Shame is a topic that is at least as difficult to talk about as it is to experience. I find myself flooded with thoughts and emotions just contemplating this blog entry. I have so much to learn about my own shame – how I experience it – where my blind spots reside that make me susceptible to it – why at times I can move out of shame and other times feel endlessly consumed by it – and how I can work to build a stronger resilience in the face of shame. These are the thoughts that swirl in my mind as I work to better understand myself and all of my wounded inner parts that require my healing attention.
I am an avid follower of Brené Brown. I have found her work on shame particularly helpful in my own understanding and untangling of the lasting impact of my childhood abuse. So much of what she says and writes resonates on such a deep level that it inspires me to dig deeper within myself. I have come to understand that while we all experience our own unique triggers and set of underlying circumstances, shame is a universal experience. As we begin to understand and identify our own shame we can then begin to learn how to build a resilience that allows us to move out of shame when we experience it instead of feeling swallowed by it. Being able to identify it, for me, means that I need to wrap words or an image around it to help me recognize its presence. These words need to be carefully selected and specific to my experiences in order for them to be of use.
Nearly every word Brené writes resonates with me, however there is one description of shame that she often uses that I struggle with. She uses the phrase “warm wash of shame” to describe the feeling of shame taking over – being consumed by it. This is a phrase that from the very first time I heard it felt an immediate contrasting response to. A warm wash to me feels inviting, comfortable, and refreshing. There is nothing refreshing about being consumed by shame. This phrase feels both contradicting and unrelatable to me. Each time I hear or read these words I find myself getting stuck in resistance to them.
So I began to ask myself why. Why would Brené choose this wording? Perhaps she uses this phrase to signify how easily shame can unknowingly engulf us. If it were an icy cold or scalding hot wash we would be instantly alarmed and responsive to it. Maybe that warm wash represents shames cunning way of taking over beneath our radar – sneaking up on us to seize control. Shame can often be so automatic and feel so familiar that it covers us like a blanket. In that sense, her description begins to feel more palatable to me. Still overall I feel a resistance to this phrase, which inspires me to ask more questions.
Why does the description “warm wash of shame” not sit well with me? I believe this comes from my own personal struggles with shame. The feeling of its overwhelming power and seductive influence in my life demands stronger language around it. “Warm wash” feels too lighthearted and trivial to describe something with such life altering force. In some of my previous writing I have referred to shame as “a shapeshifter” – “changing its form at will to unsuspectingly inject its poison into my brain” (My Shame is a Shapeshifter). However inviting and familiar my shame feels, I feel as though I need adversarial language wrapped around it to remind me that its calculating company is something I wish to rid myself of.
My contemplation around Brene’s word choice brought my mind to a place of deep self reflection and even more questions. Brene describes the necessity of being able to recognize and name when we experience shame as being fundamentally important in moving through it. If moving out of shame requires us first to recognize that we are in it, then what cues do I feel in my body that indicate I am in shame? How do I viscerally experience shame? These questions leave me in a tough spot, as I struggle with disconnection and identifying where I feel any emotion is very difficult and often impossible for me. Yet I continued to sit with this question, searching within myself for answers.
The closest thing I can identify to a bodily sensation around shame is a feeling of an immense slowing down and engulfing weight all around me – like sinking into quicksand or freshly poured cement. In fact, as I think about that feeling I am reminded of a very frequent recurring dream I experience where I am trying to run away or towards something as fast as I can, but while everyone else is moving at full speed I am moving in slow motion – like trying to run in a neck deep pool of cement. As I write this my mind is making deeper connections and traveling back to when I was in high school, in the midst of enduring very regular sexual abuse. During that time I wrote a short story for a creative writing class about someone at a construction site falling to their slow, painfully engulfing and drowning death in a deep pool of cement. As a side note, this memory cannot resurface without an immediate angry and protective response from within me, screaming, “how can a child write such a story without drawing concern, inquiry, or intervention from an adult?” Yet, as I shift back into my self reflection on how my body physically experiences shame, I see how much both this writing from long ago as well as my recurring dreams reflect exactly what my body seems to tell me in current instances of shame – a heavy overwhelming weight all around that slows me down and consumes me.
I sense that there is much more for me to learn and unpack about how my body experiences shame which will help me better recognize and build a stronger resilience to it, but this provides a starting point for me to work from. As a person who is prone to feeling shame instead of guilt, undoubtedly tied to my past experiences, I want to learn how to better recognize my own personal warning signs. I want to teach myself to be able to step back from a moment of shame and be better equipped to identify and draw it out of me. I think that wish needs to go hand in hand with the desire to not feel as though I deserve shame, as there is no movement out of shame if you feel deserving of it.
This is a realization I am having about myself as I reflect upon two very recent shameful experiences that occurred just this past week. One involved a battle between self care and self harm and the other was a situation of perceived parenting failure. Both topics (likely to be addressed in a later blog post) are highly shame inducing for me so it is not a surprise that these particular situations created a downward spiral inside of me this week. In both situations I was slowly and eventually able to recognize what I was experiencing as shame. Yet, unlike some experiences of shame where the mere acknowledgment of it helps to release its grip on me, the weight of these shameful feelings did not subside upon my recognition of it. These two very separate instances tapped into a feeling of shame that I struggle to be able to separate from. I struggle to move out of these moments of shame because something deep down inside of me feels that it belongs to me – that I deserve it. I believe these moments of shame originated from a tangled connection to my past abuse. It took me a long time to begin to let go of the shame I felt for my abuse – for every memory, every interaction, and every feeling. But shame is so pervasive that it intertwines itself in past and present experiences to create a recurring and ever-changing struggle. The identification of shameful triggers and blind spots in one area does not clear away all of ones shame inducing moments. Shame is too sly and cunning to be eradicated. Instead it slithers its way through one’s psyche, constantly searching for vulnerabilities. It takes situational awareness and effort to both recognize and resist its luring ways.
My shame surrounding my own perceived parenting failures surely stems from unmet needs I faced as a child. Each moment I recognize even the slightest disconnect in my relationship with my children, my shame connects this to my own past disengaged parental relationships and tells me that I am not equipped to do any better – that I cannot protect them from the horrors I endured as a child – and that I am ultimately failing them. When shame creeps in over my mistakes in choosing self harm over self care, it reminds me of all of my past struggles in coping with my abuse and makes me believe that I am not strong enough to change these unhealthy patterns – and that I am not equipped to manage my emotions without this type of harmful intervention. In its worst form, it even tempts me to believe that hurting myself is what I truly deserve.
Learning about my shame will be an ongoing process for me. While it is certainly not a comfortable topic to address it is an incredibly necessary beast to venture into along my healing journey. I cannot expect to always learn to recognize and respond to my shame in real time. So for now I will continue to try to carefully back into it to learn from each experience in the hopes that what I uncover will help me better manage when shame returns the next time.
As Brene Brown writes, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgement. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” It is my hope that through sharing my experiences I can help to not only release some of my own deeply felt shame, but also perhaps inspire some self-reflective thoughts in your own heart as you read and soak this in.