When I was a child, I lied a lot. More than the typical white lies you expect to hear children make about not eating all of the cookies or making a spill on the carpet, I lied about everything. In fifth grade I remember telling my classmates that I was born in California because I thought it made me sound exotic. I told all of my friends that the abandoned house next door was haunted, and the only way the ghost wouldn’t get you is if you wore spots on your clothing. (Incidentally, my favorite movie at the time was “101 Dalmations” and I wore spots on a daily basis.) I lied about having a boyfriend when no boys had even glanced in my direction in a romantic way yet, I lied that my birth mother was an alcoholic teenager who left me on a doorstep (she was not), I lied that it was my friends’ fault whenever something broke or we were up too late during a sleepover.
I still find myself lying from time to time. It is not something I am proud of at all, nor is it something I do with the intention of hurting another person. When I was a child that was certainly not the case and it is not the case now. No, the reason I do this is to protect myself from having to experience something that feels like it will be much more difficult to bear. Lying, despite ruining a trusting relationship, feels easier to live with than the deep dark pit that is shame.
Shame is a monster that I am constantly running from.
In her book, I thought it was just me (but it isn’t), Brené Brown defines shame as, “…the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” She then goes on to explain the differences between shame and guilt, of which shame is most often confused with. Her example is that guilt is like saying “I did something bad”, while shame is like saying, “I am bad”. Shame is beyond feeling bad for an action you took, it is believing that you are a bad person because of that action.
I have felt shame for as long as I can remember. As a teenager, I believed myself to be a terrible daughter, friend, girlfriend, because of the everyday mistakes I made. As mentioned above, I lied to keep myself separated from facing the truth of some of those mistakes, which invariably backfired and left me feeling even worse. This is an issue I am still working on in therapy today.
One of my biggest realizations from Brené’s book is how much control we have over our shame. Shame is not something put upon us without our consent, though people do place shame on us whether or not on purpose.
For example, a woman has chosen not to have children. Her mother confronts her about this issue and says, “How could you do this to me?” This is an attempt at placing shame on her daughter. Her daughter can either accept the shame and feel the weight of her mother’s disappointment, or she can embrace the fact that her mother is dealing with her own feelings and not expressing them in a healthy way, and her mother’s comments will not change the fact that she has made a decision. Even if the daughter is having doubts, she can embrace those doubts on her own and without the input of others. Perhaps she has no doubts whatsoever, then her mother’s comments do not need to put her in a shameful position. Feeling sad that she may have hurt her mother’s feelings (despite her decision being completely justified and hers only to make) is not the same as feeling like a bad daughter for not wanting to have children.
The hardest shame to shake is the shame I put on myself. I’m becoming much better at deflecting shame from others, but when I find myself in a situation where I might let someone down, I still find myself going down a black hole from time to time. It is a lifelong process, and one that everyone struggles with. But having my eyes wide open to what is happening and being aware of the signs that I am shaming myself is step one. I am finding it less and less common for me to tell myself how awful of a friend/wife/mom I am because of something I’m doing.
If I yell at my kids, I do not immediately jump to thinking I’m a terrible mom. I might feel guilty for yelling, but I know I made a snap decision and my kids will still love me. Being able to stop myself before completely diving into a pool of shame has been a very liberating skill. And one that has taken time, reading, and lots of work. I credit my therapist, friends, certain family members, and Brené for kickstarting my progress with overcoming shame.
I will be facing the monster forever, but I am now armed with weapons to help me in this battle. And even if I am struck, I promise myself to not give up and let it win. Because I am a good person, and good people deserve to win.