Something happened a couple months ago, something horrible. It’s one of those things that only feels possible to talk about in retrospect, and as it’s still ongoing I’m not going to talk about it now, but I learned a lot of life lessons in a short space of time, so let me tell you what I learned about shame…
Shame needs your permission to work. I’ll write that again: shame needs your permission to work.
There’s an important difference between shame and guilt. Guilt springs from within. It’s initiated by your conscience over something that you believe that you’ve done that was wrong or that caused harm or some other negative consequence. Shame is often more to do with perception rather than reality. It’s about how we believe others perceive us, or even how we perceive ourselves. It isn’t necessarily tied to the facts of what has or has not happened, but instead it’s related to how things look or what people believe. Shame involves humiliation, rather than remorse or repentance; it is crippling rather than restorative. It can not be reconciled, nor can the consuming heat of its glare ever truly be satisfied. It is not healthy, it is not productive, therefore you don’t need it.
So how do you live without it?
#1: Know yourself.
Everyone is entitled to an opinion, however, you’re not obliged to pay attention to that opinion. In my experience, even the most well-meaning relatives or friends can trigger a shame spiral by their unwarranted assumptions and harmful ideas. Do whatever you need to do to tune out the external voices of judgment. Do whatever you need to to remind yourself of who you are and guard that truth fiercely. Don’t apologise for knowing yourself better than anyone else and rejecting their incorrect perception of you and your situation.
#2: Surround yourself with people that know you.
When something (potentially) publicly shameful happens you learn a lot about your friends pretty quickly. There are those who assume the worst, those that believe the best, and those that reserve judgement until they have all the facts. You have nothing to say to those that assume the worst. They were never your friend. You also you have nothing to say to those that are waiting for the facts because although you may feel otherwise, you have nothing to prove to them right now. They will eventually come to whatever conclusion they want to regardless of how well you put across your case, and sometimes they just want to know the gossip straight from the horse’s mouth. Don’t be the horse. Don’t wonder what they’re thinking.
The ones that believe the best about you, the ones that are more concerned with how you’re doing rather than “getting to the bottom of things” – they’re the ones to keep close. They will keep you sane when you feel you’re spiralling, and that’s what you need. As my friend reminded me, the ones that truly want you to win, will always want you to win.
#3: Understand the type of person who will revel in your shame.
They are often deeply unhappy with their own lives, have always had something against you, or both. They are the type that will enjoy writing spiteful and gloating “anonymous” emails, where their elaborately researched essay will reveal how little they value their own time and energy if they are willing to devote themselves to such a cowardly endeavour (true story). Misery loves company, doesn’t it? Just leave them to it.
#4: Allow yourself to heal.
You’ll need to heal from whatever situation provoked the feelings of shame, as well as the trauma of shame itself. As quickly as you may want this all to be over, it will take time. Don’t be too hard on yourself and don’t give time to caring about what your choices look like from the outside. This will be hard at first as from a young age our self esteem has always been affected by the acceptance or rejection of others, but in the immortal words of Foxy Brown, “Love thyself, put no one above thee, ‘cause ain’t nobody gon’ love me like me.”