfortable with me getting so close in the last class. She assumes I have a crush on her. I recognize that she is giving me valuable feedback on my behaviour, and I’m certain it was very hard for her to send that message. I apologize profusely, promise to not do it again and clarify that I don’t have a crush on her.
Meanwhile, my body is breaking down. I don’t know what is happening. I am mortified… but it’s more than just feeling embarrassed. My face is bright red. It’s winter, I can see my breath but now I’m unbearably hot. I am sweating. I am shaking. I want to die. I want to jump in front of a car, and just die. I want to curl up into a little ball and hide forever. I feel so gross.
I have thoughts like:
She thought I was being sexually inappropriate towards her!
I’m a predator!
I am an abuser!
I cannot keep people safe!
I don’t know how to respect boundaries!
I am bad!
The thoughts are intense. The feelings are super big. I am worried I will act impulsively. I take 3 big deep breaths. I scan my environment and note 5 things. I calm myself down enough to call a friend… to ask… if I am abusive…if I am respectful… if I am good… because I am not so sure anymore.
The worksheet my counsellor Winnie gifts me begins with a questionnaire. Do You Suffer from Debilitating Shame Due to Childhood Abuse? It is adapted from Beverly Engle’s book “It Wasn’t Your Fault”. I picked Winnie specifically because she gives out homework. I need homework. I need tangible things to hold and do so I feel like I am making progress. I know how to do homework. I am good at school, and I am good at learning. It’s the only shred of hope I have.
At the time, I am living in absolute agony, but it’s mostly invisible. By all accounts, I’m doing well: I go to work. I go to school. I pay my bills. I see my friends. Talk to my family… but I’m crying a lot.
My roommates have requested I stop crying at home because my sobbing is disruptive to them. I regularly crawl out of bed at 3 am and sit in my car… but the tears won’t flow there. I try to cry in public, but strangers approach to comfort me and then I end up reassuring them. I only feel safe in my bed… it’s the only place my body wants to release… I memorize my roommates’ schedules to know when I can feel as big as I need.
I’ve stopped sleeping.
I’ve stopped eating.
I’m in physical pain – my heart is aching all the time.
I’ve made plans to end my life.
I think about dying all. the. time.
There are 35 items on the questionnaire. A series of yes/no questions.
-Do you believe you made it difficult for your parents or others to love you?
-Are you a perfectionist?
-Do you feel you are basically unlovable?
-Do you feel ugly – inside and out?
-Are you a people pleaser?
-Are you afraid of what you’re capable of doing?
-Do you always blame yourself if something goes wrong in a relationship?
-Do you neglect your body, your health, or your emotional needs?
The instructions at the end report there is no formal scoring, but “if you answered yes to many of these questions, you can be assured that you are suffering from debilitating shame. If you answered yes to just a few, it is still evident that you have an issue with shame.”
I go home for the holidays. It’s incredibly expensive to fly cross country, but I’ve been really struggling. I think that being with my family would be healing. It is, but ways that are not immediately or obviously. Here are three vignettes of that visit:
My mom is planning a holiday party. She wants me to pick up dishes for catering and is incredibly stressed. She is requesting my help, and I want to help her… but she’s not listening to my boundaries. I am telling her no about the timing, it doesn’t work for my schedule, but she keeps pushing. I ask her why she is focused on me when she could request my just-as-capable brother’s assistance. She tells me that I respond better to guilt. That I am easier to manipulate.
I try to talk to my dad about his behaviour when he came to visit me in ‘Vancouver’ (on unceded territories of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh and Xʷməθkʷəy̓əm) during the summer. He interrupts me, do you blame me for your breakup!?.
I don’t blame him, but I explain that I have only ever introduced one partner ever, who I was deeply in love with, to my family… and they actively mocked me during the entire interaction… my competence, my character, my concerns…and the reality that she broke up with me later that same night… and used their behaviour as evidence of my failings… was not a coincidence… “I don’t blame you, but… ”. He has stopped listening because he tells me he knows me better than I know myself. He informs me that I’m just being overly emotional again. He refocuses the conversation on my reaction about the breakup. You are ruminating, he tells me.
I don’t exactly remember what preceded this incident, likely I had an emotional reaction. My stepmom comes into my childhood bedroom. She has known me since I was 8 years old and was integral to raising me. She tells me that she loves me because she must as family but doesn’t understand how I have any friends. My friends have a choice to have a relationship with me, but she doesn’t. She informs me that I am so unlikeable.
