Shame - a Cage of our Own Making

This morning I listened to the TED talk ‘Shame’ by Brené Brown, and it’s not a subject I’d really delved into before. I’m surprised at myself because it’s so closely linked with my own journey – especially as I’ve been standing up and talking about not ‘victim shaming’ for over a decade, and specifically not victim shaming ourselves. Telling people my own story and encouraging people not to be ashamed or embarrassed by what happened to them - to hold their heads up high and move forward rather than tethering themselves to an abusive experience. However, I never realised before the powerful societal pull of shame and how it has affected us all – including me. How it keeps us all in a cage of our own making and subtly controls our thinking - preventing us from doing so much more with our lives.

Brené Brown very clearly identified the difference between ‘shame’ and ‘guilt’ which I’d never thought about before. That ‘guilt’ is feeling bad for something you’ve DONE, whereas ‘shame’ is feeling bad for something you ARE. That ‘shame’ has a close correlation with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, and eating disorders – whereas the opposite is true of guilt – people tend to feel guilty for violence, aggression, bullying etc (unless of course, they are a psychopath who would feel neither guilt nor shame.)

Interestingly, men and women feel shame for different things. Men feel shame when they show weakness or vulnerability, or for not providing financially for their family – they tend to be most proud of being ‘strong’ and ‘the protector’. (And it is women who are harder on men than they are themselves.) Women mostly feel shame if we cannot do it all, and do it perfectly – being the worker, the mum, the friend, the daughter, the housekeeper, the neighbour, and the lover. And all the while being the perfect weight, and height, having the longest eyelashes, and quaffed hair that constantly looks like it is blowing in the wind. (I was once told that, ‘No, a ponytail does not hide the fact that you haven’t washed your hair,’ when I had a 3-month-old baby in my arms and a 3-year-old by my side – and feeling horrific shame that they had noticed.)

Women even feel shame for ageing. Recently I found a single grey hair on my head, and said excitedly to my daughter, “Look, look, I’ve found a grey hair.”

She gazed at me quizzically and said in return, “You’re taking this awfully well, mum.”

I have never had a problem with ageing. I see the wrinkles in the mirror and recognise my mother in my face more readily. They are signs of wisdom and success. Once, when on a bus with my young son, an old man struggled to his feet, getting ready to dismount and said to my boy, “Never get old, son.”

I turned to him in astonishment and replied with a smile, “What is the alternative?”

Getting old is a sign of success, a life lived, and time spent on this earth. It is survival and resilience and a blessing beyond measure. I could look at myself in the changing room mirror and see a younger woman come up to stand beside me. I could compare myself with her – with her long flowing hair, her flat stomach and her tight skin – and feel shame or envy. Then catch the white-haired old lady on the other side looking at ME that same way. Alternatively, I can look in the mirror and enjoy who I am right now. Not perfect, not doing it all, but appreciating everything that I am and everything that I do.

For years I have struggled with my weight – after having piled on the pounds when bedridden with spinal problems – and have felt ashamed of my body and the way I look. (I do have healthy self-esteem but rather poor self-image.) As of today, I am shrugging off the straight-jacket of shame and embracing myself for every moment that I live. I AM good enough. I am proud of who I am and what I have achieved. I am perfect just the way I am – because I am the best at being me and do not need to compare myself to others.

Brené Brown said that, ‘to be vulnerable is the most accurate measurement of courage’ and I agree with her. It is courageous to be vulnerable – to show weakness and share failure – but it also raises us up when others join us by saying ‘me too’. How many times have we been stopped at the door of facing a challenge, by a critic who whispers in our ears, ‘you’re not good enough, you will fail, you can’t do this.’ But if you look around, you will see that the critic is just your inner voice of shame. And being ‘your’ voice, it is something YOU have control over. Recognise it. Also, the things that feed shame are silence, secrecy and judgement - so speak up, shout out and accept yourself for all you are.

Brené also said, ‘Empathy is the antidote to shame.’ How would you treat a friend who was talking about facing a challenge? You would never tell them they were not good enough or that they couldn’t do it. So, tell your inner gremlin of shame to stop. You are enough. You can. And if you fail, you will learn from it and grow so that you succeed the next time.

So, open that door and march on through – there is a world of possibilities out there!

You can see the TED talk 'Shame by Brene Brown' here:

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