The Power of Shame

Shame is a pit in the ground. When you’re young, if your shames are small, then the pit starts out shallow. If your shames are large, then the pit starts out deep and dark. But no matter how it starts, over the course of our lives, all of the shame we experience makes the pit bigger, deeper, and darker.

For years, I admitted to myself only the shallow shames, the ones that kept me up at night, but not the ones that kept me silent. I compartmentalized my shame, convinced myself that there was no shame in my past that I needed to face. And then one day, an issue in my marriage brought me face to face with a shame experience from my past that I had never faced before.

I started exploring shame in counseling and I started reading Brene Brown’s book, I Thought It Was Just Me: Women Reclaiming Power and Courage in a Culture of Shame. Brown writes, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”

Once I started talking about the experiences that made me feel shame, my feelings of shame increased exponentially. I explained it to my husband like this, I had begun by shining light onto one experience in my pit of shame, but inevitably this light uncovered other shame experiences and now I have to face them all.

At first glance, this feels like a terrible thing. I am more symptomatic, in more pain, then I was before this whole thing started. I am experiencing increased anxiety, loss of time, and out of body feelings. But I have to believe that in the end working through these shame experiences will result in becoming a healthier and more emotionally integrated person.

Brown’s brook is a crash course in shame management and developing resilience. She writes, “We cannot grow when we are in shame, and we can’t use shame to change ourselves or others.” We must process and resolve our shame in order to grow into the better versions of ourselves we all want to be.

We can help each other do that by listening compassionately and empathically to each other’s stories without letting our own fear and shame get in the way. Brown explains, “If empathy is the skill or ability to tap into our own experiences in order to connect with an experience someone is relating to us, compassion is the willingness to be open to this process.”

I encourage you to stretch your empathy muscles toward yourself and your loved ones today. The world needs more of it.

Dear Mom, You Did Good

Lying in bed the other night, I was thinking about when this all began. “This”: My lifelong battle with mental illness in its many varied forms; showing up as depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, panic attacks, and finally, bipolar disorder. This past Spring my mother and I had an enlightening and healing conversation in which we both agreed that it was around the age of seven that I changed. I became, somehow, an unhappy child.

I was laying in bed, thinking about this. This pivotal year in my life. Thinking about how there was no rhyme or reason for this sudden shift of brain chemistry and fate and then it occurred to me: why my mother had, during that Spring conversation, said to me, “I always thought it was my fault.”

The year I was seven was the year she and my father first separated. Is it possible that somehow my mother had convinced herself that if only she had been able to make her marriage work, I wouldn’t have developed a mental illness?

The thought brought tears to my eyes, and then a sudden and profound healing and gratitude. I realized what must have been the depths of my mother’s guilt and despair over my years of struggling, diagnoses, and hospitalizations. I realized that while I had spent years trying to understand why my parents hadn’t done more to help me, my parents had likely spent years trying to understand where they had gone wrong.

Mental illness is no one’s fault. There are contributing genetic, environmental, and neurobiological factors (among other things) that interact to cause mental illness. There is no one thing that can predict whether one person or another will develop a mental illness. Two people with the exact same genetic and environmental factors can experience the same life events and one will develop a mental illness, while the other won’t. Science can’t tell us exactly why.

I have never once in my life thought to myself, I have a mental illness because my parents separated when I was young. Sure there were years when I wished they had gotten me more or different help, but it never occurred to me to blame them for the illness itself. When I was teenager I remember people telling me that someday I would realize that my parents had done the best they could, that I would no longer blame them. At the time, I couldn’t imagine ever feeling like my parents had done the best they could. But over the last ten years, this idea became so ridiculous as to feel obsolete.

The idea that my mom could have somehow saved me from mental illness is too ludicrous to even consider. But it wasn’t until the other night that I realized my mother might not know this.

Mom,

Mental illness has tried to kill me over and over again. It has tried to convince me that I am crazy, worthless, stupid, fat, lazy, unloved, and fundamentally unlovable. It has twisted my thoughts, my beliefs about myself and made me believe that my friends and family would be better off without me. But the things I learned from you have kept me alive.

I learned from you that it is not only okay to take of yourself, but necessary. And since we are not always good at taking care of ourselves, it is sometimes okay to let others take of us. If I hadn’t learned this from you, I never would have survived this. I am strong, resilient, and brave because you raised me. I am still alive because you are my mother.

Thank you for doing the best you could in the face of this senseless and life changing illness. There is nothing to forgive. Thank you for being my mother. I love you.

Maybe there’s someone in your life who blames themselves for something between you. Maybe they have reason for blaming themselves, maybe they don’t. Think about the people in your life, take the time to thank them today. It will do you both some good.