I am a child. I am in the green basement of my childhood home. I’m upset about something. It doesn’t matter, it never matters, what I am upset about. I use my words. I am ignored. I get louder. I am ignored. I get louder, and louder and louder. I am ignored. I do something bigger, something I know cannot be ignored. Maybe I break something. Maybe I punch. Maybe I just keep screaming.
Dad who has been so silent until then
drags me up
Kicking/ Screaming / Biting
The three flights of stairs
To the bedroom
That was assigned to me
Because when they asked me which bedroom I wanted, I said the blue one that looked out over the backyard… but was told that I actually wanted the yellow one… which is bigger… and fit the bed they had already decided I would have.
Where I am to stay. Alone. And “think about my reaction”. And why I can “never control myself”.
I am a child. We’re at a cottage. Grandpa Rex is there. My mom works for him. Maybe there is a business meeting happening? I am fuzzy about the details, but I know I am upset about something. It doesn’t matter, it never matters, what I am upset about. Mom listened to me, and we’re doing Kyra’s emotional management plan. Where I go to my designated safe space—to feel however I want to feel and self-regulate. Alone.
Suddenly, Grandpa Rex comes in
And hits me
For being too loud
It is one of my only memories of him. He dies before I turn 8.
I am a young adult. My mom tells me she must “walk on eggshells” around me because I am so emotional. She has told me this for a long time. She is reading the book, stop walking on eggshells – a very helpful resource for friends and family for a condition that *I do not have!* – She has a very close friend, a child psychiatrist, who makes bold claims about me without knowing me…and reassures my mom that I am the problem… which she takes the liberty of sharing with me… to remind me that I need to do better around controlling my feelings.
We’re in the backyard, it’s the summer. My best male friend is over with my family. We are having a small party before I go back to university. The mood is light. The jokes start… how no one will ever want to marry me. How I’m ‘too’ much, ‘so difficult’, loveable but only after overlooking all of my horrible, tremendous flaws. I have so many. I would be lucky if anyone expresses any romantic interest in me at all. They would all commend the person who could love me.
Everyone is laughing hysterically.
In my family, it was clear that as a girl/woman, the pinnacle of my existence would be my marriage. My capacity to be a wife… and then eventually… a mother.
My shame, particularly flairs up in romantic relationships when I feel emotions… specifically negative emotions. My shame blooms if I think I’ve crossed a boundary, even if it was a boundary I couldn’t have possibly known was there. Even if I stopped immediately. Even if I rationally know that there is a big difference between abusive behaviour and accidently crossing boundaries.
There are racial elements to this… and this shame extends past my family of origin into society at large. The Combahee River Statement must write that Black women are inherently valuable so deep runs this racial shame. How I am seen as a Black woman… needing to be put back in her place. How I was treated as a Black girl, denied a childhood in so many ways. Viewed as aggressive when I’d disagree or when I don’t behave in legible ways. Severe punishments for minor infractions.
Winnie helps name the experience with Iris for me: “shame spiral”. I had never heard that term before. She gives me the handout on debilitating shame- the one I am quoting now. She tells me the antidote is self-compassion. She is impressed with me that I shared with others. “That was exactly the right thing to do.”.
After many months, it’s her kind voice that replaces the hypercritical voice of my ex living in my head. An auditory hallucination of my shame, replaced by empathy.
Shame is busted with empathy, and you can also give empathy to yourself through self-compassion. A final exercise from Engle’s book. You use this sentence, and fill in the blank with as many responses as you can think of
Given my history of abuse, it is understandable that _________
I believe I am unloveable
I feel unattractive
I struggle with expressing my anger
Apologize when I’ve done nothing wrong
Restrict my food intake to punish my body
Take all negative feedback as truth
Believe others over my own instincts
Run away when I get scared/hurt
Accept harsh criticism by my romantic partners
Ignore my own desires to prioritize others/the group
Fear I might hurt others like how I’ve been hurt
Shame is a really sticky beast! I’m not sure how to end this… beyond that self-compassion is a really useful tool… and that more vulnerability will make the world a better place… Brené Brown says “vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” and I want to be able to feel loved.
For I am enough.