The Thing No One Tells You About Shame

by Lindsay Wolf
Originally Published: 
Marjan_Apostolovic / Getty Images

There is one gnarly emotion I’ve battled against my entire life that makes its presence known in the shittiest of ways. The insidious thoughts that accompany it always stop me in my tracks and leave me feeling like I’m an awkward, seemingly unlovable eight-year old again. It’s a dark fucking place, the spot where this emotion carelessly drops me. And for a really long time, not a single other person could pull me out of it, because no one knew I was even in that painful black hole to begin with.

That emotion is shame.

If you’re as well-versed at the shame game as me, then you know how it usually goes. There you are, going about your life and generally feeling awesome, and then something unexpected happens. Maybe you receive unsolicited criticism from someone you trust. Maybe you just tried on your favorite pants, and they’re surprisingly too small to pull up. Or maybe you messed up at work and totally forgot about a big ass deadline that got you into hot water with your boss. That’s when you’re suddenly transported to an emotional experience that starts to negatively influence every thought you think, every action you take, and every belief about yourself you hold dear. You begin doubting yourself. You decide you aren’t worthy of your own love. And it sucks the big one.

But what if I told you that there are a few simple ways to deal with this complex emotion that could help you no longer see it — or you — as a chronic problem? Here’s the secret I’ve learned that no one tells you about shame. Just go with me on this one. While I’m not a mental health professional, I am a master-level expert at experiencing lifelong shame. And I think I’ve cracked the code of how to officially kick it to the curb.

Think of yourself like a house. As a child, you had visitors who you may not have felt comfortable asking to stay at the door. They could have been family members, teachers, friends, or just about anyone else in your life. Maybe they were even media messages coming to you from the shows you watched, the news your parents had on, or the magazines you read. These visitors entered your house, with or without your consent, and dumped piles of messes all over your place. Maybe they were recurring people in your metaphorical home, or perhaps they just visited once and left. Whatever the case, you’re probably living in a shit ton of messy piles from these experiences. If you never learned how to pick them up and throw them out the metaphorical door as a child, and if you didn’t know how to acknowledge that they weren’t your messes to begin with, you may likely discover that they’re still inside of your “home” in adulthood.

You are that house. Shame is the piles of messes left behind by others. And your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to finally clean house.

Growing up, we all had people and experiences in our lives that shaped how we feel about ourselves today. A bunch of us were cared for by adults in our world who, whether knowingly or not, tore down or dismissed us for how we looked, behaved, and expressed our feelings. We also received a ton of conditioning from the media and society that left us feeling like our bodies were never-ending problems. Basically, the vast majority of us were taught by external forces that lovability and inherent worthiness were not our birthright and that mistakes or moments of messiness made us somehow “bad.”

When we were young and the adults we trusted didn’t show us the love and kindness we so deserved, do you think a single one of us stopped to realize how fucked up that was? When the television ads were pressuring our young bodies to get skinny AF at any cost, do you think any of us got pissed at these institutions for lying to us? And when we encountered childhood trauma, neglect, or dismissal, do you think we ever blamed those responsible for their abusive behaviors?

Not a chance.

Biologically speaking, most youth who are abused and shamed aren’t actively hating the parents and grownups they depend on. They learn to hate themselves instead. Think about it. We’re hardwired from birth to need our parents and the adults we trust. When the grown ups we love are abusive, shaming, or even modeling a way of being disconnected from their own self-love, it doesn’t help our young narrative to start rebelling against them from the start. We need these grownups for our survival. It makes much more sense for our young minds to believe them and distrust ourselves.

If there was no one in your world to counter the shaming experiences you had as a youth with unconditional love and support, you may be stuck on autopilot as a grown up and listening to the barrage of negative thoughts in your head that you now believe to be facts. I completely understand why you’d do that, because it’s how I operated for nearly half of my life. But then I learned the dirty little secret about shame. All of the thoughts and beliefs attached to this feeling were originally placed inside of me by others, and they no longer need to be mine to hold onto anymore. And honestly, I never needed to hold onto them in the first place. Because anyone who is shaming someone else, intentionally or not, is also living in the same kind of shame they’ve attempted to pass along to you. Which means that shame, while feeling so tremendously personal, is not actually as personal to or reflective of who you authentically are as you might have previously thought it was.

According to Brene Brown, the University of Houston shame researcher and author of five New York Times bestsellers, shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” This particular definition resonates so much with me, because I spent two long decades believing I didn’t deserve to be loved or belong. I felt like an ongoing problem for everyone around me. After years of childhood abuse and emotional dismissal, I believed that I was too much for this world. And I went to great lengths to avoid being myself so that I could receive the approval of others.

Over the past four years, a whole lot has changed. I’ve become a mom twice over, healed a lifelong eating disorder, come to terms with a complex PTSD diagnosis, and learned just how many messy fucking piles have been sitting inside of my metaphorical house. As I’ve leaned into the work of self-love and trauma recovery, I’ve started bagging up the old ass toxic shit others in my early life placed within me, and I’ve shown it the door. As a result, I’ve never felt freer to be my authentic self in my entire life. Realizing that shame was never mine to hold, as it had zero to do with my inherent worth as a human being, has allowed me to also realize that when someone shames us, it is never about us. It is always about the other person.

Now, does this mean I’m advocating for being a giant asshole to everyone around you, throwing care to the wind, and telling consequences and hurt feelings in others to fuck off? Absolutely not. Of course, we want to show up in all of our circles with compassion, kindness, vulnerability, and love. I’m simply focusing on the shame that has laid dormant inside of you for years because it’s still secretly hanging around from your childhood. And when you were a child, nothing endangering that happened to you was ever your fault, no matter how much shame has lied to you.

Because here’s the thing. We aren’t born hating ourselves. We aren’t even born feeling shame about our choices, actions, bodies, or existence. We are taught to feel shame about ourselves when we vulnerably show up as young, messy, lovable, work-in-progress humans in this world who will eventually grow up into older, messy, lovable, work-in-progress humans in this world. The problem we run into along the way is that others place shame inside of us that incorrectly teaches us about ourselves. Which is why cleaning house at some point, no matter where we are in our life journey, is so stinkin’ important.

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